The role of the farmer in a thriving agro-ecological system

A critical exploration of the concepts of balance and self-sustenance as applied in permaculture and ecological agriculture.

by Julia Smagorinsky

image 15
Photo by Julia Smagorinsky

“The top-down model holds that you are the savior, you are the hero at the end of the hero’s journey saving the bees, versus – I am actually with you. I am also suffering from what you are suffering. We are in this earth together. I am here to steward. And to steward I have to learn from you about you.” (Ariella Daly)

I have been wondering about some of the permaculture claims of balance and self-sustaining systems for a while. Something seemed to be off – but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. 

Recently this question came up again: 

It was at a public film and conversation event, where we watched the movie “The Biggest Little Farm.” We were inspired. But moreover we were left with a dissonant feeling. This came from the portrait of achieved balance. Much was questionable – so questionable that it was difficult to put into words what was rubbing us the wrong way.

It is a complex, multi-layered issue, causing a multi-sonic discord. 

I am interested in dissonance – it leads the way to shift perception. 

image 16
Photo by Julia Smagorinsky

Here is my attempt at dissecting a few of the dissonant chords. And while I am working on drafting this article, I am recognizing the limits of my “western” mindset and of the English language. I am writing from my perspective as a settler on Lenape land. 

The proclaimed message in the film was this: you add as much diversity to the farm as possible and within 7 years the farm will have achieved a balance that will lead to healthy abundant yields.

The assumption that nature will self-generate a self-regulating agro-ecosystem, much like an ecological climax population, that will purposefully generate market crops – is quite simply absurd.

Here is why:

  • Climax theory has long been debunked
  • The definition of agriculture is that a farmer intervenes – so the farmers are part of the system not outside of it.
  • Why should nature hold a bias toward human prosperity?
  • It is the year 2022. A year in which we can’t deny climate change nor imminent environmental collapse any longer. The assumption that humanity can continue to drive the earth’s ecosystems and life supporting climate toward collapse while simultaneously rely on “nature” to show up to save our ass, by miraculously bringing everything back into balance because a few folx with good intentions are showing up on some parcel of land in the hills of California – is what? Blasphemic? Naive? Or in fact actively enabling the continued destruction of our planet?

I think here is where we go wrong. In permaculture and related fields, we strive to reconnect with nature, to learn from ecosystems. We understand that nature knows best and that we have to observe and pay attention. We have to regard nature as our teacher. We also intuit that the Earth is more than just a planet and that life is more than just scientific mechanisms and laws. And then there is the child within, who longs for Mother Earth to hold us and make it all good again – to just fix the mess we created.  Yet, we were brought up in a dualistic worldview; and the effects of socialization don’t just dissolve when we change our intention. We have learned through schools, media, news, science, and religion that humans are separate from nature. So, therefore, if an ecological system functions well – nature must have done this on her own – and we are necessarily not included in the equation.

On a planet with 7.9 billion people and vast overconsumption, there are no ecosystems left that remain untouched by human influence. Moreover, a farm is by definition a system that follows the goals of the farmer. In “agriculture”, the agrarian cultivates (tweaks, modifies, weeds, seeds, grazes, fences and on and on) to serve her goals. On an ecological farm, the farmers pursue multilayered goals including the goals to produce marketable crops (with a certain quality and yield) as well as the goals to create habitat for diverse life. It is the responsibility of the farmer to take care of the whole farm ecosystem. It is her duty too continuously modify the different elements in order to serve both goals.

According to Daniel H. Kim² the defining characteristics of systems are: 

  • Systems have purpose
  • All parts must be present for a system to carry out its purpose optimally
  • The order in which parts are arranged affects the performance of the system
  • Systems attempt to maintain stability through feedback.

Humans are an intrinsic part of all ecological systems which we interact with. An ecological farm is particularly influenced by humans, as the farmer is able to apply her thinking brain to compare her goals with the purpose the system is currently maintaining. So humans play a dual role: we are an intrinsic part of the system, and we are systems thinkers showing up to observe, analyze, evaluate, and consciously nudge systems into change.

image 17
Photo by Julia Smagorinsky

The purpose of ecological systems seems to me to be first and foremost to support life. Any life. Whatever lifeforms can establish a self-stabilizing system with each other given the environmental conditions will stay.

