The word permaculture derives from ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture.’ It describes a method of farming that is sustainable, ethical, and environmentally-friendly.
Successful permaculture farming depends heavily upon using the most appropriate agricultural techniques for a specific region. However, it is also possible to maximize its efficiency by selecting crops that thrive with minimal intervention.
One such crop is industrial hemp. Not only is hemp easy to grow, but it is also relatively eco-friendly compared to other species. Furthermore, it has a myriad of uses involving almost every part of the plant.
Could hemp be the perfect permaculture crop? Read on to learn more.
What Is Permaculture Farming?
Before we discuss how hemp could be useful as a permaculture crop, let’s look at precisely what permaculture means.
At its heart, permaculture is a sustainable method of farming, one that could offer a permanent solution to many of the planet’s problems.
As the Earth’s population has skyrocketed, its ability to sustain life has diminished. Increasing demand for food has driven the need for intensive farming techniques that have extensively damaged local ecosystems.
Many areas suffer from frequent droughts, and poor soil quality has become a global issue. Meanwhile, we continue to destroy forests to create farmland in a desperate bid to feed the ever-hungry human race.
Deforestation is a significant problem for two reasons. Firstly, it decreases biodiversity as many species of plants and animals lose their homes.
Secondly, it contributes to rising carbon dioxide levels. Since trees play a crucial role in capturing this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, losing them adds further to the current climate change crisis.
Permaculture aims to solve many of these problems by using farming methods that work in harmony with nature, not against it.
Its primary objectives include:
- Reducing the carbon footprint of farming
- Improving soil health
- Increasing biodiversity
- Optimizing water use and holding capacity
- Boosting the yield of crops
- Reducing the need for imported goods
- Improving local resilience and economy
- Increasing farmers’ income and quality of life
For permaculture to be successful, there are several principles to which farmers must adhere. Let’s take a closer look.
The Principles of Permaculture
Permaculture combines various approaches to farming. These include soil and water management, waste management, energy use, appropriate grazing, forestry, and tillage.
However, it is not a one-size-fits-all technique, and these approaches can vary depending on the local terrain and climate.
Generally speaking, there are twelve primary principles of permaculture. These include the following:
- Observe and interact with nature
- Capture and store energy
- Obtain a successful yield
- Self-regulate and accept feedback
- Use renewable resources and services
- Do not produce waste
- Design effectively, from patterns to details
- Employ integration rather than segregation
- Use small and slow solutions
- Value diversity
- Use ‘edges’ (both physically and metaphorically – think outside the box)
- Utilize and respond to change
Using these principles allows permaculture farmers to get the most out of their land while simultaneously benefitting the planet. It’s a win-win situation.
So, how does hemp fit into the picture?
Hemp as a Permaculture Crop
Until very recently, it was illegal to grow hemp in the USA. For years, the government outlawed the crop together with its psychoactive cousin marijuana. But although the two plants belong to the same species, Cannabis sativa L., there are some key differences to consider.
While marijuana contains high levels of the intoxicating cannabinoid, THC, industrial hemp does not. By definition, industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC. Therefore, hemp will not get you high in the same way that marijuana can.
In 2018, the government finally recognized this distinction and federally decriminalized hemp via the Hemp Farming Act. It allowed farmers in certain states to apply for a license to grow hemp commercially, providing their crops did not exceed 0.3% THC.
This move not only provided farmers with a potential new source of income but also introduced a novel option for permaculture enthusiasts.
In fact, it seems that hemp has several advantages for the environmentally-conscious agriculturalist. These advantages include hemp’s minimal negative impact on the environment, as well as its many and varied uses.
Environmental Impact of Hemp Farming
Most experts consider hemp farming an eco-friendly choice. It has the following benefits for the environment:
Although people usually use the term ‘weed’ to describe high-THC marijuana, it also perfectly describes hemp’s growing habits.
Hemp grows fast and tall with little need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Although it can be susceptible to pests and disease, hemp shows much higher resistance than many other species. It also provides its own protection against invasive weeds when plants grow sufficiently close together.
Furthermore, in some regions, hemp can provide two harvests a year thanks to its speedy growth. This unusual feature means that it is attractive financially as well as environmentally.
Prevents Soil Erosion
Another advantage of hemp farming is that it helps to prevent soil erosion. The plants grow long taproots of around 12 inches and lateral roots of 7–8 inches. This extensive root network can help to keep topsoil in place.
Additionally, it is possible to grow hemp in the same fields for several consecutive years – quite a rare feature for an agricultural crop.
Hemp also helps to enhance local biodiversity. Bees love to feed on its flowers, and its nutritious seeds attract birds.
A 1999 study by Montford and Small investigated the biodiversity friendliness of 23 different crops. Stephan Piotrowski and Michael Carus cited the results in their 2011 study, titled Ecological Benefits of Hemp and Flax Cultivation and Products.
They suggested that oilseed cannabis ranks third for improving biodiversity, while fiber cannabis ranks fifth. Both subspecies beat conventional agricultural produce such as wheat, oats, and rice.
Reduces Carbon Footprint
Yet another reason that hemp is a fantastic permaculture crop is its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to a report by Catherine Wilson (board advisor to the European Industrial Hemp Association), the plant can absorb up to 15 tons of CO2 per hectare.
One of the only disadvantages of growing hemp as a permaculture crop is its high nutrient requirements. However, even this can be turned into an advantage as it may help to mop up excess nitrogen in the soil and prevent run-off.
Hemp’s ability to combat pollution, coupled with its robust growth, means that many people consider it a ‘pioneer plant.’ It could help reclaim land that would otherwise have little use.
Aside from its environmental benefits, hemp has another distinct advantage as a permaculture crop. One of the principles of permaculture is reducing waste, and hemp is a plant that potentially creates little to none.
In theory, every part of the hemp part has a purpose. The plant’s stems are a source of robust and durable fiber. Its seeds are a nutritious food source for humans and animals alike. And its leaves and flowers produce compounds with a wealth of health benefits, including CBD.
Of course, in practice, most farmers will grow hemp for a specific reason. They generally use only the parts they need and discard the rest. Furthermore, there are some cultivars of hemp that are better suited to one use than another.
However, there is no need for any hemp to go to waste. Farmers can use leftover plant material to create mulch, compost, or animal bedding. This makes it an ideal candidate for permaculture.
Disadvantages of Hemp Permaculture
One of the only real drawbacks of hemp as a permaculture crop is its legal status. Although the 2018 Hemp Farming Act decriminalized hemp farming on a federal level, there are a few caveats.
Firstly, it is necessary to apply for a special license to grow hemp legally. It is still an offense to raise a few hemp plants in your backyard, for example. This fact means that many small-scale enterprises will dismiss growing hemp as an option. The expense and extra administrative work may simply not be worth it.
Secondly, each state is responsible for setting its own laws regarding hemp farming. This means that although it is federally legal, not every state permits it.
If you are a landowner thinking about cultivating hemp, check your local laws first to avoid trouble.
Is Hemp the Perfect Permaculture Crop? Final Thoughts
In comparison with other crops, hemp has a relatively low environmental impact. It is easy to grow without chemical fertilizers and pesticides and could produce two harvests each year.
Moreover, hemp has numerous benefits for local ecosystems, including preventing soil erosion and increasing biodiversity. It also has a wide variety of commercial uses.
The main disadvantages of hemp permaculture are the crop’s high nutrient requirements and legal complexities.
However, we think that the benefits of growing hemp far outweigh these drawbacks. So, if you are a permaculture farmer in a state where growing hemp is legal, why not give it a try?