Beck Lowe is a permaculture practitioner, educator, writer and editor from central Victoria. She’s been teaching permaculture for almost two decades and written in various publications including Pip magazine. She is also David Holmgren’s editor, in particular with RetroSuburbia, and manages Melliodora Publishing, which produces a small range of permaculture related titles. In her spare time, she spends as much time as possible on her farm. PA’s Kym chatted with Beck about life during COVID, permaculture as a solution, & living a frugal, productive & fullfilling way of life.
How did you get into permaculture?
I first got into permaculture in the mid-90s. Prior to that, I had gone straight from school into activism, protesting again the destruction of old growth forests amongst other things (I got my year 12 results in jail!). The world is full of things to protest about, and consequently my life was very focused on the negative. So discovering permaculture was a revelation for me – an articulation of a positive way forward, focused on the solutions rather than the problems. I’ve been on the permaculture path ever since. Permaculture is about creating a life that is resilient, regenerative and fulfilling, whilst respecting and working with nature.
David Holmgren and Beck Lowe.
You have a big involvement with Retrosuburbia, including editing the book and teaching. What advice would you give to those starting out, or who think permaculture is only possible with land and/or money?
Yes, RetroSuburbia has been a very big part of my life for quite a few years now! It has an emphasis on doing what you can, where you are. Permaculture is a mindset and a way of life – there are opportunities for everyone, whatever their situation. I would encourage people to look at the case studies on retrosuburbia.com, especially the rental properties, and immerse themselves in the ‘Behavioural Field’ of RetroSuburbia for inspiration. And visit some community gardens – these provide great spaces, and community, for those who can’t grow food at home. I don’t want to gloss over the fact that many things can be easier with more money, more space and greater security of tenure, but creativity and flexibility can blossom in any situation. Most Australians live in urban areas, so that’s where the transformation has to happen.
You’ve recently donated to PA’s Permafund – thank you! Why did you choose Permafund?
The permaculture ethics are intrinsic to what I do. Although I earn well under the average Australian wage, a permaculture lifestyle is relatively frugal and I’m conscious that I’m very wealthy by global standards. So it felt right to share some of this income, especially as my increased workload in recent times has left less time for volunteer activities. Once I made a decision to donate, Permafund was pretty much a no-brainer – it is a charity that aligns with my ethics and outlook on life and is run by volunteers with the maximum amount of money going directly to grassroots projects.
One of your many hats is teaching permaculture and volunteering with the PA Education team. How important is permaculture education as part of building more resilient communities?
I think permaculture education is critically important in building resilience – but this doesn’t necessary mean formal education, it might be kitchen-table-chat-type education. There is no one way that permaculture education should look. Diversity is key: some people respond best to one-to-one interaction with mentors, others to hands-on practical activities, others to formal course structures. This is the idea behind the RetroSuburbia Trainers and Facilitators Workshops. Rather than specifying a particular course format, we aim to give participants the tools and inspiration to tailor formats and activities to suit the groups they work with.
I have been involved with Accredited Permaculture Training for many years as it provides outcomes that other delivery platforms can’t. For instance access to funding and formal certificates recognised by a wide cross-section of society. That said, by far my favourite way to teach permaculture is on PDCs: a tried and tested format that has inspired so many people from all over the world for decades. It is long and/or intense enough to take participants on a real journey of discovery.
It’s been a rocky start to 2020 for many – has life changed much for you with COVID-19 restrictions?
There were no big fundamental changes to my life – but restrictions did result in a lot more screen time with a greater workload and many more online meetings! Some courses I was involved in were adapted for online delivery; others were put on hold. There was a huge rush from the RetroSuburbia team to get the book online, to enable it to be accessed by as many people as possible at a time where it could have the most impact – this was very successful, but also very stressful. On a personal level, COVID-19 has reinforced to me that I have made good life choices. As the crisis hit, I felt resilient and empowered, with a strong sense of being rich in the things that matter: I have food in the garden, skills and knowledge to share, and a community of like-minded, supportive people (and no worries about what to wipe my bum on!).
