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Preparing for permaculture

While in Australia for the International Agrichar Initiative conference in April, I got a chance to visit Djanbung Gardens, a farm and learning center founded by permaculture expert Robyn Francis in the alternative community of Nimbin, New South Wales. After a wonderful hour touring the garden with students from Canada, South Africa and France, I sat down with Robyn for a chat about permaculture and the future of Australia's and the world's agricultural systems.

KW: Robyn, please tell me - what got you interested in permaculture?

RF: In the early 1970s, I was part of the whole counterculture movement and not very happy with the way society was going. I traveled overseas for five years and saw a lot of things good and a lot of things wrong, and one of the things I found that really fascinated me in my travels was the sustainable traditional systems of farming and village culture. Then I lived in Europe, in southern Germany, in a small farming hamlet, for three and a half years, just out of Munich, where I got to see the traditional European farming systems. There were still old farmers who were doing their crop rotations, and the only input to the farm was diesel fuel to put into the tractor and the Mercedes Benz. It was all mixed cropping, and they had their cows and their pigs, and they would use the manures and compost them and put them out in the fields. These types of farms would have a little forest that was managed over 200-year rotations, from generation to generation, and it was just such a stark contrast to the mono-thinking, monoculture, broad-acre agriculture that I grew up with here in Australia.

KW: How did we end up abandoning those kinds of systems?

RF: Post WWII; that's when society went on the most incredibly manic fossil-fuel binge. From the end of the Second World War you can track this corporatization of Western culture and commoditization of land. And all the chemical weapons that they created for war, well, those chemicals then went into chemical-based agriculture, so they could continue manufacturing and have a new market. We really see those major changes in agricultural systems occurring then.

KW: It hasn't been that long, really, has it?

RF: It hasn't, and I think places that didn't have really strong traditions, like Australia and the US, were just the perfect breeding ground for this kind of phenomenon to take off, whereas in Europe, people were a lot more grounded in their long-term traditions. There have been big changes since I lived there. I felt particularly blessed to be living there at the tail end of that old generation. I went back ten years later, and the landscape had changed. The sons who had gone to agricultural college and had done their agribiz science had come back, and all these patchwork rotational fields were turned into monocultures for feedlot cattle. So, yeah, it's amazing how things can change in a generation, and what we need is a very big generational change right now. Basically going back, with more intelligence, into the future.

KW: Well, isn't that what you're doing with the students you have here? I just asked them when we were walking around, "Do you think more people are going to be farmers in the future?" They looked at me and simply said, "Yes."

RF: You have to look at the phenomenon of Cuba. What an amazing example that is of a country that just suddenly had its fossil fuels, its fertilizers - all of those taps - turned off, including its market for its exports, when the USSR collapsed. I don't know if you've seen the video "Power of Community." It shows how now the farmers are the most revered and respected people in the community. They are the ones who have the most money.

KW: Does that amaze you?

RF: It is how it should be, because it is a struggle in every society. I've worked a lot in the Third World too, where this global cutthroat market is pitting country against country to get stuff cheap. And the people who are missing out are the farmers. They're getting screwed with their prices right across the board; farmers just can't make ends meet operating a farm, be it Third World or First World. The First-World farmers have got to compete with Third-World farmers in terms of wages and try to deliver a crop at similar cost, so farming's not worth anything, anywhere. In the Third World, you don't see young people working on the farms. It's the old people out in the fields, and they're dying off. None of them are encouraging their kids to become farmers, because it doesn't pay. You can't survive as a farmer because prices are so suppressed. David Suzuki, for years, has been saying that we're only paying 20 percent of the true cost of our food. There are all these hidden subsidies.

KW: Remember, it used to be that, in the US anyway, people expected to spend about 25 percent of their income on food, and 25 percent on housing, and 50 percent for everything else, and now it's more like about 50 percent for housing and maybe 10 percent on food.

RF: You know, oil has now hit peak. This is not going to last. We've been talking about global warming since the early '80s and sustainability for longer than that. And we haven't just been talking about it. That's what I like about permaculture - permaculture has actually been doing it, and it has grown rapidly, and mainly through training, empowering people through education. That has been at the heart of permaculture's success, training people to be trainers. I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of trained permaculturists there are around the planet. It's being practiced in 80, maybe, even over 100 different countries around the world.

KW: Could you just give me a quick definition of permaculture?

RF: Well, the word itself means permanent culture, and it's really a holistic or interdisciplinary or metadisciplinary approach to how we sustain our environment. It looks at how human beings can provide their needs while treading lightly on the earth, how we can do it by still respecting the life around us and the life-supporting systems on this planet, and, as such, it's got to embrace all aspects of our society and how we meet our needs. Food, of course, is a primary need. You don't live long without food, and then when we look at the history of food production, we find that traditionally, agriculture has been one of the most destructive enterprises. It has desertified [and] salinated more land, destroyed more forests, and polluted more landscapes than any other human enterprise. There are estimates that 70 percent of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere are actually caused through food production, because it's not just the farmer growing the food, it's all the inputs into that. It's all those big corporations. It's all the energy used for making these soluble fertilizers that are killing the soil microflora and breaking down the structure of carbon in the soil. Allen Young's book, "Priority One," says that if we increased the organic matter in soil by 1.6 percent in all our cropping lands, we would sequester all the excess CO2 in the atmosphere.