Going back to the movie, once the farmers had established thriving cover crops, the ecological system shifted in favor of thousands of gophers. This system met the purpose of supporting life – it was also dependent on the farmers as part of the system, as the farmers maintained the cover crops. Whether or not this system was perceived as “balanced” was a judgment call of the farmers. Had the farmers perceived the rodents as a marketable crop, this would have been a beneficial situation. Yet, in this case the farmers were aiming to pursue their goal of marketable peaches. So the thinking mind sets out to change the system, by inviting owls for example, which in turn will reduce the gopher population. The continued presence of the farmer is crucial for this agroecological system to persevere. The farmer will have to maintain the owl boxes if she wants the owls to continuously inhabit this landscape. The farmer will have to maintain the cover crop, irrigate the land, and of course will have to harvest the peaches and bring them to market.

I believe it is high time for us to embrace our role as the intelligent, empathetic human who is ready to care, to heal and to modify and adapt, so that her goal to obtain a yield of beautiful, healthful food aligns with her other goal to support diverse ecosystems. It is humans’ role to observe the workings of nature to then use what is already there intelligently to solve problems (example, attract owls to eat the rodents that are destroying the orchard).

We need to stop separating humans from ecologies – we are intrinsically a part of all ecosystems – with a very special role. We have the brains to decide whether we shift a system towards a different purpose, drive it into collapse, or stabilize a system as is. 

As much as we as humans have the power to destroy, to drive systems into collapse, we have the power to heal, to restore, to shift, to integrate, and to align seemingly opposing goals in mutually beneficial ways.

To claim the divine intervention of nature bringing a farm into balance for our sake, is to forget our responsibilities towards this earth. It is our responsibility to take care, to maintain those systems that not only feed us but provide habitat and feed to myriad other life forms. 

And it is wrong to think that farming ecologies such as the biggest little farm in the film have established a balance that would self-maintain without human work. 

It is a system in which the “balance” depends on the human role played wisely, with great presence, attention and commitment.

To align our goals for healthy, abundant food, clean water, clean air, beautiful and inspiring landscapes and diverse ecologies brimming with life-forms that we can meet as kin and teachers, we have to discern wisely when we act as positive and negative feedback loops. 

And while we need to make wise decisions, we first need to embrace the reality that as settlers on stolen land, we mostly lack this wisdom. We are lacking ancestral roots and indigenous knowledge. We are lacking cultural connection, we are lacking the language and the stories and the deep respect for the land. Permaculture has been informed by indigenous practices. But applying permaculture principles does not make a settler indigenous to place. We are novice apprentices in a school led by nature, land and water – and we need the humility to pay attention.

This lack of deeply rooted connection is exemplified in “The Biggest Little Farm” by the farmers’ tendency to give up and leave when after a few years of work things weren’t working in their favor. This is not an indigenous way to relate with land. As settlers on colonized lands, we need to be clear about who we are – and who we are not. I hear a lot of talk about “becoming indigenous to place”. You cannot become “indigenous” within one generation – nor a few more. Instead, we can learn to be humbly present with the land and with our own not-knowing.

It is dangerous to tell fairy tales of a divine bias of nature towards us at a time at which we are rapidly moving toward the threshold of collapse. Nature has no positive bias towards us. Rather it has been the global ecological and climatological system that has been favorable to human life – as one life form amongst many. 

It is about time to understand that while nature has the beautiful capacity to maintain thriving ecosystems filled with abundant life, nature has no bias to support human prosperity. If we want to continue to live healthy lives on this planet, we have to grow up fast and embrace our responsibilities, and show up for the work to heal, to care, and to restore ecosystems filled with diverse life that have the capacity to feed us too.

And ask the crucial question:

Why are we still excluding indigenous peoples from our “healing” of the land?³ 


  1. Ariella Daly, in Embodiment Matters Podcast “Entering a wild love affair with the world: embodiment, bees, dream activism and more. A conversation with Ariella Daly”, Dec. 9th 2021
  2. D. H. Kim – Introduction to Systems Thinking 2016,
  3. Whitewashed Hope: A Message from 10+ Indigenous Leaders and Organizations 

Julia Smagorinsky (“Yulia”, pronouns kin/she) is a farmer, mother, permaculture designer, writer and facilitator in the Work That Reconnects Network. Yulia is a cofounder and director of Emergent Abundance Farming Collective and the owner of Widening Circle LLC. Kin offers consulting services, classes and workshops to build community resilience and deepen our connection with nature.

Share this post