Geoff Lawton’s Zaytuna Farm Video Tour (Apr/May 2012) – Ten Years of (R)Evolutionary Design

Paradise Dam, April 2012, from the now-climaxing food forest

Zaytuna Farm Video Tour, duration 41 minutes

Having spent the last few years seeking to establish and assist projects worldwide, and hearing some readers requesting more info on our own permaculture base site, I thought it high time I take a moment away from promoting other projects to shine a little light on our own work!

It had been a long time since I last visited Zaytuna Farm. Arriving in April 2012, more than two and a half years after my September 2009 visit, I was somewhat taken aback…. Back in 2009 the farm could somewhat be described as an unruly child — full of energy and enthusiasm, and flush with life, but not at all mature. Now, as I see Geoff Lawton’s vision for the property being played out more fully, we could compare the farm to more of a blossoming and beautiful teenager, still fresh in youth, but demonstrating a clearer sense of direction.

Geoff’s long term strategies are becoming evident, and it really is a sight, and site, to behold!

Diagram of Zaytuna Farm – click for larger view

Aerial shot of Zaytuna Farm
Photo: Joel Bruce

Geoff Lawton at the Zaytuna Farm entrance

Before Geoff took on the 66 acre farm, back in 2001, it had been a cattle property for many years. Without proper livestock management, the soil had become compacted, drought-prone, and unproductive. Bracken fern and blady grass were trying to pioneer in the dry sandy soil.

An early shot of Paradise Dam and the first straw bale buildings
(Photo: Geoff Lawton)

In true permaculture style, Geoff laid out a mainframe design that would take nature’s own restoration process, and significantly speed it up, starting with the all-important aspects of water harvesting, storage and infiltration. A large dam was created (later to become ‘Paradise’, both by name and nature) with the first swale attached, and the first straw bale buildings went up alongside. More earthworks and initial plantings took place until June 2003, when Geoff left the site to its own devices, virtually abandoned, as he worked internationally for over three years. Site establishment didn’t resume until August 2006, and my first visit to the site was in 2008.

In contrast, the April 2012 shot of Paradise Dam

The Paradise Dam swale takes excess water off to infiltrate and hydrate the site

Over the years, a dozen dams have been installed on Zaytuna Farm.
This one, called ‘Jellybean’, is the newest.

Arriving on the farm last month (April 2012), and winding my way down the driveway towards Geoff and Nadia’s straw bale home in the centre of the property, the first thing that struck me was the leap in biomass. In a carefully orchestrated development and migration of productivity, food forests that had been compact and immature were now not only reaching climax, but their borders were being greatly enlarged — the many plants and trees spawning siblings and spreading, with the help of positive human, and animal, interventions, like a corridor of abundance across the site.

A Taro plant stands proud in the food forest

After arriving at the house, the next big evolution I discovered was with another food forest — one totally in its infancy on my last visit, with chicken tractors still preparing the ground — which had since surged into teenage status. The nutrient flow of animal systems (ducks, chickens and a little cattle milking station) up slope from the forest had assisted in rapid development, and today chickens and ducks are free-ranging over an area abundant in citrus, passionfruit, tamarillo, guava, custard apple, climbing pumpkin and much more, maintaining the system free of pests and weeds and keeping it fertilised as they go.

A beautiful environment for both livestock and man

The increase in student attendance meant the kitchen garden had to move to another, more expansive location, and its former site instead became an urban garden demonstration site, complete with a closed loop aquaculture system and ornamental pond.

Alex, an intern who stayed on after his internship for further mentorship
and experience, shows off some of the farm’s nutrient dense abundance.
The urban garden demonstration is behind.

The new ‘kitchen garden’ — hundreds of fertile square metres providing for the
hundreds of students that come to immerse themselves in permaculture life and
learning at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia every year.

The kitchen garden is Nadia Lawton’s baby — and very productive it is, supplying
the bulk of the 25,000 — 30,000 meals served every year.

Mulching, compost and diverse companion plantings are central to the system

Student accommodations and utilities have gone through some evolutions as well. Basic camping on the site has improved, with new roofed platforms giving protection from the elements above and below. A student common room provides some study and social space for the evenings, with fast internet access, and a rocket stove with trailing greywater reed bed filtration system provides not only an excellent supply of hot water and subsequent biological cleaning, but also a good demonstration of appropriate low-input, low-tech elements that work.

The block was being enlarged as I left this month, and a new improved rocket stove will soon be in place. Plans are also crystalising for a whole new student complex, including showers, toilets, kitchen and accommodations.

A rocket stove efficiently provides hot showers for students.

The student greywater filtration system

Camping platforms

There was one major high-tech addition also, however. Even permaculture students arrive almost bristling with electricity-consuming gadgets and personal power-hungry lifestyles, and so, being an off-grid demonstration site, the farm has had to significantly upgrade its power system.

