Photos and text by Rob Avis
History has shown time and time again that civilizations have risen and fallen based on the quantity and health of their topsoil. Since food is the basis of civilization and topsoil is the basis of food this is not a difficult concept to understand.
What is difficult to understand is why we continue to follow the same patterns as past civilizations: de-forest, plow, crop, irrigate, and graze until the soil can no longer support life. While this pattern has historically lead to collapse we have managed to perpetuate it by introducing a petroleum-based agricultural system which grows food in lifeless soil.
I saw Greening the Desert on YouTube in the fall of 2006. I was instantly captivated by the idea of a design system that could break this hardwired pattern of land degradation in even the harshest of climates. After several years of research and travel, a permaculture design certificate and a few projects under my belt I found myself three years later, November 2009, on a Boeing 777 from Canada headed to Australia to volunteer as a WWOOFer at the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) and fully immerse myself at a permaculture education centre for several months.
PRI is located on Zaytuna farm which is run by Geoff Lawton. The 65 hectares was purchased as a piece of treeless, unproductive and degraded pasture land and in nine years has become heavily stacked with numerous food forests, bamboo forestry systems, multiple surface water catchments and dams connected by hundreds of meters or swales, wind breaks, cell grazing systems, chicken tractors and food gardens. A world-class demonstration site for sustainable living systems indeed.
My mantra has always been “you get out what you put in” and I eagerly took on as many tasks and responsibilities as I could manage. I was immediately building a shed and straw bale home, learning how to manage a herd of cattle, milking cows and goats, using chicken tractors, sheep systems, broad acre garden systems and gardening in the kitchen garden. My arrival also coincided with a permaculture design certificate (PDC) course that Geoff was teaching which meant an additional 25 keen permaculture students and like-minded individuals to stimulate evening conversation and exchange.
After some time I began to lead farm tours, a task that I quite enjoyed considering the opportunity to meet visitors from around the world interested in permaculture.
Tours would start in the kitchen garden, located next to the goose pen. This garden is designed on contour with raised garden beds and foot paths. The paths are designed to be flooded with manure-rich water from the goose pond on a regular basis.
The main dam, the largest on-site water storage system, has a strategically placed overflow feeding a large swale which undulates through the landscape. The dam also provides a place for recreation, reflection and great fishing!
By storing water in the dam and recharging the landscape using swales, Geoff’s goal is to have a year-around spring flowing through the valley. Considering that the valley would have been mostly dry when he first started working the property and now water runs 6 months of the year, I reckon that he is not far off from his goal.
Above the central valley there are a series of chicken tractors being used to prepare grassland and weedscape into productive food forestry. A thick layer of mulch is laid on the ground under the chicken tractor and the chickens forage, scratch, spread manure and work the mulch down into the ground. Three weeks later the tractor is moved one length forward and pioneer plants and fruit trees are planted in that location. Here the chickens are providing the service of ground prep and adding fertility before the trees are planted.
The main crop garden is a one acre demonstration market garden used to feed the institute. Managed with less than 25 man-hours it produces hundreds of kilograms of produce per week. At first sight it looks like the main crop is cow pea, a nitrogen-fixing legume, which many conventional gardeners may consider an unproductive plant. However, the pea is serving an important function – providing nitrogen to the soil as a natural fertilizer.
Re-hydrate, enhance, nurture topsoil; these are not commonplace concepts in conventional landscapes, be it a farm, a city park or even our own backyards. Conventional landscape and human habitat design views topsoil and ecological services as commodities, not as allies. Our homes, food systems, water management practices, etc. are unintentionally patterned to waste energy, erode soil, drain water, kill off life and diversity and encourage weeds and pest invasions. In addition, people managing these systems spend considerable time on fossil-driven equipment, using herbicides and chemical pesticides to try and maintain this ideal of “organization”. And here is the key – this concept of “organization” is actually chaos from the perspective of the ecology. And to keep the ecology from naturally aligning itself and naturally returning to ecological order, we must continually add work, effort and fossil energy. In addition to causing chaos, these conventional systems drain the landscape of soil, life, nutrients and water, in essence conventional farming is at war with nature, and all the energy we invest to war is lost to sink (entropy).
After giving numerous tours at PRI, I began to dwell at the demonstration market garden (main crop) trying to understand what Geoff was actually trying to accomplish on this farm and what the yields of this farm truly are. Many conventional farms have one yield, a commodity. For instance, in Canada you are commonly a barley farmer or a pig farmer or a mono-crop farmer. Zaytuna’s yield however is creating fertile ground for permanent culture. The physical manifestation of this is topsoil and the societal manifestation is creating teachers and permaculture designers that can make the transition a reality. Healthy and organic veggies from the garden, fruit from the food forest, fresh eggs and meat to feed the students are only the bonus.
I came here to learn how to design and educate in permaculture. I left with that, and with a new understanding that Geoff is not just throwing swales and dams into landscapes. He is pioneering degraded land for a new generation. His site demonstrates the difference between protracted, intelligent, ecologically-minded design as compared to conventional war farming. This re-affirmed what I knew permaculture design is capable of. Geoff has proven that he can bring life back to the saltiest, driest soils on the planet and that with common sense, a Permaculture Design Certificate and hard work, this sort of regeneration is technically feasible. I believe that the next task, which is equally as challenging, is to prove that we can turn around the industrial complex and industrial wasteland into something that we can hand-off to future generations and feel good about.