What’s the most environmentally friendly way to grow an apple? For most people, organic farming sounds like the ideal. But biologist and educator Stefan Sobkowiak thinks a better answer is permaculture, which models food production on natural systems so it’s essentially self-sustaining. He’s on a mission to prove that permaculture orchards can work at commercial scale.
Sobkowiak runs Miracle Farms, a 12-acre apple orchard near Montreal. Unlike a typical organic orchard, which might grow just a few varieties of apples, he’s built up some true diversity: 100 cultivars of fruit trees grow with herbs and vegetables, and are fertilized and pollinated by local birds and bees.
He's been working on the farm for the last 20 years, after converting it from organic production.
“Permaculture is applied common sense,” Sobkowiak says. “It's using design to avoid having to solve problems afterwards. Organic farming is based on a substitution model where you use, or substitute, an organically approved product to solve a problem instead of a synthetic product as is used in conventional farming. Permaculture seeks to design the solutions into the system from the start so you don't need the problem-solving products afterwards.”
Since it requires far fewer inputs, Sobkowiak says that permaculture farming has a lower cost of production. A greater variety of food can be grown on the same amount of land, so a farmer can ultimately make more money. It also makes for a more idyllic setting, à la the pastoral scenes graphic designers like to put on food packaging, so Sobkowiak says it’s well-suited to agri-tourism or farm tours. And it's just a better place to work.
Now, along with filmmaker Olivier Asselin, Sobkowiak is making a documentary about his orchard, with the hopes that it can serve as a model for others to design their own. Seeking funding on Kickstarter, his immediate goal is to catalyze more than 2,000 acres of new permaculture orchards around the world, so more communities can see how it works.
"The challenge is first a mindset shift," Sobkowiak said. "I'm okay with conventional farming. It gives a comparison with our methods. Most people, seeing how we farm, say: ''Why doesn't everyone farm like this?"