There has been a huge interest in permaculture and calls to ‘not return to normal’. Will this interest continue – and how can we advocate for ongoing change?
Before and after – the transformation of Beck’s property
The increased interest in food growing, permaculture and Retrosuburbia has been inspiring and exciting, but even the panic buying and stockpiling exposed the lack of faith people have in the current systems. COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for many; a chance to reassess life and make changes. And critically, COVID-19 has shown that change is possible – not only from the bottom-up, with people rediscovering household food production and the importance of community, but also from the top-down, with those in power making big changes when they regard the situation as serious enough.
I would love to think that we won’t return to ‘normal’ and will voluntarily transition to a more resilient, sustainable, regenerative and connected society, but I don’t think this will happen easily. I suspect more people will be forced into frugal ways of living by the financial fallout of the crisis rather than by making the transition voluntarily. Whether change is forced or voluntary, the permaculture response should be the same – offering tried and tested solutions. The best way to advocate is to lead by example – go about our permaculture lives and through that, show people what is possible. And we need to articulate that frugal, productive living is a fulfilling way of life: meaningful work, more time with family and loved ones, more dirt under the fingernails… That said, there is a role for more formal advocacy too; we definitely need more permaculture voices in the mix as society grapples with the crisis.
What is coming up for you in 2020 and any final messages?
Melliodora Publishing is launching its first novel – 470 by well-known permaculture writer Linda Woodrow. And Brenna Quinlan, Richard Telford, David Holmgren and I have been working on a picture book adaption of David’s ‘Aussie St’ story which will also be published this year. I’ve been working on a permaculture animal book for many years, and this should see the light of day soon too. All going according to plan, another PDC is about to start through the Castlemaine Community House, and the RetroSuburbia Trainers and Facilitators Workshops should be running again soon. On the farm, I’m doing lots of work on my water systems and making the most of the recent rain by planting more trees.
My final message? Especially in this time of crisis, permaculture people are some of the most important people in the world – we have the skills and knowledge to guide people through the transformation to a more localised, sustainable and resilient society. Keep up the great work everyone!
Beck is a professional member of Permaculture Australia, the national permaculture member based organisation. Not a member? Sign up and join us here today.
Retrosuburbia: the downshifters guide to a resilient future is the latest book by David Holmgren and edited by Beck Lowe. Described as part manual and part manifesto, the book shows how Australian suburbs can be transformed to become productive and resilient in an energy descent future. It focuses on what can be done by an individual at the household level (rather than community or government levels). To obtain a copy of the book check out our supporters Permaculture Principles and don’t forget to use your PA 10% member discount too.
PA’s Permafund has provided dozens of small grants to permaculture community projects in Australia and internationally. Donations over $2 are tax deductible in Australia and can be set up as recurring or one off donations. Find out more including how to donate here
Robyn has worked in Australia and internationally since 1983. She was a founding director of Permaculture International Ltd (PIL) in 1987, editor of the Permaculture International Journal, designer and creator of Djanbung Gardens and founder of Permaculture College Australia. Robyn was involved in developing and the early delivery of the Accredited Permaculture Training™ (APT) vocational permaculture qualifications. She walks her talk on her property, Djanbung Gardens in northern NSW and is passionate about all things permaculture. Robyn has dedicated the past four decades empowering people to be effective agents of change. Her students include some of permaculture’s leading teachers and activists.
PA’s Kym chats with Robyn about preparing for the changing climate & pandemics, the importance of respecting Indigenous knowledge and local food security projects to build community resilience.
Can you tell us a bit about your long & varied career, including how you got into permaculture?
I came across permaculture in 1977 when I heard Bill Mollison speak at an Organic Festival near Sydney, promoting the soon to be published, ‘Permaculture One’. I had just returned to Australia after five years travelling and living in Europe and Asia learning about traditional cultures, farming and survival skills. I was back in Australia looking for land to do the self-reliance thing. Permaculture was a natural next step, bringing all my ideas and interests together as an integrated philosophy and methodology. Over the next six years I experimented from the book on my herb farm on the NSW mid-north coast, where I was also involved in numerous community projects and the Rural Resettlement Task Force (multiple occupancy & intentional community movement). In 1983 I left the farm, did a PDC (which was the first women’s PDC) then moved to Sydney in 1984 to get permaculture going there – the rest is history.
