Ok, without thinking: What comes to mind when you picture Australia? Quick!
Red earth, desert, a great rock in the middle of nowhere, beaches, the great reef, the Opera House ….
Ok, nice. Let’s stop here for now.
Do you ever picture tall forests? Abundance of food? Rolling green hills alive with bird and frog calls, kangaroos and koalas? Fat cows marching over lush meadows? No? They do exist. And we had the pleasure of visiting an amazing treasure right in the thick of it: Zaytuna Farm, the Australian Permaculture Institute founded by Geoff Lawton.
Jason has been following permaculture and Geoff’s work for many years and was ecstatic about the opportunity to see his farm first hand. My knowledge on the other hand was less pronounced. I knew a little bit about the principles of permaculture such as closed-loop systems and soil regeneration, but at the end of the day these were all rather abstract terms to me. So I was very excited to see it all in real life and truly learn what this fascinating system of land management is all about.
I was not disappointed.
We spent the night before the farm tour in a little bush campground nearby in our very first night sleeping in the roof top tent of our Hilux William Jolly. We woke up to a cacophony of nature sounds as I’ve never heard before. Blinking and looking out of the tent window we saw the sun rise over the hills, fog slowly lifting, and we knew this was going to be a hot day and it was going to be a good day!
When we arrived at Zaytuna Farms, what first struck me was the diversity of people in the tour group and working on the farm. I suppose I had pictured “the permaculture crowd” as mainly young, not particularly affluent, a little hippy maybe. But here, we met people from all walks of life: the family who home schooled their kids, a middle-aged man who owned a farm and had started implementing permaculture principles because “they just make sense!”, a young vegan couple with dreadlocks and colorful clothing who wanted to buy a small piece of land and work it, a lady who loved gardening and had DIYd an amazingly productive garden in her suburban home, another couple from California who were interested in drought management. One of our tour guides was an intern from the Pacific Northwest who planned on returning and starting a program educating urban disadvantaged children about food production. It sure was a very interesting mix of people!
Here’s my disclaimer, I pretty much know almost nothing about Permaculture except for what I learned on the Zaytuna Farm tour and may not be too savvy with the correct terms… So please bear with me 😃.
We had a full day on the farm walking to every corner of the property and learning about the systems in place. Fresh delicious food directly from the farm was also provided. And oh my god, I don’t think I’ve tasted flavorful salads, fruit and vegetables in such abundance before.
I loved how our guides stressed that even though this farm has been in existence for many years they seemed to learn something new every day. Implement a new idea. Find a new connection. Make something more efficient. The farm, like everyone on it, is a living developing thing. For example, food forests are an integral part of permaculture farming implementing principles of the different production zones on a small scale. One new development for these forests that was newly implemented is to create walkways in regular close intervals through the forest to create easy access for anyone wanting to harvest the bounty. Because, all the food you can produce is only as good as the willingness and possibility of people to get to it. It seems a very logical step, but one that you can only arrive at if you watch the land, learn from it and analyze the usage patterns of people working on it.
Another recent change was switching from drip to conventional spray irrigation. While drip irrigation is much more efficient and less wasteful, the materials needed to build and maintain it proved to be too expensive whereas the spray irrigation system is cheaper and easier to install and maintain while also more wasteful. However, by using carefully chosen times of day to water the fields and allowing any excess water to benefit plants on the edges, it proved to be the favorable solution. In the end the lesson learned here is that sometimes newer and more efficient ways of doing things may not turn out to be the ones that work for a particular operation.
I was also fascinated by seeing closed-loop systems put into practice. This includes worm farms producing worm juice to help sprout the juvenile plants in the greenhouses, poultry and cows used to dig, scratch, stir up and fertilize the soil in rotational grazing systems. Even human waste is composted and put back onto the fields. Plant material becomes feed for rabbits and other animals. Eggs, milk and beef feed the people working on the farm and plans for the future include scaling up the operation to be able to sell fruit, vegetables, dairy and beef locally. This turns out to be a very important part of Zaytuna Farm’s mission as the Australian Permaculture Research Institute – analyzing and putting into practice ways of implementing permaculture principles to larger scale food production – currently still a major point of criticism of the movement.
Towards the end of the tour, we got to talking about the issues of farming mostly European plants, crops and animals in the “foreign” climate of Australia. What good is it, after all, to build an enterprise around growing potatoes, carrots and lettuce when the climate much favors tropical and, of course, native plants? Our tour guides Des and Zavere explained that some areas of the farm were now purposefully returned to native bush. They also mentioned the value of 50.000 years of Aboriginal knowledge in learning to understand seasonal patterns, microclimates, edible foods and disaster prevention and reaction. I’ve worked with Aboriginal people for over 10 years and it made me inexplicably happy to see that their ancient wisdom is becoming part of the permaculture thinking and development now.
So what is my takeaway from this experience? Seeing all aspects of a living working functioning permaculture farm opened my eyes to the incredible potential permaculture principles hold. It could seem overwhelming and impossible to reproduce on any smaller scale, but to me it had quite the opposite effect. There are so many little things you and I can use tomorrow in our backyard – plant a kitchen garden, start composting, plant some fruit trees, get a chicken coop, consider a composting toilet. Whatever may suit your lifestyle and needs.
Every little step counts and I am eager to take mine.