top of page

Terra Bite 1: This is Terra Firma

The Process is the Product; the Journey is the Destination

Terra Firma is an agroecological decision-making process; it is far more than just a product. It will however lead to any number of locally-appropriate, climate-smart gardens, woodlots, fruit orchards or farm plots. But it is also a method that can transfer easily to small enterprise development, village income generating activities, science classroom or community health outreach program that also require an agroecological, holistic approach to problem solving. The Terra Firma Permagarden is merely one highly visible and attainable product of that interconnected ecological process that guides people through assessment, capture, protection, production and continuous management skills using their accessible resources for the health of the entire ecosystem. Crop Availability and Nutrition Education, without Access, is merely a conversation that leads to despair. It is a Terra Firma Permagarden, created through this logical and thoughtful process, which provides the access that is required to achieve sustainable food and nutrition security AND serve as an intersectoral model for the enrichment of public health, environmental management, gender engagement and education programming.

A major challenge across the modern, ‘differently developed’ world has been to design and create a real and lasting linkage between Agriculture and Nutrition. While it may seem controversial to admit, farmers do not feed families… rather, cooks feed families while farmers feed markets. Farming is good work and it must of course continue, but we must also acknowledge the fact that abundance and diversity in the marketplace does NOT necessarily translate to diversity and abundance in the kitchen unless the cook has the time, money, transport and nutrition education about why it’s important, in place to bring it home. The solution lies within the home landscape, the garden, near the kitchen itself.

The tropics is a region of incredible beauty, potential and opportunity. It is also a region of the harsh reality of pounding rain followed by searing drought. This situation is only made worse by unpredictable shifts in weather due to climatic changes caused by others, somewhere else. The people of the tropics did not cause their climate to change; we have the industrialized world to thank for that. Rather, it is the people of the tropics who have become the victims of that change and who are currently attempting to practice agriculture the way the industrialized, temperate, seasonal world has taught them. In many cases, this has lead to too many artificial and expensive responses to this change. It is our job, as change agents, to foster a new paradigm of working within the bounds of nature, rather than against them, using only those materials that are already at hand.

As it stands in most parts of the world, seasonally-dependent agricultural production does not allow for the daily food needs of the family kitchen. On the one hand we have smallholder farmers, working hard and producing predominantly cereal crops for the market. While on the other hand we have the mother, children and the elderly needing nutritious food on the table, three times every day. The gap between the two hands is enormous. So what is the answer? What could we put in between these two, non-linking hands of seasonal agriculture production and daily nutrition needs that would allow them to join? A climate-resilient and adaptative, permanently protective and productive, high-yield, but small-scale, easily-managed, nutrition-focused, home garden.

That sounds impossible; maybe even a little crazy, I know. Can one garden really provide all these answers even within the capacity of the economically, socially and climatically challenged families of the tropics? Yes. Because the method relies on ONLY those already accessible materials (not merely available as in the marketplace story). it is absolutely free, and views the environmental and social challenges as opportunities rather than insurmountable hurdles. We help everyone understand that if you look at a problem ‘upside down and backwards’, the answer will very often reveal itself. We don’t ask people what they need; rather, we guide people to understand everything that they already HAVE!

We get to this all-encompassing garden by practicing the 5-step Terra Firma Method as described within the graphic below. “Terra Firma” literally means Solid Earth; the actual and rhetorical foundation upon which a resilient garden can be built. Resilience, the long-term ability to withstand and recover from acute shock, is represented by the letter Q. The circle represents our vision of sustainability while the leg is the goal of seasonal resilience and specific actions we must take in order to achieve that vision. It can also be seen as the lever which guides the learner from the first step through to the fifth; but which also reminds us that the circle must remain unbroken. You will also notice that the 3rd step, protection, is in place before the ‘break in the circle’, the leg of the Q, the unexpected deluge in the dry season for example. But it all starts with the Haves Assessment; guiding learners to determine what they need, but from the perspective of what they already have. It is from this foundation of the “Wealth of Haves” rather than the “Poverty of Needs”, that families can develop, on their own terms, that which they truly need: daily access and nutrition security; maternal income from sale or barter of excess; and, a resilient household landscape and supportive ecosystem prepared for the shocks of climate and society.

