Permaculture at scale - what does it mean?

"Permaculture is a design process.
It helps to design intelligent systems which meet human needs whilst enhancing biodiversity; reducing our impact on the planet...." 

The Permaculture Association

One of the impacts that we foresee of the technology being developed by Small Robot Company is that it will enable the implementation of “permaculture at scale” across our farms.

What do we mean when we say this?

Using the definition above, taken from the excellent Permaculture Association website (https://www.permaculture.org.uk/), I would like to highlight three key phrases to illustrate the change that we envision at Small Robot Company.

Permaculture refers to much more than broad scale agriculture, but this blog will focus on its impact in this area primarily.


The three key phrases from the definition are design process, intelligent systems and biodiversity.

Design Process

The design of our countryside in its current form is a function of big agriculture. Big fields and big farms enable the efficient use of big machines. It is for this reason that many hedges have been removed from fields, that most fields contain a monoculture (a single crop being grown) and that many awkward corners of fields are not in production.

Everything about how our farms operate is about driving more efficiency out of our machinery. Surely we have lost focus on what we are really trying to achieve?

The prevailing wisdom is that the future will be a linear extension of the past.

In the United States, the average farm size in 1900 was about 150 acres according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. In 1950, it was 215 acres. Today is about 420 acres. By that measure, the average farm size in 2100 should be over 800 acres. 

That would be a hugely detrimental trend for our environment. Technology can enable us to move from thinking about the field as our management unit to thinking about the plant as our management unit. If we can not only understand our farms on this basis, but also manage them with the same level of accuracy then we can re-design our countryside so that scale is not the only driver.

New technology will also be leased out to farmers in the future, rather than the farmer having to own it, which could mean that small farmers can access this technology just as cost effectively as large farmers.

Intelligent Systems

What if we used Artificial Intelligence, built on the collection of highly granular data to inform this design process? We would need permaculture trained practitioners to inform our AI algorithm so that they were making the right decisions, to embed human thinking and experience into the system.

Human intelligence and experience is critical in helping us to build these new permaculture systems, but AI can help to capture this
intelligence and then robotics can enable the implementation of intelligent systems at scale.
With an interconnected network of learning machines, we can use AI to help us to understand the consequences, intended or otherwise, of the decisions that we make when designing better ecosystems.

Biodiversity

New machines doing the work on farms will enable a big growth in biodiversity. When we move to a system in which we can look after a whole farm, regardless of its size, on a plant by plant basis (including the way in which we harvest a field) then we will have enabled an end to monocultures on our farms. The creation of monocultures is an entirely man made creation - monocultures do not exist in nature and imposing this system on our farms has had a detrimental impact on the environment.

It has been felt that this is a necessary evil so that, to return to my earlier point, we can make the use of machinery to produce food as efficient as possible. But new technology, such as Tom, Dick and Harry being created by Small Robot Company, can enable greater biodiversity on farms with multiple crops growing in fields at the same time.

This is in turn can lead to more intelligent design of farmed ecosystems, more food produced with lower impact on our planet or, to phrase it in another way, the creation of permaculture at scale.  

If you are permaculture trained we would love to hear from you - what are we missing in our thinking here?

Please do get in touch (info@smallrobotcompany.com)

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