How to Replace Hard Work with Lazy Smarts


I used to have a boss that said “if you ever wanted to find out the best way to get a job on a farm done, give it to a lazy person first.”

This seems counterintuitive, but it makes sense.

The lazy person will find the way to do the job with the minimum amount of effort, whereas a hard worker is often willing to accept the job as given, even if the job is needlessly difficult.

What makes a job needlessly difficult?  It’s when the energy expended to do it is MUCH greater than the outcome.

Here’s an example from the US food industry.  It compares the energy used to produce the food we eat to the amount of energy we get from the food produced.

Food Energy

That’s a pretty amazing disparity.  Note that less than 200 years ago, it required less energy to produce food than it yielded.

A ratio this bad indicates that while we’ve been hard workers, we haven’t been that smart about how we did the job.

Fortunately, we are getting an opportunity to correct this mistake as we start to grow food locally again.


To borrow a phrase from Steve Jobs, we need to “think differently.”  One of the ways to do that is to grow food as systems.

In food systems, the plants (and sometimes animals) work together in a synergistic, self-regulating way.

Here’s a very simple example of a rudimentary food system.  It’s a Native American farming technique called the three sisters (pic via Stephen Shirley).


The three sisters combines Corn, Beans, and Squash to produce as much food as possible with a minimal amount of effort.

  • The corn provides structure for the beans to climb (eliminating the need for poles).
  • The beans take nitrogen out of the air and fix it in the soil for the corn and squash to use.
  • The squash provides ground cover that protects (keeps moist) the roots of the beans and the corn.

Cornell’s Gardening program has some more detail on how to plant the three sisters.   So does Renee’s garden.

Notice that the system design used here, although rudimentary, is powerful.

It’s also something that doesn’t use much energy to ship.  It’s information.  It can be shared with everyone instantly, all over the world.  For example, you can forward this e-mail to friend anywhere in the world, at nearly zero energy cost.

It’s also something we can co-develop to improve with people all over the world.

So, let’s question some of the assumptions of growing food and get tinkering!  We’re going to need many more systems like this in the future.  More powerful systems that do more with less.

If you do find a system that works, share the results of your efforts  and others will do the same.  Let’s get lazy.


Resiliently Yours,




PS:   Not only is our food system needlessly difficult, it’s also needlessly complex.  For example, to make this centrally managed food production system work we’ve built hideously complex commodities markets (volatile markets infested by derivatives and hedge funds) and taken huge risks with food safety (risky GMOs and pesticide resistant superweeds).

PPS:   The design and care of food systems is often called “permaculture.”


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  • Bill Maxwell

    It’s my impression, from talking to both native gardeners and other similar folk, that “Three Sisters” was a handy mnemonic and that the actual technique involved five or more plants in combination, depending on the location. More often than not these other unmentioned ‘sisters’ were (a) inedible flowers to attract pollinators or (b) ‘poisonous’ plants to keep away pests. Other edibles might have been added in as well, to support the system.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the links to back it up, but that was my understanding of it.

    • John Robb

      Thanks Bill.

  • Meadowlark

    In the Marine Corps, we always said “Give the laziest man the hardest job, he’ll find the easiest way to do it”. 😉

  • claude15


    as simple as it seems, I am filled with gratitude for the beautiful and sharing person you are and for making us grow. You make a difference ! ( you make change happen). I wish I could shake your hand and share our supper with you.

    from a guy in Québec on a self sustaining farm…

    • John Robb

      Claude, You are too kind. It is appreciated. JR

  • Jason Rowntree

    Curious as to the source of your energy data. Thnx.

    • John Robb

      Univ. of Michigan. Center for Sustainable systems. If you have any more detail on this type of topic Jason, please send it on. Would love to read the reports/cite you. JR

  • Scott Supak

    John, do you have a source for that graph of energy flow?

    • John Robb

      Univ. Michigan. Center for Sustainable Systems.

      • Scott Supak

        It’s incredible. I knew it was bad, but I never saw the specifics like that.

        Also, I just want to say that my old friend Mort Mather (used to be the President of the Maine Organic Gardening Association) is one of hardest working lazy guys I know. There’s a bunch of his old columns on gardening at my site, and he will answer questions on his blog. His whole spiel is to find the lazy way to do things, or you’ll never get anything done! He single handedly provides most of the produce he and his wife eat, AND he supplies his son’s restaurant! One guy!