By blending good agricultural methods of adaptation, mitigation and intensification with the traditional assets, values and tools found in every home, the Terra Firma Permagarden creates the permanently accessible link between national level food availability and family required nutritional utilization.

By now you have seen that the Terra Firma Method is a process, not just a product. It is a movement around a Q that can guide farmers as well as extension agents, patients as well as nurses, students as well as teachers, towards a holistic paradigm shift. A shift away from “Climate-Dismissive Agriculture” towards “Climate-Smart Agriculture”; a shift away from seasonal monocropping to year-round, multi-cropping; a shift away from a “feed the market” approach towards a “feed the family” approach; a shift away from “Bigger is Better” towards “Small is Bountiful”. The Terra Firma paradigm allows many to be fed from a small space, managed continuously around the Q. By coming this far, you are all now part of this movement away from extractive systems, at war with nature, to regenerative systems, allied with nature. Terra Firma is a ‘whole family ecosystem approach’. It works within the natural world, blending environmental, economic and social realities with the values and assets of modern science.

The Terra Firma Method is a blend of the evidence-based, agroecological principles that are found within Permaculture and Bio-Intensive Gardening. These are established principles to which all of us are indebted. It is the blending from each method that we arrive at the innovation called a Permagarden. While amazing in their finished form, Permaculture and Bio-Intensive unfortunately, can appear overwhelming and complicated and even ‘impossible’. This is especially true for the climate vulnerable and socially marginalized families of the world. But this is the niche of Terra Firma which offers a gentler way to teach and learn in easy to follow bites; Terra Bites. By following each of these ‘bites’ within each step around the Q from Assessment to Management (and around again), at your own home and that of your neighbors, you will notice that we don’t start with grand visions on whole hillsides. That does remain our vision of course. But it is the journey to reach that destination which sets Terra Firma apart.

In many ways, the journey IS the destination. We start without fanfare by simply walking and talking and looking where the water has run away and then guide it to where we want it to go: into the ‘keyhole’. From that simple concept, if you catch the water; you own the water, in a matter of minutes a previously victimized mother with hungry children becomes a victor over the climate, unlocking the soil’s potential for the long term. From that first small, doable and repeatable action, the next steps fall in line naturally and without concern. It is this approach that builds confidence and skill, bite by bite, which can lead to lasting ecological, nutritional and societal behavior change. As an educational method, it builds upon, enhances and responds to the many environmental, economic and social challenges of the tropical world. It can be created right outside the back door of most homes or refugee shelters across the world. These family ‘classrooms’ will provide solid local lessons in nutrition, environmental health, landscape resilience and agricultural sustainability all in one place, and it wont have cost even one dollar. Terra Firma, Solid Earth, is a solution hunger, poverty, dependency, anxiety, and even climate severity. Terra Firma Learners will see that while they can’t change the harsh macroclimate above their heads, they most certainly can change the microclimate below their feet and below the leaf canopy of their nutrient-dense garden beds. This is Empowerment through Resilience.

And that is Terra Firma: The Q of sustainability achieved through resilience. The intercultural blending of modern, climate-smart science with traditional values, needs and tools that allows people of all climates and economic standing to create their own environmentally resilient and sustainable future; their own ‘Solid Earth’. By following the simple principles and techniques of Terra Firma, you will be engaged in the process every step of the way. You will be encouraged to teach in such a way that all who start can follow, and all who follow can teach. We start with the wealth of what we have, rather than the poverty of what we need. Our vision of empowered families remains the same and our measurable goals along that shared journey are resilient nutrition, landscape health and livelihood security. But it is our small doable tasks and thoughtful actions that anyone can do, those Terra Bites, that lay ahead which are the stepping stones along the journey to the destination of real change.

If you would like to learn more or wish to engage in further conversation on this topic please feel free to reach out at any time.

Peter Jensen Agroecology and Permagarden Training Specialist

18 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page