In Earthworks, Gardening, Methods of Design & Patterns, Permaculture Projects

This is part one of a four part series about Rob & Michelle’s three month journey exploring, visiting and learning about the what’s going on in the permaculture scene in Australia.

The idea to do a tour de Australia permaculture emerged when my partner Rob and I seriously started talking about me leaving my full time corporate job to join him in his permaculture consulting business. I have to admit that although exciting, the idea of officially crossing the line was also terrifying. We agreed that a trip to Australia to seek out similar businesses, do some research, gain some experience and make connections would be a great launching point. Although we would have needed a year to visit and see all the great things going on here (Australia is really, really big!) I can’t hardly express how valuable of an experience this three month journey alone has been.

Before I start, I have to express a big thank-you to all of the wonderful Australians that we met along the way, who hosted us in their homes and treated us like family. Know that we are working hard to set up our own demonstration site and hope that you will come visit us in Canada.

Over the next four articles I have tried to broadly capture some of the ideas, experiences and adventures from our trip. Enjoy the journey.

Seymore Alternative Ag Expo

Arriving in Sydney, we bought a car and hit the road. Destination: The Melbourne Sustainable Living Fair. However, on our way we happened across the Seymore Alternative Ag Expo. With hundreds of exhibitors and demonstrations and numerous seminars (including topics such as aquaculture, soil biology, micro-livestock, etc) this made for a very interesting and well suited first stop – basically an overview of what is going on in mainstream Australia in the realm of alternative living and agriculture.

We spent hours browsing the exhibitions. Several interesting off-the shelf home-scale waste treatment systems on display included a system based on using naturally occurring bacteria and enzymes in a two tank process, a vermiculture system that converts household toilet waste, bathroom and kitchen greywater and food scraps into valuable worm castings, and a composting toilet system with chambers set on a turntable. We also saw numerous solar hot water manufacturers (Australia currently has an excellent government rebate program) as well as several domestic hot water heating businesses with air-to-air and air-to-water heat pumps, a concept that is re-emerging back in Canada.

Australians seem to be leading the world in broad acre soil regeneration equipment and sustainable land management (for instance Natural Sequence Farming, Keyline Design, Permaculture all originated here). I suspect that this has to do with the fact that their soils are poor and there are no government subsidies. It was interesting to see the large variety of plows, aerators and large-scale composting equipment which is easily available.

We spent some time chatting with the folks at the Soil Food Web booth. This organization is pushing an innovative branch of soil science that looks at soil system health quite differently from conventional approaches. They advocate that the use of chemicals and biocides is unnecessary and is, in fact, detrimental as these products also kill beneficial organisms and disrupt healthy soil ecosystems. We couldn’t agree more.

Being an Ag Expo, we also got to cozy up to a few cows, pet a llama and view some beautiful and rare chicken breeds.

Melbourne Sustainable Living Fair

Next stop – the Melbourne Sustainable Living Fair. A neat event, set right in the heart of the city. We were extremely impressed with the level of coordination, the organization and the high profile for an event which was centered on climate change and the need to act. The focus on urban strategies was a lovely contrast from the prior days focus on livestock, broad acre and rural farming practices.

Exhibitors included co-housing associations, alternative energy companies, the transition town movement, fairtrade organizations, recycling, environmental groups and a plethora of eco-consumer products (including a fair share of green washing). The free how-to workshops were fantastic: how to design your backyard garden, how to start your own organic food co-op, how to make clothes from recycled material. Our favorite talk was called The Power of the Chook which presented a great debate on why chickens make great additions to an urban backyard. Chook, by the way, means chicken in Australian lingo.

We were particularly interested in visiting the Permaculture Melbourne booth, with is a non-profit community organization. As members of the newly formed Calgary Permaculture Group, we hoped to gain some tips, pointers and resources for our own startup. Strolling up to the stall I was pleased to recognize David Holmgren sitting out and promoting his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways to Sustainability. Curious of his perspective, Rob quizzed him on the appropriateness of swales versus keyline design.

Next stop was to meet the guys behind Very Edible Gardens (VEG). Nathan, Dan and Adam run a business which has grown out of the permablitz network ( A permablitz is a day on which volunteers come together to install edible gardens, share knowledge, build community networks and have fun.We are very interested in bringing the permablitz concept back to Calgary and back to our community group and were grateful for the tips and resources that Adam shared with us.

We were extremely impressed with how permaculture played an important role in the Melbourne Sustainable Living Fair. For a concept that is nearly unheard of in much of Canada, there were talks on permaculture, numerous booths promoting permaculture and tons of promotional literature. With hundreds of thousands of people participating in the two day event I believe that we can definitely argue that permaculture in Australia has hit the mainstream. Exciting indeed.

A short visit to Dalpura

We received an invitation to stop in and catch up with a friend who was working at a farm called Dalpura. The site was designed by Darren Doherty several years ago and when Rob took Darren’s keyline design course in Tennessee back in September, Darren frequently refereed to the place.