        • AppyHorsey

          Scott, What’s the URL for your gardening website? I’d love to go do a read thru, especially on the articles about/by “Mort Mather”. Thanks.


          • AppyHorsey

            Sorry… I forgot to tell you to please email me your URL, to




  • Greg Bell

    I’m all about the permaculture John, but that energy graph is faulty reasoning.

    Why? Because if you threw solar energy input in there it would be even more out of wack. And if you did the same bar chart from 1770, and included animal and solar energy, it would probably still be out of wack.

    Like solar energy, fossil fuel energy is “there” and an available input to make our food. That’s not a problem. It’s not the ratio that matters, its the temporary and fragile nature of the fossil fuels…

    • John Robb

      Greg, You could hold the sun’s energy per unit area as a constant and factor it out. There’s also a case that solar energy and its direct derivatives are free energy inputs and an ability to capture/utilize it is a measure of the method’s elegance. JR

  • Scott James

    Great permaculture example, John!

    One adaption for the rainy Pacific Northwest…the squash needs little water while the corn and beans require quite a bit. If you are watering the others as needed, the squash will get powdery mildew and rot. Instead, consider a leafy lettuce, chard, or beets in place of squash.

    • John Robb

      Thanks Scott. Would love to see all of these different permutations of the three sisters put into a table. Hmmm. JR

      • will ross

        follow the spread of corn cultivation among native americans before european settlement and you’ll notice the damp rainforest climate in the pnw was a barrier. besides, corn cultivation never took root in a region with such abundant salmon. but native corn-beans-squash agriculture ran to the northern reaches of the great plains. for a great ethonobotany check out “corn among the indians of the upper missouri” by george will, published by the univ. of nebraska press in 1917. also, i once asked a zapotec friend how her grandmother taught her to plant in her native oaxaca. she said she would grab several corn kernals and beans and squash seeds in one hand, plant the seeds together in a shallow hole at her feet, take one giant step, and then repeat the process until hundreds of little seed hills were planted, each spaced one giant step apart.

  • John D. Wheeler

    Hey, I am willing to work very hard at being lazy :-)

    One thing that has been forgotten is the fourth, pretty stepsister: sunflowers. They do not grow well with the other three but instead make an excellent fence. They also are an excellent source of oil, and they attract beneficial insects, especially the smaller varieties that produce lots of blooms. Read “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden” for more details.

    • John Robb

      Thanks John. Definitely. Never make the mistake of substituting sunflowers for the corn though. Won’t work. JR

  • Cyrus

    Hi John,

    I read your every post, and appreciate your work. I’m a graduate student studying sustainable development and might like to use the graph above. Where did the data for it come from/how might I go about properly crediting its creator?



    • John Robb

      Here you go. University of Michigan, Center for Sustainable Systems. JR

  • Peter

    If you take fossil energy out of the equation you will find that we use less energy than 200 years ago. We are lazy. We have changed our energy for fossil energy. The best way for us to get back is for us to do the job that we use machines for by hand. Then we will learn how to do things efficiently. Once read about a school which couldn’t use power tools because of insurance. So the teacher set the machines up to work by pedaling . The students learned how much energy it took.

    • John Robb

      Peter, that’s an entirely different discussion, but you are right on the mark.

    • Ben

      But if you take fossil energy out of the equation, we would the food be? Doesn’t sound like a relevant way to think of it the subject. We actually use more fossil energy than our ancestors used human and livestock worker energy I believe.

  • Natalie Minnis

    It was “Think Different”, not “Think Differently”. Maybe Jobs was being lazy when he left out the “ly”.

    • John Robb


  • Lawrence White

    Just finished reading a book on colonial Virginia. They had to pass laws preventing indentured servants from defecting to the native population on pain of tortuous death because their lifestyle and agricultural methods were far less physically demanding than the mono crop methods of the colonials, not to mention mistreatment by their masters.

  • Penny Pincher

    I use sweet potatoes and purslane (a weed I like to pickle) as ground cover. I have had bad luck with squash borer bugs and don’t like to use pesticides. More’s the pity because I really want me some squash – maybe I’ll try putting it in containers?

  • Julie Burningham

    There are a few books about companion planting that use these same methods. In fact there is a book called Carrots Love Tomatoes about veg. companion planting by Louise Riotte. Each plant has properties that compliment others around it. It helps with weeds, but it also helps with keeping pests away. A great organic gardening tool so you can grow more in a small space. Thanks for the reminder.

  • John C.

    Enjoy the blog. Here’s the source at UMich that created the graph

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