KW: We've been hearing a lot about global warming, the drying of Australia and losing the irrigation water from the major river system in the country - the Murray-Darling. Who's going to feed Australia in the future? How will you put bread on the table?

RF: In most bioregions, it actually takes very little land to produce grain to feed people. Probably 90 percent of the grain that's grown in Australia is for international trade. And it's only a small amount that we actually need locally, so if those precious resources are put into providing our need - if we focus on import replacement instead of international marketing - you know, exporting rice to Thailand and importing rice back ...

KW: Economic theory calls that comparative advantage. It's actually kind of nuts isn't it?

RF: Yes it is. Trucking coals to Newcastle and back again, just to generate a profit. We have to stop and look at self-reliance on the national as well as the local level. It's got to work all the way through, and there's just got to be a huge contraction. There's got to be very large areas that are allowed to go back to some kind of very, very hardy vegetation, and some of these areas that have been growing annual grains will be much better off going into, say, bush-food production. Acacia tree, what we call wattle, produces high yields of a good quality grain that can be used for bread. It can be roasted as a coffee substitute. It is things like this that can cope with that low rainfall. We also won't need all that fossil fuel for plowing, and harvesters and so on. We've just got to design different types of harvesting systems to harvest the seeds of things like this.

KW: Are those ideas coming up, bubbling up to the top of government at this time?

RF: Not yet. But I think things like this are going to trigger that shift to where we start to look at native crops and things that can cope with no irrigation and look very carefully at what irrigation we do use and how we use the resources that we do have. There's going to be a shift on all levels of society.

KW: There just is. There's no way around it.

RF: Yes. Exactly.

KW: I want to ask you one more question, but I think ...

(A man walks up to us here)

Man: We've got a calf in the garden. Anyway, answer the question, and then....

RF: In the garden? In the actual vegetable garden?

Man: No.

RF: Oh, okay.

KW: Do you need to go?

RF: That's alright.

KW: The neighbor's cow ...

RF: He probably came through from the eco-village land. There's a gate that's on the corner down there. One of these guys should know where it is. Anyway, it'll still be there in five minutes. Last question.

KW: The perils of being on a farm - calves on the loose! Well, I wanted to ask you about biochar, the Amazonian black earth, and what kind of potential you think that has. Do you think it has a great potential here in this part of the country for revitalizing soils? You were talking earlier about getting carbon back into soils, and I see a lot of interest in this idea.

RF: I think it's a multi-pronged approach that we need to take, and no one system is going to be the ultimate solution, because every system we use will have a cost in terms of where we're getting resources. So, I think it's a matter of looking strategically at the individual soil types and production systems. What is actually wrong with the soil? What does it need? For some soils and some situations, things like black soil ... charcoal ... may be the answer. For other situations, it may be a matter of just getting the beneficial organisms back with the right kind of bacteria-based or fungal-based compost teas. In other situations, biodynamic preparations may be the best tool. In many ways, I really like these, sort of, homeopathic approaches, because they don't require huge resources to revitalize the land.

KW: So, you like the compost teas and things like that?

RF: Yes, and the results are pretty amazing.

KW: So when you bring the health back to the soil, does that automatically start the process of incorporating carbon into it then?

RF: Yes. Once you've got the soil biota working, you are healing the land and the organic matter in the soil can hold together and not break apart. And, of course, that needs to be combined with cover crops and returning crop residues and so on back to the soil and building up the organic matter. You don't just put compost tea on and ...

KW: Walk away ...

RF: Right. It's got to be a fully strategic approach. Every farm needs a redesign, because you have to integrate the tree crops in with it, and the wildlife areas need to be restored. You have the windbreaks and the hedgerows and so on that need to be restored. There are the water-management systems like swales and ponds that need to be put in. It's got to be a multi-pronged approach. It's not just some new additive you put into the soil and business as usual. What I think is important is that, when these things are done, that they are done very carefully, in terms of where is the charcoal going to come from, because there is a great potential to be very irresponsible about getting the sources of timber to turn into charcoal.

KW: Well, in a lot of cases, they're using ag-waste, like rice hulls and things like that. It's not all timber.

RF: Yeah, but, even looking at the ag-wastes, on every resource we've got to look at what is the best way to use this, and how can we maximize everything that we get out of each resource along the process. So, in the process of actually turning a crop residue or something or other into charcoal, is there some other product that we can harness from this, or is there a byproduct that can become an input for something else, and we've got to get away from these linear systems.

KW: Right.

RF: Because that's when we screw up, every time. It's when we only think in linear systems and we miss all of the opportunities along the way. See, when we maximize every resource, we look at every byproduct, every waste is a new resource for something else, so that everything is recycled within the system. It is only through a very radical slowdown of entropy that we can design systems that are going to be sustainable.

KW: It seems like exciting work. Don't you feel now is the time where you're finally being called upon to share all this wonderful knowledge and experience you've been accumulating?

RF: Yes.

KW: Well, congratulations for all you've done, and for seeing the fruits of your work.

RF: Yep, and more to come.

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin's Radio, says: "Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family."

Editorial Notes: Contributor Kelpie Wilson writes:

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