Keyline design was developed by farmer and engineer P.A Yeomans and is described in his book, Water for Every Farm. This is a technique for maximizing beneficial use of water resources on a piece of land is based on specific topographical features linked to water flow. The system is focused around the keypoint in landscape – the point where deposition is higher than erosion, also known as the inflection point. From this point a contour line is drawn and a deep ripping plow is run parallel to the contour above and below this contour line. This pattern has an interesting effect of encouraging water that would normally focus and erode in the valley spread out onto ridges.

We were grateful for the opportunity to see first-hand this experimental farm forestry operation designed on keyline layout. Over 120 different species are being grown with native hardwoods trees such as Box ironbark, Eucaplypts, Acacias, Casuarinas as well as numerous exotics. Nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees such as Acacias were interplanted with Eucaplypts and other broad-leafed species to support one of the key intents of the project: enhance soil fertility.

Another main difference between this site and conventional projects is its attempt to mimic natural forest ecologies in its design. For instance, revegetation and mulching between rows encourages many supporting functions: habitat for a larger range of biodiversity, reduces water evaporation, encourages fungal relationships and provides food for soil biota.

With a goal of planting several forests in our lifetime, this relatively mature site was a well worthwhile visit.

Another Keyline Design at Taranaki Farm

We met Ben Falloon of Taranaki Farm (Fusion Farms) at the Seymore Alternative Ag Expo where he was promoting some upcoming courses on regenerative agriculture and sustainable land management. Ben extended an invitation for us to stop in at his place, which is about an hour north of Melbourne.

A student of Darren Doherty, Ben and Darren have re-designed a section of the family cattle farm. Where many conventional cattle operations degrade land, reduce topsoil and erode riparian zones, this site has been designed using keyline principles and pasture management to do the exact opposite.

The redesign required fencing-off the main creek on the property (which had been severely eroded and polluted from cattle having direct access). To fix the water cycle several dams were installed in strategic positions, with diversion drains and thoughtfully planned overflows. The pasture was then plowed in a specific pattern (called a keyline pattern) using what’s called, you guessed it- a keyline plow. Simplistically, this pattern and plow is used to encourage water to flow from the valley to the ridge, which ensures a more uniform distribution and higher retention of water in the pasture.

Although not up yet, Ben explained to us how the fencing would be installed for rotational or cell grazing. This method of quickly moving cattle through small cells was pioneered by Allan Savory and popularized by Joel Salatin (featured in Michael Pollens book, Omnivore’s Dilemma). Although Ben doesn’t plan on grazing his cattle with chickens (as Joel does), cell grazing prevents overgrazing and ensures that nutrients (i.e. cow poo) are distributed evenly. When a blade of grass is chewed down past the emerging growth shoot (overgrazing), its recovery and regrowth is stunted. However, when grass is only slightly mowed, it self prunes its roots, drops carbon into the soil which in turn supports more biological life. Add in the cow’s own dropped nutrients and ensure that the cows are moved fast enough to prevent compaction and… bada bing bada boom… topsoil increases and soil biodiversity flourishes.

A fantastic example of how we can use planning, management and most importantly, design, to create systems that regenerate ecosystems. A huge contrast from current practices that only serve to erode soil, destroy rivers and creeks and create pollution.

Another great permaculture concept demonstrated here is that some resources can increase with use. Ben is certainly using design to ensure that instead of depleting his topsoil resource, he is supporting it and improving it. Now that is sustainable!

Daylesford Organics

Our last stop on this leg of the journey was to visit a small market garden called Daylesford Organics. The owner and his wife left their city jobs about 10 years ago to make a go at becoming farmers and living the rural life. They run a small market garden and sell produce to high end restaurants and cafes in the area.

What was neat about their set up was the integration and management of chickens in their market garden system. Using large trailers outfitted with shelter, these chicken tractors are placed on a large fenced-off section of garden bed at the end of harvest. The chickens happily remove remaining scraps, scratch up the surface of the beds, deposit highly nutrient dense fertiliser and basically prep the garden bed for its next planting. This means less work for the farmer and an income greatly supplemented with the sales of organic free-range eggs. A perfect matching of needs and yields.

To protect the chickens from potential predators (the movable electric fence is not fox-proof), three Maremma dogs have been bonded with the chickens. Maremmas are an Italian sheep dog, which have been bred to bond with livestock and protect them. They are being used more and more with unconventional stock such as chickens, and have even been bonded to penguins.

Although not yet in use at Daylesford Organics, the owner also recommended walk-behind tractors built by a company in the US called Earth Tools. These nifty two wheel “tractors” are perfect for small-scale farm, horticulture, landscaping and home-use and are designed to run with numerous attachments. Check them out – we think you’ll agree.

Stay tuned for the remainder of the series our Australian Permaculture Tour:

Part II – The Food Forest in Gawler, Ceres in Melbourne and a hop over to Tasmania to meet Bill and Lisa Mollison.

Part III- Mullon Creek Natural Farms, Ylad Living Soils, Milkwood and learning to scythe

Part IV – Allyn River Permaculture Farm, Boree, Permaculture Research Institute of Australia and National Permaculture Day in Sydney

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