Opening the EPICentre in Enmore, Sydney 1986 Bill Mollison & Robyn Francis (Damian Lynch in background)
What have been some of the highlights, and also the challenges?
Some of the highlights in the early years would have to be the IPCs (International Permaculture Convergences) I attended, especially a) IPC-1 in 1984 with the earlier pioneers, collectively laying the foundational agreements for the permaculture movement, the PDC and role of the Permaculture Institute b) IPC-2 in 1986 which brought together Fukuoka, Bill Mollison and Wes Jackson.
Another highlight were the two visits to India as Bill Mollison’s assistant, including co-teaching India’s first PDC in 1987, and Bill’s mentoring throughout the 1980s. The exchange visit to Cuba in 2008, visiting 40 projects throughout the country, designing Jarlanbah (NSW’s first community title ecovillage), working with Aboriginal communities in NT and on the Murray River, teaching the first PDC’s translated into Mandarin in Taiwan and China and so many more. My life has been overwhelmingly full of exceptional experiences and opportunities to meet, learn from and work with amazing people and to see inspiring projects in so many parts of the planet.
There have been many challenges along the way, working long unpaid hours with sporadic income; turning up to teach PDC’s elsewhere with little or no basic resources and finding creative solutions (like the time I was provided with a little toddlers blackboard and half a chalk!); having the courage to jump into unknown and precarious situations and think on my feet; being let down and having to extend myself even further to get the job done; and recovering from a couple of major burnouts which helped me find more balance in my life and establish clear boundaries. There were also the positive, yet very demanding challenges of negotiating the labyrinth of bureaucratic requirements to create the Accredited Permacuture Training and deliver it successfully for 11 years here a Djanbung Gardens. I accept challenges as an opportunity to grow and even the most difficult have provided valuable lessons to take forward.
You’ve been active in food and seed sovereignty projects in your local area – why are projects like these are so important?
Building bioregional and local resilience is critical for moving forward, and as we’ve experienced, for surviving shocks. Over the years I have sought to balance my national and international work with grassroots action in my local community. I’ve used my community facilitation skills to guide collaborative processes and especially the initial meetings in 2009 that launched ‘Sustainable Nimbin’. The three priority areas identified were food security, energy and transport. I joined the Nimbin Food Security Group and mentored the involvement of my APT diploma students in these initiatives including raising awareness and conducting community surveys and consultation. The Nimbin Food Security group was a dynamic team of committed people under the umbrella of the Nimbin Neighbourhood Association. It has brought exceptional results including two local weekly farmers markets, a food processing library, seed exchange. With Robina McCurdy a series of workshops brought together farmers, food producers and retailers to identify challenges and opportunities. We formed a food co-op within a week to take over the local organic green grocers store in town when the owners closed it down.
We see much more local produce in local stores and cafes, farmers and growers that once struggled to make ends meet are earning a sustainable living, and a there has been a surge in small food processing enterprises. For the past five years we can source 80-90% of our food from within a 30km radius, including staples like our local Nimbin Valley Rice, Nimbin dairy products, local grassfed meats, tofu from local BD soybeans, coffee and a long list of fresh fruit, veg and other produce. During the fires last November and the pandemic lockdown, the community has been exceptional in the many ways people and organisations have pulled together, helped each other and ensured everyone was cared for.
Djanbung Gardens, from a barren cow pasture in 1993
Bushfires, droughts and the pandemic have shown community resilience and preparedness are crucial. Can you describe how you’ve designed Djanbung Gardens to cope with disasters and also any changes being made?