The beefed up solar system

Our local solar wizard has labelled all the common room appliances with their respective power consumption levels, to help students appreciate the real implications of the switch-flicking we’ve come to take so much for granted, but which, in a mainstream setting, is so damaging.

Geoff leads field instruction

A student, and some lily pads, explore the edge of Zaytuna Farm’s Paradise Dam

Food, glorious food!

One side, but significant, benefit of our now running back-to-back courses and internships throughout the year has been in a dramatic improvement in the farm’s capacity to cater. When you only have intermittent courses, keeping good catering staff is challenging to impossible, but with a full schedule of courses Zaytuna Farm has been able to employ two full-time professional chefs to satisfy hungry PRI students, interns, WWOOFers and staff.

Ish, the head chef, has an active interest on cooking from the land

Perhaps other project leaders reading this will appreciate it when I say that keeping the majority happy in the eating arena is an almost comical challenge. At the PRI we have students from all walks of life and philosophies. At one extreme, there are some who wouldn’t be happy unless we served only ‘wild foods’, where before mealtime we skip off, basket in hand, collecting dandelion and nasturtium flowers, edible bugs and perhaps a road-kill. On the other side are those who come solely to study to improve their farm or garden, and who otherwise have little interest in permaculture philosophy and how it might relate to diet. In between are many other philosophies and practices, from breatharians and fruitarians to the more carnivorous. When you cater for one group, you annoy the other, and vice versa.

But, our new chefs seem to have hit something of a happy balance. Sitting with various students and staff over the few weeks I was visiting, I only heard positive comments about the fare provided. One man, a vegetarian, said he had been particularly worried if he would find enough to eat — but has been totally satisfied.

Most meal ingredients come off the farm

Another bonus of a steady stream of students, as it relates to catering, is that it has encouraged the farm to fine tune the whole growing system. With the previously intermittent courses, the farm often provided a glut or a dearth of a particular item, as it was extremely difficult to plan harvest dates around course dates. Now, a wide variety of plants can get planted out in staggered fashion, ensuring a steady supply over the year.

The head chef, Ish, told me that the farm is now providing 60% — 65% of all its own ingredients over the course of a year. Considering that the farm focuses on education, and producing eager permaculturists and teachers, rather than on food production, this is not an insignificant figure.

Ish has a lot of experience with food and gardening, having been a chef for twenty years and having owned both his own restaurant and a market garden. He has worked with some of Australia’s best chefs, and was even selected to represent Australia in the 1996 Germany culinary Olympics. Ish loves using fresh produce in his cooking, and may soon also be teaching some of his own classes at Zaytuna — on fermentation, pickling and preserving.

Chef Tony prepares fresh produce from the kitchen garden

Chef Tony is a kitchen wizard in his own right. When Ish was away for a few days during my stay, he continued the steady flow of wholesome tasty delights without missing a beat. And for those with a penchant, Tony sometimes likes to exercise his own specialty — which falls squarely in the sweet tooth department. (I can still taste the sticky date pudding!)

Dining in gorgeous, outdoor, Zaytuna Farm style

I’ll leave you with the video at top, and some more pictures below, but in short, I was very impressed with progress in many areas — biological and infrastructural. Seeing two and a half years of permaculture evolution, in one sudden hit, was to me a satisfyingly positive experience. And, being the kind of guy who always likes to know what’s around the next corner, it leaves me in anticipation of what Zaytuna Farm will look like in a year from now, and five years from now….

Oh, before I go, I should mention that Zaytuna Farm is heading towards a multiple occupancy situation, where people can leasehold a section of the land, and benefit from a lifeboat-type infrastructure that is and will grant the farm an extreme degree of resilience.

I want to thank Geoff and Nadia for their gracious hospitality, and also want to thank and make mention of all the many students, interns, and WWOOFers who have contributed in their own way to the beautiful painting we call Zaytuna Farm.

Natural building aesthetics are complimented by integrated plant diversity

Zaytuna Farm WWOOFers enjoy beautiful surrounds and sounds, with
some staying on for long periods

Previously a worn out old cattle property, Geoff has used a cattle laneway
system to do the opposite of his predecessors — bringing verdure to
Zaytuna Farm, instead of degradation. Indeed, he’s reversed it.

Crash grazing, clearing land for reforestation

Zaytuna’s Zone 5 area is steadily getting restored and expanded

Zone 5’s Fairy Gully

Nadia Lawton is filmed by local TV, covering the PRI’s involvement in
establishing a community garden in the nearby town of Lismore

A Paradise Dam water lily

Near Zaytuna Farm, the massive Protesters Falls waterfall lands and
cascades in the beautiful Nightcap National Park