NW Permaculture Institute

Earth Care, People Care, Future Care

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What is permaculture? An introduction for goat owners and those interested in tree hay

This is a transcript of the presentation created for the NW Oregon Dairy Goat Assn. annual conference in Clackamas, Oregon, February 23rd, 2019, by Lichen June


Goats have lived closely with humans for many thousands of years and are a primary sustainability component of many cultures. They can also devastate ecosystems and outsmart many humans.”

Hello, my name is Lichen June.  I am the Executive Director of the NW Permaculture Institute, and part of the international faculty of the Permaculture Women’s Guild. I work on educating people about cutting edge techniques in sustainable home energy usage, water usage, gardening, and farming, many of which are actually techniques that humans have been using for many thousands of years.

Why am I speaking here, aside from permaculture being related to homesteading? I started with dairy goats. I grew up in the Northwest Oregon Dairy Goat Assn and have lifetime membership. My mother, Sher June, is a lifetime member and I think we started attending meetings when I was 4 or 5 years old. My mom was the creator and co-founder of this conference and also created and ran the NWODGA newsletter for a couple of decades. I grew up with dairy goats and the large organic garden that their manure provides.

So, today I’m going to give you an overview of what permaculture is, where it came from and how it functions differently than industrial agriculture, then we will talk about where dairy goats fit in, and the history of feeding goats from trees and “leaf hay” and how that actually passively fertilized the hay fields. But I have to start with permaculture…


Permaculture is sometimes called an “ethical design science.” The term permaculture originally stood for “permanent agriculture” and over time it has evolved to mean “permanent culture.”

It was coined as a term in the 1970s by an Australian Professor at the University of Tasmania, Bill Mollison, and one of his graduate students, David Holmgren. They developed a system for sustainable living that teaches how to provide for all human needs in a way that benefits the environment.

They were looking at a report that came out of the “Club of Rome,” an international think tank studying earth’s finite resources and coming to some pretty dire conclusions about how soon humans would be facing shortages. And that was in the 1970s!

We can talk about problems: resource depletion, drought, degraded landscapes, food shortages, lack of safe nutritious food, extreme weather events and climate change. All of that is negative. Permaculture offers positive solutions for designing our way out of those problems. In fact, Bill Mollison liked to say, “The problem is the solution.” How can we take any problem we are facing and use it to our advantage?

Much of permaculture involves looking at things from a new perspective. Do you remember the Robin Williams movie, Dead Poet Society, where the teacher asked the kids to climb up on his desk and look at the room from a new perspective. We are not going to climb on the desks today. But I am going to offer you some of the key concepts taught in permaculture that help our students see the world in a different way

Permaculture is based on three ethics. Earth care, people care, and return of surplus – or fair share/future care.

Earth care, a respect for all life and living systems as having an intrinsic worth.

Care of people is central to the way that we design in permaculture so that we can supply all of humanities needs in a way that is not only sustainable, but also benefits the environment. If a method is making life harder for people, then it is not permaculture.

Return of surplus, fair share, future care, means that any surplus energy, time, information, food, soil fertility, etc. should be returned to the maintenance of the first two ethics.

Okay, so, rather than focus on problems, Bill took these ethics and decided to pose the question, “What do we want?” and work toward that. He and David began studying cultures where people had successfully lived sustainably in place for at least a hundred years. They were looking at indigenous and land based cultures from all over the world to see what worked.

I would say more than half of the material I teach in our permaculture courses is knowledge that our great grandparents had about how to live sustainably in place, without wasting time, money, or energy on things that you don’t get a benefit from or don’t need. One very basic way to look at permaculture is that it is an energy audit. Look at how much energy goes into something compared to the benefit, or crop, or energy that comes out.

David Holmgren likes to say that “Permaculture is just common sense. The problem is that it is just not that common anymore.”

My grandmothers had “Victory Gardens” during World War II, they knew how to can and put up food for winter. With the convenience of fossil fuels these skills have been lost to most recent generations. I feel very strongly that knowing how to sustainably grow your own food is a human right, and teaching permaculture is a comprehensive way of trying to bridge that knowledge gap.

You can’t be what you can’t see, so we are letting people know that there are positive alternatives. Peoples face light up with so much hope in my classes. And the classes often grow on the second and third weeks as the students excitedly share with their friends what they are learning, and their friends ask to join. A permaculture class covers not just growing your food, but also water saving, housing and energy usage. So, what is so exciting? I am going to give you a couple of examples of really cool human inventions that have been used for hundreds of years, that I learned about for the first time through permaculture.