When I was searching for land, the capacity to design for disaster resilience and climate change were key factors. Not just the property but the location, climate, and community were all top considerations on my list. Where I am in the Nimbin valley is well above 1:100yr flood level, classified as low fire risk, sheltered topographically from severe wind loadings, has the highest rainfall area in NSW and I am easy walking distance from the village. Although I designed fire breaks into the property, fire has not posed a major threat or concern until last November, when Gondwana rainforests on Nightcap that have never burned were on fire and hundreds of friends evacuated from the Tuntable valley, just over the hill. This was a wake-up call and for the first time in 25 years we went through a full fire prevention cleanup and preparation, and are revising our plans regarding future fire vulnerability. We can experience massive rainfall events around here, with the greatest so far being 515mm in 24 hours. I designed our water systems to cope with this degree of flow through the property to prevent flash flooding and water damage. The water collection systems (dams and tanks) are designed with the capacity to get us through historic droughts however we will be augmenting water tank storage in the future as dry seasons are lengthening and getting hotter.
Our greatest disaster challenge is climate breakdown, these other shocks are simply symptoms of the big one. Climate resilience has been a guiding factor in my design and our operations, however the rapidity of climate change and it’s manifestations is relentlessly accelerating. The last three summers have been exceptionally severe with extreme dry and heat, and progressively more severe each year — even tropical vegetables have shrivelled despite regular watering. Most of our summer production now needs to be under shade so we’ve built bamboo shade structures over part of our gardens. This is a big topic, and apart from what we doing on Djanbung, the most critical part of disaster preparedness is collaborating on a community level.
There has been a lot of media coverage about cultural burning and the importance of First Nations and Australian Indigenous knowledge for caring for country. How do you incorporate learnings from the local Indigenous communities into your permaculture activities?
I think local knowledge is incredibly important and unfortunately so much has been lost. This bioregion has been intimately micro-managed for tens of thousands of years and there’s much for us to learn. Relationships with our local elders and original communities need to be developed with deep respect and it’s not simply about taking their knowledge for our own use. Relationships need cultivation and nurturing over time to build trust. Here we have been in contact with our local mob since the outset, being gifted the name of our permaculture centre by the senior Lore/Law) keeper of the Bundjalung Nation. Part of building this relationship is getting to know some language, the ‘real’ names and stories of local mountains, rivers and special places, our local bushfoods and their seasonality, these are all integral to cultural learning, it’s not only about fire.
Caring for country, which includes cultural burning, demands an intimate daily relationship with the land, the local plants, animals, seasonal cycles, it’s not a one-size fits all or single cart blanch recipe. In this part of the country there was historically very little burning, mainly used to maintain marsupial pastures in the open forest of wider valleys and small targeted burning of the walking trails along the ridges to keep them open. Here we are in wet rainforest country and many of our forest ecosystems have never been burned culturally or by natural causes (until last year’s fires). In drier country there’s already strong evidence that cultural burning is effective and reduces fire vulnerability while keeping the ecosystem healthy and wildlife abundant. Listen, learn and observe.
What are the most important issue(s) we are facing as a at present – and how do you see permaculture positioned to respond to these?
This is a big question… our biggest challenge is halting the accelerating biospheric destruction favoured by governments and their corporate sponsors/beneficiaries. The problems we face, such as climate, social and economic breakdown are symptoms of the deeper rot of the growth-obsessed consumer society. As permaculturists we can respond on many different levels and in many different ways. We mustn’t lose sight of diversity, including the diverse situations people find themselves in and what factors they can immediately influence and change in their daily life, in their work, in their community and on a political level. We have a huge opportunity right now to reach out on a community level, especially as we deal with the aftermath of drought, fire, flood, pandemic, and we know there’s more in store. The single most important thing we can do is to reach out to our neighbours, regenerate community, not only for self-reliance and resilience, disaster preparation and response, but for abundance, conviviality and inspire through creativity and celebration. And we can all lend our voice to support others regionally, nationally and globally as ambassadors for the earth and for justice.
What does 2020 have in store for you and Djanbung Gardens and your other ventures?
2020 has been a difficult and challenging year with the pandemic forcing cancellation of some major courses and events and we seem to fall between the cracks regarding eligibility for government financial support. Despite some financial hardship, we have so much to be grateful for and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else during such times. I feel safe here and know we have created a place to survive these shocks and am surrounded by a caring and supportive community.
