By David Purtell
Edited by Sarah Robbins
Matt Kip wants eggs for breakfast and sweet potato pie with dinner. But instead of checking the fridge or heading to the market, he gathers the ingredients by stepping into his yard where ducks and chickens roam around a pond and crops cover the ground.
Kip practices permaculture, a sustainable form of agriculture, and he does it in the middle of Columbia.
"Permaculture is about mimicking relationships that are found in the real world," Kip said. "You try and design a mini-ecosystem."
Kip calls his, off Rosewood Drive near the Hamilton-Owens Airport, a "forest garden." Trees, shrubs and more-familiar garden plants intermingle. Perennials act as a foundation for the garden – their fallen leaves become compost for the soil along with the annual plants that die each year. They are natural fertilizer, and over time the sandy soil becomes stronger and more nutrient rich.
"I've tried to design the yard so it becomes low maintenance," Kip said.
Kip grows dozens of crops, from raspberries to plums, peaches to sugar cane. He's put a few hundred dollars into the garden since starting it in 2006, he said. It now produces two-thirds of the produce he and his wife, Emily McCravy, and their three young children eat each year.
To practice permaculture, you design a garden or farm that eventually becomes partly self-sustaining. Crops don't have to be replanted each spring, and fertilizer isn't necessary. It creates a low-maintenance system that links plants, animals, people and structures.
As food and energy costs continue to rise, advocates say permaculture methods could play a role in creating a more sustainable food system.
For instance, Kip's ducks and chickens help till the soil as they scratch for insects to eat. Their manure acts as a natural fertilizer, and their eggs are food for the family.
Kip made a pond that holds fish for the ducks to eat. He plans to grow aquatic vegetables and may even stock it with fish to eat.
Permaculture, or permanent agriculture, developed after the energy crisis in the late 1970s. Realizing cheap oil and energy could not last forever, ecologists began searching for ways to grow food sustainably. They were looking for an alternative to the energy-intensive ways of industrial agriculture.
When the crisis passed, the movement lost steam. But it has seen more attention again as sustainability and climate change have become buzzwords.
Kip said he had always been interested in homesteading and that in 2004 a friend told him about permaculture. Kip quickly realized and wanted to know how to do it.
He learned permaculture design at the Earthaven Ecovillage near Asheville, N.C., a sustainable community of about 60 permanent residents where permaculture is part of a holistic lifestyle.
Patricia Allison, who helped start the village, says permaculture, more than a technique, is a philosophy about "making your lifestyle fit the natural ecosystem," urban or rural.
Kip also has set up a system to catch rainwater off his roof into three 50-gallon barrels at a back corner of his house. He uses this water during the hottest months to water his garden, which helps cut his use of city water.
"You can catch about as much water as you need for the entire year if you have a tank big enough," he said.
Michael Juras, who lives in Columbia and specializes in earth resource management, practices permaculture. He said it could be a large-scale, reliable source of food.
"There isn't a day that I'm riding around this city where I don't see an open lot that could produce food for 100 people," he said.
But Juras said people in the developed world are used to food production based on cheap energy.
"There's a very difficult psychological barrier that people would have to get through" in order to understand there are different ways of producing food, he said.
Michael Drennan, who practices permaculture at his home in Columbia's Shandon neighborhood, said it's about understanding nature in a way that allows for growing plants and producing foods as an alternative to large-scale industrial farming.
Drennan said he has put a total of about $1,000 into his garden since 2008, but has gotten about $750 worth of produce from it this year alone.
Kip said practicing permaculture means you are continually learning how different systems in nature work and that it's much more than just gardening.
"It's sort of a whole way of thinking about how to create low energy, resilient systems to support human life," he said.