Wood stoves are very common on our area. I have a lot of childhood memories of stacking logs or carrying armloads of them into the house in winter. It takes a lot of wood to heat a house, but it doesn’t have to. Many humans throughout history used “masonry heaters” or thermal mass stoves. These days they are often called, “rocket stoves.” In Germany they were called Kachel Ofens” and in China they were called “Kangs.” In these stoves you burn a handful of twigs for a short time. It burns very hot and the exhaust is piped through a thermal mass before it leaves your house. The heat can passively radiate, warming your house for the rest of the day, and the exhaust is far cleaner than woodsmoke – because so little was burned and at such a hot temperature. You can find a lot of pictures online of rocket stoves installed in living rooms and then the thermal mass is a long sofa like bench. In Germany you can still find “Kachel Ofen” in pubs where the stove is just a little box in the corner and the pipes go through the wall, warming the room with radiant heat. The “kangs” in China often piped the heat through a masonry bed base. So, their bed was heated at night.

You can harvest twigs and small branches without cutting down a tree, or pick a lot up off the ground. In Italy they used to use the cuttings from grape vines to heat their homes in this way. If you can heat your home with a handful of twigs, it is far more efficient than tending a log fire all day – to say nothing of cutting, hauling, splitting and stacking logs. Burning a log in the fireplace used to be reserved for special occasions like the yule log, or for great shows of wealth, like a large fireplace in the lord of the manor’s house. Is it really worth all that work to heat your house like the lord of the manor? Why use up entire trees when you could harvest small branches from the same tree many times over?

Another example: If you have livestock, you may have a wheelbarrow. You know what I mean, the wheel is on one end and you have to lift the weight and push to move loads around. In China they used to use a wheelbarrow that had its wheel in the center of the bed, so that the wheel carried the weight and the human was only steering. It could carry far more weight and they even sometimes attached sails to help move the loads long distances.

We are talking about saving effort and energy. When you design a permaculture homestead you look at where on your property you will be spending more time and then you plan to put the things that need more daily attention in that area. So your kitchen garden is very close to your house while your orchards and food forests may be further away. Your barn and milking area should be closer in while your grazing areas can extend further away. Unusual animals and crops that need more attention will be closer to the home and center of activity while timber crops can be at the far edges of the property because they only need to be visited a couple of times per year.


If you have a chicken house and you may want to use their pen to toss in trimmings from your yard and scraps from your garden. Then after the chickens are done scratching and snacking and have added their manure you can rake that material out to be added to compost for your garden. If your garden is downhill from your chicken house, this will be easy. If your garden is uphill from your chicken house and you have to use a wheelbarrow to push that material up hill, you have created more work for yourself. When we are designing a property we want to think of all the connections between the chickens and the rest of the farm system so we can pick the most energy efficient place to build our chicken house.

A huge part of permaculture is observing what nature and natural forces are already doing in the area where you live, so that you can use those forces to your energy advantage rather than having to exert more and more energy to fight nature back.

Nature grows in layers, and we consider nine layers when planting a forest garden: the canopy or tall tree layer, smaller trees and large shrubs, smaller shrubs, herbaceous layer, ground cover layer, underground layer or root vegetables, climbing vine layer, aquatic or wetland plants in your wet areas, and the mycelial or fungal layer.


If you leave a piece of ground alone for a long time, this is what nature will try to go back to. So we want to take this knowledge about growing in layers and bend it as far as we can toward something edible for humans. And let nature do the work for you.

One of my permaculture teachers, Geoff Lawton, lives in the sub tropics in Australia and he grows coffee in his food forests. Coffee bushes are something like blueberry bushes. They prefer partial shade, but they will produce twice as much of a crop if you plant them in full sun. So, in your typical organic coffee farm, the bushes are planted in full sun and require a high amount of money and maintenance in fertilizing, weeding, and watering. Those high production bushes will produce twice as much as those growing in an understory, but they will only live half as long. In other words, you get the same amount out of a bush either way, you just get it out faster if you spend a lot of time and money on creating this one layer of coffee in the sun (which you have to replant twice as often). My teacher, Geoff, plants his coffee in the under story of his food forests. He gets half the yield, but he has to do nothing – nothing for maintenance after they are first planted. He likes to say, “I can tell you which energy audit I prefer!”