This is an important time of transitional change for me on both personal and professional levels. We now have three generations living here at Djanbung so there’s the inevitable ongoing adjustments in living arrangements and our physical environment for my twin grandkids as they grow. Most of my peers have retired many years ago and I’m not ready for that yet, although on some fronts I intend to slow down to make space for other things I’ve not had time to complete or embark on. We are in the process of planning our collective priorities for the coming years and decades here at Djanbung, it’s a work in progress. The one constant in life is change, it’s how we respond that’s important.
Where can I find out more?
Check out the range of permaculture courses (online and face to face), property tours and events by Djanbung Gardens and Permaculture College Australia here. Permaculture Australia members get a 10% discount on courses offered by Djanbung Gardens and the Permaculture College Australia.
Not a member of PA? Sign up here to access a great range of member discounts and to help us advocate for permaculture solutions.
Kirsten Bradley, Co-Director of Milkwood Permaculture
Kirsten founded Milkwood with Nick in 2007 – dedicated to teaching and sharing permaculture skills for living like it matters. She is author of the best-seller ‘Milkwood’ and is known for her permaculture advocacy, and workshops in permaculture skills – from fermenting to natural beekeeping to foraging for wild food. Kirsten, Nick and their kiddo Asher are based in Cygnet, Southern Tasmania.
PA’s Kym chatted with Kirsten about life in Tassie, building community resilience, the privilege of teaching and sharing in students learning, and life after the bushfires.
Thanks for chatting with me! Can you tell us a bit about Milkwood and how did you end up in Tassie?
Thanks Kym! I run Milkwood with my partner Nick Ritar and a small team. We started off as a little farm up in Mudgee in Central New South Wales which was attached to a larger family farm. And then over the years we became hosts of amazing permaculture educators, running courses and got hooked on the idea of skills transfer and enabling people to change the world and their lives with good information – and we haven’t really stopped! We’ve been going 14 years and we were planning on making our way down here [to Tassie] 4 years ago but got side-tracked living at Melliodora for three years – helping grow food, and learning a lot which was an amazing experience. Then we decided it was time to put down some roots and have our own patch, and so we moved to Tassie, the best place in the world!
Milkwood family: Kirsten Bradley, Nick Ritar and their son Asher
Milkwood has run courses and projects across different parts of Australia for more than a decade. Besides shifting to Tassie, what are some other highlights?
We’ve been so blessed over the years working with some amazing knowledge keepers from all over the world. Working with incredible teachers like Sandor Katz, Rosemary Morrow and getting to marinate in these amazing people, their knowledge and the networks that come with them and getting inspired with what people are doing. We were lucky to try our hand at starting a permaculture farm which was a highlight too. We’ve also been lucky meeting so many incredible students over the years who get the courage or time to come to a permaculture or cheese course which is part of their journey, and we get to interact with them. People like you [Kym was a Milkwood student] and being part of a movement of people who for a million different reasons are wanting to reconnect with their landscapes, and their ecosystems and their communities. Finding ways to do that is just a huge privilege to be part of peoples journey, that’s probably the biggest highlight.
Kirsten Bradley seedsaving at Melliodora, Hepburn Springs
It’s been a rocky start to 2020, highlighting gaps in resilience and preparedness for many. Can permaculture play a role here – and should the focus be on self sufficiency or building community?
I think we both know it should look like building community resilience 😊 Growing enough food and building a fortress or whatever it is – while your community goes thru tough times around you is not fun and not a good way to live for your community, or for you. I think permaculture has got so much to give during these crises. Through the bushfires and the lockdown there has been so much skill sharing and information that permaculture has been able to offer our communities. In some ways it is more about [permaculture educators] standing fast and being emotionally available to people and to help them access the skills, design info and new ideas, as it as much about facilitating things. I think a lot more people are hungry for knowledge right now or realizing priorities, and as permaculture educators, the best thing we can do is stay open and be available for those people and communities as they come in the door saying “Um how do I do this” or “Ah, do you have any strategies on how to do this?”.
