Pioneered in Tasmania in the 70s by somewhat disillusioned uni lecturer Bill Mollison and environmental design student David Holmgren, permaculture has grown into a globally recognised design system for sustainable living and land use. More than one million people are now trained worldwide, with about 1500 studying in Australia alone each year.
South Australia arguably raced to the forefront recently, with the first students of the world’s first university-accredited permaculture program graduating just last year from Central Queensland University’s Adelaide-based campus on Greenhill Rd.
Grassroots permaculture groups are quietly influencing everything from town planning to school gardens, while the sustainable concepts championed by Mollison (who passed away late last year) and Holmgren have found particularly strong support at a state level, through initiatives such as alternative electricity generation and a genetically modified food moratorium.
Yet still, permaculture remains a mystery to many.
“The way humans are using the planet at the moment is not sustainable. Climate change, the loss of food-producing land, contamination of soil and water, and unfettered population growth are shutting down our life support system,” says Graham Brookman, an enthusiastic man prone to quite literally jumping up and down when he warms to a topic.
“Permaculture is a way of thinking, behaving and designing as if humans were going to live on earth for thousands of years more. Unusually, its design principles are based on ethics rather than raw productivity or profit.”
The Brookmans knew nothing of this when they bought their Hillier farm, just out of Gawler, back in the early 1980s. Traditional agriculturalists, their path abruptly forked after stumbling across Mollison’s groundbreaking 1978 Permaculture One book, which had been given to Graham’s cousin as a Christmas present.
Since then, the couple has painstakingly built their sprawling farm around three key permaculture ethics: caring for the planet, caring for the community and reducing consumption of non-renewables – all while turning a healthy profit.
They call the place The Food Forest because it’s exactly that, producing 160 varieties of certified organic fruit and nuts, plus vegetables, free-range eggs, honey, carob beans, Australian native foods, nursery plants and timber.
Solar energy powers much of the farm, a composting toilet and blackwater recycling save on water and reuse “waste” nutrients, and several straw bale buildings dotted across the property are proof that sustainable living need not cost an arm and a leg.
“Straw is just the most magnificent insulator. It blows any commercial offering out of the water and you can play with it and create any shape you like,” Graham proclaimed excitedly last month to a captivated audience of about 20 students, all attending a 10-day intensive permaculture design certificate course at The Food Forest.
As accredited tutors, the Brookmans have taught this certificate each year since the early 1990s. While similar course providers have sprung up across the country, The Food Forest is one of a well regarded few that Holmgren – who hates flying and mostly avoids travelling beyond his Central Victorian home – helps present in person.
“Annemarie and Graham are such experienced and passionate teachers,” Holmgren says, speaking down the line from Victoria. “Having a place that’s been going for so long, has been open to the public for most of that time through tours and courses, and is fairly well documented, has made a major contribution to public understanding of permaculture.”
But in recent years, a new challenge has threatened The Food Forest’s future: climate change.
Warmer winters are failing to produce the chill needed to spark flowering among the Brookmans’ pistachio nut trees, reducing the farm’s key crop yield by 20 per cent this year.
Falling rainfall over the past five years have also sent underground aquifer levels plummeting, lowering bore water quality as salinity rises. “This has made apple production unviable on our farm,” Brookman says.
Drawing once again on permaculture principals, the couple is now building an experimental – and sustainable – solution.
Through a privately funded aquifer recharge infrastructure project, the Brookmans will this year begin capturing up to 60 megalitres of water from the nearby Gawler River during high winter flows before injecting it, filtered and cleaned, some 65m underground to recharge the aquifer beneath their farm. The following summer, this water can be sustainably drawn upon for crop irrigation.
“The Gawler River sent between 10 and 15 billion litres of water out to sea last winter and spring. [This project] is using the Q4 aquifer to store water just like you would with a big dam, but this dam doesn’t have evaporation problems,” Brookman explains.
He believes that, if successful, the process could be used on a wider scale – possibly supplemented by recycled water from sewerage plants – to transform Gawler’s relatively barren outskirts into an organic food-producing green belt providing jobs and produce to locals.
Holmgren, who dreamed up permaculture four decades ago as “an empowering response to environmental and social crisis”, would no doubt be proud.
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