If you clear land and plant only one or two of these layers, nature will try to fill in the gaps you have created in the layer system. And it is going to take you time and effort to keep out those plant layers that nature is trying to add into your mix.

Which brings me to weeds. Living thriving soil is the foundation of that layered system, of any healthy ecosystem. The type of weeds that germinate in your soil can tell you a lot about the damage that has been done to your soil and what needs to be repaired. Weeds are repair mechanisms.

If your soil is too compacted and isn’t allowing little spaces for the water and air that soil life needs, then plants with deep tap roots will germinate and break open the soil, loosening it and creating gaps to allow for life. Think of dandelions in lawns. Those dandelions have shown up as the paramedics to rescue that poor dying compact soil under your lawn. And they will continue to do so until the soil is no longer compact.

When soil has been plowed and is too loose, little bushy herbaceous weeds with hairnet roots will germinate to try and hold that soil together, to stabilize the situation.

If soil is burnt, you will get a lot of bladed grasses and bracken ferns that harvest potassium and returning it to the soil after fire.

When soil has been over cropped and lost a lot of its fertility, you will get little bean and pea type weeds with pods. On their roots they’ll have little nitrogen nodules. Little bacteria colonies, that will supply the plants with nitrogen.

Weeds” are one part of how nature fixes things that are out of balance.

How does industrial agriculture get fertilizer to plants? Industrial, chemical based agriculture, also know as “The Green Revolution,” was created as a way to keep manufacturing and selling the chemicals that were used in warfare during World War II. This industrial mono crop agriculture is where most of our hay and feed for livestock comes from. That means your goats nutritional needs are being met – or not – by these crops.

Unfortunately, the methods in industrial agriculture actually poison us, destroy ecosystems, cause floods and droughts, and endanger our ability to grow crops in the future. To understand how this happens you have to understand how a normal plant gets the food that it needs from healthy, living soil.

A plant trades starches to the millions of microscopic organisms in the soil in exchange for a long list of nutrients that it needs to be strong and healthy. Kind of like the plant itself choosing a balanced diet, or a good multivitamin. Think about your lunch today, hopefully you got to pick what you ate.

The organisms in the soil use some of that traded starch to make themselves sticky so that they don’t fall into the gaps between soil particles. This sticky soil life gives soil a crumbly, sponge like structure that allows spaces for water and air. This living soil sponge absorbs and holds water long enough for the excess rain water to trickle down and recharge the deeper aquifers in the landscape rather than running off the surface of dead soil.

Industrial agriculture depends on the idea that NPK fertilizer: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, is all that is needed to feed and grow plants. You can grow plants this way for a number of years, as long as you can afford the fossil fuels that the fertilizer is made of, and as long as you don’t mind that your food has much less nutrients because it has had the plant diet equivalent of a human being eating only ramen and hotdogs.

I’ve seen studies that show the amount of iron in your spinach. In order to get the amount of iron you would have gotten from one cup of spinach in the 1920s, you would need to eat 75 cups of today’s industrially farmed spinach. I like spinach but not that much!

You see, the first problem is that the NPK fertilizer is stabilized in salt and then watered into the soil. A plant has to drink water, it doesn’t get to choose. So, in these industrial agriculture crops, the plants are force fed a diet of NPK and salt as they drink, and drink, and drink, get bloated and unhealthy, and become a sickly beacon for bugs, fungus, and weeds. So, when you think of these plants, think of a human being forced to eat and drink only ramen and hotdog smoothies.

Another problem with this way of growing plants, is that in order to protect their crops and profits, industrial farmers must then add massive amounts of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides (all made from fossil fuels) to try and help their unhealthy crops survive. Many genetically modified, or “GMO” crops have been created to survive a higher level of these poisons being used. So, even if you don’t have a problem with the ethics and untested safety of inserting genes from other plants and animals into the food that we eat, the GMOs themselves are designed to be used in a system that applies more and more poison to our crops, soils, and environment. Tests now show these poisons are found in every stream on the planet and in every mother’s milk. Every single one. This is because 80% of the poisons and fertilizers run off. This excess nitrogen is causing algae blooms in our oceans, killing nearly all marine life in those areas and creating dead zones.