You and your family were in Mallacoota during the bushfires which would have been incredibly tough. Firstly, how are you all going? And secondly, do you think the fires led to greater climate change action?
We’re pretty good thank you. We came out of that experience thinking “wow that was the most bizarre summer ever” and everyone feeling all the feels about climate chance knocking on the door. And feeling hopeful there would be a silver lining that would rally and motivate people to change gears on the response to the climate crisis. And then of course we then had this current interesting time [with Covid].
There was a similar community response to Mallacoota in Bega and lots of other communities affected – you saw communities be their best selves in and after the crisis which reaffirms everything that permaculture stands for. I think we are still fed this popular narrative “oooh you better look after your own because as stuff hits the fan no-one is going to come and help you”. But as we’ve seen time and time again, and Rebecca Solnit writes beautifully about this, communities in crisis are incredibly powerful meta-organisms – we out do ourselves lots of the time if left to our own devices and I’m hoping that out of those experiences from the fires, though I know many people are still experiencing the immediate fall out from them, I hope that it is inadvertently skilling up our communities to support each other and respond awesomely in the future. So that’s what I’m hopeful about.
Image by Brenna Quinlan, Permaculture Illustrator featured in the ‘Pay the Rent’ blogpost written by Kirsten Bradley.
You write lots of blogs for Milkwood to share info which is amazing, including one earlier this year about ‘Paying the Rent’. What prompted you to write this and why is it important?
I wrote this blog as we started our Permaculture living series – one action/week you could take as a household to create every day climate change. I was quite embarrassed with myself as the first one was not what needs to be considered first – which is our relationship with the Indigenous people on the land on which we live. When we begin any Milkwood course we begin with an ‘acknowledgement to country’, and then the first part of our permaculture courses we discuss Indigenous Australian culture and agriculture, and an overview on what that means for the country we live in, the stewardship of the land, topsoil, biodiversity etc. It’s always about half the class saying they hadn’t thought about this concept before – it’s amazing that this needs to be said in some ways but it does. So that’s why I wrote it – to provide actual action you can take within that sort of context for acknowledging country and also acknowledging the disparity, ongoing oppression, racism and these big actual problems being experienced by Indigenous Australians.
The ‘pay the rent’ idea is paying a small weekly or monthly tithe to your local Indigenous organisation – we live on their land and in Australia it was never ceded. This concept has been gathering a lots of steam in North America too. It has had some ups and downs with how community responds to it, but it’s simple and plausible and has a direct economic benefit to your local Indigenous organisation – so why the hell wouldn’t you? It’s an acknowledgement of country in a form of currency that for better or worse we all understand. Our local Indigenous health organisation who do amazing work didn’t have a mechanism set up to pay the rent, which is telling in itself in that it wasn’t happening that much. But once it was set up we were able to pass their details on to a bunch of other families who were keen [to pay the rent] too – we are very happy and proud to do it.
The Permaculture Living online course teaching team – Nick Ritar, David Holmgren and Kirsten Bradley
You’ve now moved your courses to an online format – tell me more about your courses and how are you finding teaching online?
Last spring we launched our first online course called Permaculture living – a 12 week program to kickstart your permaculture life. The teaching team are myself, Nick [Ritar] and David Holmgren – which is fantastic as the course is based on his 12 principles. We lead you through a series of actions as well as the theory of permaculture and the principles, and you develop a plan on what you can change in your every day. With a longer view on your new habits impact on your ecosystems, health of the planet and your self reliance – all the good things basically!
It’s a differ kettle of fish to teaching a 2 day or 2 weeks course, we were concerned that it might not feel as real, or be as useful in an online format. And we worried about that for a long time before we did it, and as it turns out while it is a different beast, there is a huge amount to be gained by good communication and online support. And the fact that people can do it in their lounge room, nursing their baby or after everyone has gone to bed – you make up for in accessibility. We are all really enjoying it and watching the students interact and show off what they are doing. We feel very privileged being part of these students journeys and being part of a better household and community.
What else 2020 hold and any final messages?
