In the early 1970s, Bill Mollison developed a system of farming in Australia called permaculture.
It's all about sustainable land use where plants and animals have multiple functions -- and by growing them in a mixed and natural environment, they benefit each other and, of course, the farmer as well. It is a well-proven concept and is something many of us, especially those with woodland, practise without perhaps fully realising why.
Throughout the world, the more advanced of our recent ancestors farmed in this manner and a basic principle is that society must, as a condition of use, replace an equal or greater resource than that used. Careful crop rotations and the use of animal manures ensured that the land was always kept fertile and rich in organic matter.
I was reminded of permaculture recently when watching my three Khaki Cambell duck foraging in the garden for slugs. Multifunctionality is one of the keystones of good permaculture design and duck must be one of the best examples of providing multiple benefits while just carrying on with what they do naturally.
They keep the population of slugs and other pests under control and convert them into tasty and nutritious eggs and meat while providing large quantities of manure to boost plant growth.
All they require in return is a safe house at night to protect them from foxes, some water to bathe in and a handful of grain in the evenings.
Permaculturalists take this a stage further and, like the monks in medieval times, they site their duck houses partially over ponds where carp are growing. The droppings from the duck help increase the growth of grasses in the pond, which the carp then eat and so you get fatter fish -- and all thanks to a bit of joined up thinking.
The system does have its limits in terms of volumes produced but is ideal for delivering food for the home. It is, of course, loved by the hippy generation, who dream of communal living on smallholdings where all is love and peace. That particular dream went wrong somewhere but the fault probably lay with the people and not with the ideal.
In this age of scarce off-farm employment and given the increasing popularity of 'home growing', permaculture is a great system for providing food all year round. If you don't put too high a cost on your own time then the rewards are many in terms of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and fish. But it doesn't stop at food production, for permaculture is also about managing your home and the surrounding landscape.
The ideal house is built on a south-facing slope to make the best use of solar energy, with woodland behind to catch and slow the cold air that rolls downhill. County planners could well take note here as they frequently insist on new farmhouses being built close to and facing the road and with no account being taken of the natural contours of the land or the benefits of facing south.
Virtually all old, rural housing was built to make the most of the available shelter and sunlight yet, during the past decade, many houses in rural Ireland were built on exposed hilltops when a much more suitable site was available halfway down the hill, giving shelter from the prevailing wind and allowing the warmth of the sun to cut back on heating bills.
Around the same time as Bill Mollison was writing on the benefits of permaculture, John Seymour published his best seller, The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency, which is similar in its ideals and tells us everything from the best way to grow vegetables to how to slaughter a pig.
Both authors outline simple practical means of sustaining ourselves and our families in a manner that benefits whole communities and the earth we all depend on for our survival.
There is a popular misconception among many in the farming community that anyone promoting 'close to nature' farming practices is an impractical dreamer, but the basic principles that Bill Mollison and John Seymour advocate are proven and sound.
Perhaps our advisory services could take note that it just requires a bit of common sense to adapt at least parts of the knowledge contained in both books to the way in which we farm and grow our food and how we can teach our children that there is another way.
'Permaculture, A Designers' Manual' by Bill Mollison, is published by Tagari Publications. ISBN 0 908228 01 5. The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency, by John Seymour, is published by Dorling Kindersley Ltd. ISBN 0 7513 0426 3.