Think about this… The companies that are creating and profiting from crops that attract pests, fungus and weeds, are also profiting from the sale of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to manage those problems that they create.

All of these GMOs, pesticides, fungicides,and herbicides used in industrial farming, kill the living organisms in the soil. Those living organisms were in the soil and ready to not only feed plants a balanced diet right now, but also to continue for generations to create and cycle the food in the soil necessary for future plants. Plants can’t get nutrients from the soil when the micro organisms in the soil are dead, when they have no one to trade with. And you cant get nutrients from plants that never had them.

When soil is dead it looses its stickiness and sponge structure. The soil turns to dry powder, and blows away in the wind, or washes away in the runoff from rain that can no longer be absorbed into the ground. This is how we create flood and drought conditions. When you drive past bare farm fields this summer look at the dirt. Does it appear spongy and soft, or dry and powdery? Yeah, most of the fields you see are dead.

Life is made of carbon. And when ecosystems are killed and soil life destroyed, all of that living carbon is lost into the atmosphere. Some say that the largest release of carbon into the atmosphere – by far – comes from ecosystem removal and the soil death caused by industrial chemical agriculture.

Agriculture means, the enrichment of the soil. That isn’t a good description of industrial agriculture, it’s more of an extraction process like mining. Or, it’s like withdrawing all of your money from the bank so that it can no longer accrue interest. We want to keep our soil wealth and add to it.

The good news, is that humans can create living soil in garden type systems by composting and adding manures, using compost teas, and biodynamic preparations. However, humans can’t do that on a larger scale all by ourselves. We can only create living soil over many acres at a time by partnering with the natural ecosystem processes that build soil. That’s what we do in permaculture, by growing crops in many layers like an ecosystem, incorporating plants that naturally add NPK to the soil, and plants that encourage helpful birds and bugs that eat the pests which might bother your crops, you build more and more fertility and nutrients in your soil each year.

Every problem that industrial agriculture has created, ecological agriculture can solve. For example, the world’s leading mycologist, Paul Stamets, up in Washington, has discovered that mushrooms can actually digest and clean up all different kinds of pollution like oil spills and nuclear waste. This is called bio remediation.

There is an explosion of activity in ecological farming methods right now, not just permaculture, but also carbon farming, agro forestry, and rotational grazing methods, etc. Permaculture uses all of these ecological farming methods that fit within our three ethics and then figures out how to best use them together. That is why permaculture is often described as a wardrobe or a well organized toolbox. Permaculture is the structure that helps you determine which tools are best for the job at hand and how to put them together in the way that will save you the most resources and energy.

So lets apply all of this to goats and grazing animals. There is plenty of evidence that over grazing damages landscapes. You can see areas around the world that are turning to desert because of lack of water and overgrazing.

I’m going to tell you the story of Allan Savory, a conservation biologist from Zimbabwe whose life’s work was to protect elephants. Many years ago he worked to set aside the first land reserves to protect elephants. As he studied the elephants and the landscape they began to notice that the land reserve was turning to desert. So he studied the situation and determined that there were too many elephants for the amount of land they had in the reserve. His results were gone over by other scientists who did their own studies and they came to the same conclusions. So, in order to stop the desertification, over the next few years, 40,000 elephants were slaughtered. Loving elephants as he does, he says that it was one of the saddest times of his life. But then, what happened? The desertification sped up. They were wrong about what had caused it.

You see, it turns out that overgrazing can turn a landscape to desert, but so can under grazing. Why is this? Because plants and animals evolved together. A long time ago herds of herbivores would move quickly across the landscape pursued by predators. They would move into an area, quickly eat and poop, trample plant matter into the ground, leave many hoof imprints that capture seeds and water, and then move on. Not returning for a very long time. Plants evolved to thrive in this system.

Overgrazing is when the animals never move on, or come back too frequently, never giving the plants time they need to regrow both above and below ground. Undergrazing is when not enough animals show up to eat, trample and fertilize. Plant matter never cycles back into soil, it dies above ground and blocks new growth.

If you go online and look for Allan Savory’s TED talk, you will see his before and after pictures. They are moving great herds across deserts where there isn’t a single blade of grass, and restoring the landscape to something lush and green that looks like the Willamette Valley.

By moving our livestock around our property in patterns that give the landscape time to recover, we can increase the fertility of the landscape, and the health of the animals. Anyone see the PBS special and study where they reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone?