Ah yes – before lockdown we were making an online mushroom growing course – which we are still making but our filmmaker is in Victoria so can’t physically get here to film us as yet! But we are looking forward to sharing knowledge on mushroom growing and a bunch of other permaculture design, gardening and other courses over the next year or so. We are trying to be super flexible at the moment to keep creating this learning content in a way that actually works and keeps everyone safe. I’d like to also say how amazing Permaculture Australia is – and Permaculture Tasmania too! And also everyone should keep going, and you are all doing great 😊
Growing up in a tin shed with a veggie garden, a composting toilet and one solar panel in south-west WA, Charlie lived the low-impact lifestyle from a young age. In 2011, he completed a PDC at Djanbung Gardens and soon after, formed Formidable Vegetable – with the hope of inspiring people to grow food, keep chickens and make the world a better place. Formidable Vegetable have performed at global festivals including Glastonbury and at the United Nations, and were described by Vandana Shiva as “connecting the creativity of nature with the creativity of music”.
PA’s staff member Kym spoke to Charlie about living at Melliodora, creative collaborations that promote permaculture action, and ‘Climate Movement’, their new song with “a serious vibe and message of hope.”
For those who may not be familiar – tell us a bit about yourself – and how you ended up living at Melliodora?
I’m just a guy from South West WA who did a permaculture course with Robyn Francis once and instead of becoming a designer, started a band called Formidable Vegetable instead! During the session on patterns in the PDC, I had this ‘Aha!’ moment around the possibility of using music as a knowledge system for permaculture and next minute, I found myself on stage at Glastonbury! How did that happen!? After finishing my first album, Permaculture: A Rhymer’s Manual (which is an adaptation of the 12 permaculture principles in song), I sent it to David Holmgren and Su Dennett to see what they thought. I was so nervous showing my work to the very co-originator of permaculture, but when David told me that he’d listened to the whole thing and ‘didn’t cringe once’, I took that as a good sign! After nearly a decade of crazy gigging and international touring, a bizarre chain of events (involving a certain pandemic), has led me to lockdown at their place, which is proving to be the most wonderfully symbiotic situation!
Formidable Vegetable in action
It can be really tricky trying to describe permaculture to new folks – and convincing them it’s more than organic gardening. What’s your elevator pitch on what it is and why it’s important?
What does a typical ‘week in the life’ look like – and has it changed much since Covid-19?
Life at Melliodora is wonderfully organic (pun intended, as always) and way less stressful than touring constantly. The pandemic lockdown has turned my life from a hectic never-ending roadtrip (and prior to giving up air travel a year ago – a never ending World tour) into a healthier, more grounded permaculture co-creation opportunity. Apart from joining our community farm-days – where everyone is out in the garden or doing work specifically for the common good of the land and the people here – I pretty much spend the rest of my time dreaming up ideas that inspire me and flinging them out at everyone to see if they’re interested (“Hey Dave, what do you reckon about a livestreamed launch party with Formidable Vegetable for the RetroSuburbia ebook?”, “Hey Brenna, how about I write a rap song about Permaculture Climate Action and we make a clip with your illustrations?”. It’s a daily exploration into the principle ‘Integrate, rather than Segregate‘, which is a dream situation for a collaborative creative like me. I feel incredibly privileged to be here!
You’ve been a long term supporter and donor to PA’s Permafund (thank you!). Why did you choose Permafund to support – and how important is the ethic of ‘Fair Share’ to you?
For the first few years after starting the band, I channeled every bit of income I made back into producing more albums and touring in order to keep spreading the permaculture message. When I started making a small surplus from my music, it seemed like the obvious thing to do was to tithe some of my income to Permafund, so that the music could also directly benefit people practicing permaculture on-the-ground. Just singing and waving my arms around about how great permaculture is, without ever being in one place long enough to have a garden of my own started to feel a bit abstract and disconnected. So for me, Permafund was a great way that I could give back to the community and adhere a bit more to the ethics of Earth Care and Fair Share, while not having much of a built or biological environment available for me to work on at the time.
What do you think is the most important issue(s) we are facing at present – and how is permaculture positioned to respond?