Obviously if you want to design your property for this with permanent fencing, there is going to be a lot of cost up front. It is more common for permaculture farmers to use a movable electric fence powered by a small solar panel.

Alternately, you can keep your goats in one place and bring branches to them using coppice or pollarding, cutting branches from smaller trees (no more than a three inch cut) then allowing them to regrow. The dormant buds for new branches can more easily push out through younger bark. And if you are cutting a bigger branch, there is less opportunity for the tree to heal the cut, more chance for rot to hurt the tree.

You want your branch crop to be above the goat’s reach. So, you are climbing a short way up a step stool or ladder and using an orchard saw to cut these small branches. Making a cut underneath before your main top cut prevents bark ripping.

This is actually how farmers used to grow hay. They would leave the trees and bushes in the fields. They would grow hay around them. Then in 3-7 year cycles, they would cut back the tree branches. The equivalent amount of roots then dies off when you cut the branches and fertilizes your surrounding hay crop. Without any other inputs, this is a sustainable way to grow hay for over 100 years. When horse drawn equipment came into use, then they cut the trees and bushes out of the fields and consequently had to start hauling in manure or cover cropping to replace that fertility from the trees.

In Europe before 1900 there was more leaf hay made for livestock than grass hay. And the earliest records we have of leaf hay being made in Europe are 6,000 years old and it was cut with flint knives. If you look at old paintings of the countryside in England or France, you’ll see trees that grow to a giant ball and then many smaller sprouts where they were being farmed for pollard.


Vincent Van Gogh, Pollard Birches, 1884

Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who formalized our system of Latin plant names, raised sheep on pollards and kept detailed journals. He had 12 sheep and 100 pollard trees which would be harvested every three years. So, each year 33 trees would yield 80-100 sheathes and each sheep would be fed 10 sheathes per week. I don’t know what size “sheathes” are exactly, some kind of bundle. That was the hay his sheep got to eat in the winter. I’ve also heard that he would put the finished bare branches into his pond and use the fiber from the bark that remained on the boughs to make rope.

If you have woods on your property and take your goats for a walk, then you can monitor what they are eating, move them away if they are being too hard on a young tree. Or you can pull down trees for them and top young trees that are likely to make good pollards. Notice the location. In order for your pollard to re-sprout well they need sun for at least 1/3 of the day.

I haven’t personally used all of these methods with our goats yet.  We are just beginning to plant our pollard trees. Looking into feeding livestock this way (again) is fairly recent, and sustainable farmers and researchers are still gathering information.

Trees that have been mentioned for pollard as goat fodder: Apple (although you might plant a prolific crab apple rather than cut up a nice fruit tree), Ash (nutritious from when the leaves first get their full size), Dogwood, Elm, Hawthorn, Lilac, Black Locust, Honey Locust, Maple, Mulberry, Oak (more nutritious later in the season), Willow (very easy to propagate because it makes its own rooting hormone).

New sprouts on any tree that you pollard are more nutritious than the branches from an old tree that has fallen.  The more nutritious your goat’s diet the more nutritious the milk and meat, and the more nutrients travel through your goat to their manure and into your compost to feed the food crops in your garden and pass nutrients on to you.

I grew up memorizing the ADGA scorecards and I took the ADGA judges training when I was 14 years old (at that point in time I was too shy to ever get up and speak in front of people).  When we think of the dairy goat characteristics that ADGA considers superior, I wonder how many of them actually stand up to sustainability and best serve a goat that is hardy to forage through brush and maybe evade predators?

Think of those coffee bushes that were pushed to maximum production and lived half as long.  Is it ideal to push for more and more production from animals fed on industrially raised grains and hays?  Who then pass on the poor nutrition and pesticides to you in the meat and the milk?  Is it ideal to have a goat with so much udder capacity that it is more at risk for snagging and getting injured on brush?  Are sickle hocks really undesirable, when in other herbivores they are used to run faster and evade predators?  I don’t have the answers but I think we should be asking these questions.  Like Bill Mollison, I think we should be asking what we do want from our goats long term?  What is sustainable?  And then decide what we want to breed for from there.  Thank you for your time today.

For more information search for “tree hay” on the internet, for more permaculture resources visit permaculturewomen.com, freepermaculture.com, or the NW Permaculture Institute info page here.