Aside from the inevitable fallout from Covid, I still see climate change and biodiversity loss as being the number one issues of our time. I keep trying to remind myself and others around me that pandemics come and go, but the impacts humans have on our ecological systems is a far greater threat in the long run. I truly believe that permaculture movement (and the incredibly diverse range of people within it) has all of the solutions we need to deal with these problems. We just need to galvanise and integrate more as a whole so that we can take these solutions to the rest of the world, in both a top-down and a bottom-up way.
You launched a fabulous new song ‘Climate Movement’ this week which you’ve described as having a “serious vibe, but with a message of hope”. tell us more, including about the track and how folks can sing/dance along and get involved.
I’m pretty excited about this one! It’s a Call to Permaculture Action on Climate and a collaboration between Formidable Vegetable and our amazing producer, Spoonbill (who’s well-known in the world of dancy electronic beats) as well as renowned animator, Dropbear (who made our first clip for the song, Yield) and the amazing Brenna Quinlan, who has been taking permaculture into the stratosphere with her beautiful illustrations. I’ve been tweaking the words over the past few years as a bit of an ‘introduction to permaculture’, but it all came to a head last year, after reading the IPCC 1.5˚ report, which estimated that we have only one decade left to sort ourselves out, if we want the World to remain a habitable place. I thought ‘damn, we really need to take permaculture to the next level. NOW!’ and the rap turned into a bit of an anthemic manifesto calling for permies everywhere to unite, collaborate and collectively take their message, skills and solutions up the chains of command (in whichever areas they are active) so that we can make some meaningful change as soon as possible.
After brainstorming ideas with Brenna, we decided the best thing we could offer would be a video that we could hopefully send viral around the internet to inspire, motivate and activate people to go out and use what they have to bring the change. So, here’s your opportunity folks! Get sharing! Click here to see on YouTube and Facebook.
What does 2020 have in store for you?
Well, until Covid is over, I’m not planning to venture far from Melliodora, but it would be good to reconnect with the rest of the band (who are down in Melbourne) once things ease up a bit. I think local action with a global focus is the theme of the year, so I’m pretty happy here collaborating with world-famous permie rockstars on educational materials, music, art and gardening until something else calls me! Brenna and I have also been working on creating a deck of permaculture action cards for teaching the principles. There are a few packs left! Check them out and grab a copy here
Photo: Brenna Quinlan and Charlie Mgee with the deck of permaculture action cards designed as a joint collaboration. Photo credit: supplied by Charlie McGee
Fair Share and how to support further:
You can support Formidable Vegetable with their music by becoming a Patron on Patreon here and purchase one or all of their fabulous albums here and here
Permafund provides small grants to permaculture projects across Australia and internationally, and the next grant round will be opening soon. To make a tax deductible donation before the end of financial year, or set up a regular tithe like Charlie Mgee please click here.
Remember life before corona virus? We interviewed Mark Brown from PA Professional member Purple Pear Farm in Anambah NSW back in early March. Read his take on moving on from the drought, the role of community gardens and the importance of permaculture education for all ages.
Tell me about yourself!
I, Mark Brown, am privileged to manage the farm at Purple Pear and to work with Kate Beveridge to bring a model of Permaculture to people looking to ensure their future and that of their families. Our slogan of “Permaculture in Action” comes from a deep ethical perspective driven by Kate towards following the Permaculture Ethic.
I did my PDC with Bill Mollison back in the mid 1990’s at Tyalgum and have since been involved in the Local Permaculture Hunter Group as well as teaching the PDC with Faith Thomas in Dungog, and running a few Community Gardens in the Hunter Valley. Kate and I have been offering the PDC since our move to Anambah in 2006 when we also set about designing the Mandala Market Garden and developing the property as a model for small scale farming along permaculture principles. We were fortunate in the establishment of our property given the work Kate had done previously in tree planting in particular.
What was your first interaction with permaculture?
My first contact with Permaculture would be not dissimilar to many in that it was the Global Gardener series on the ABC. I think “In Grave Danger of Falling Fruit” was a specific aha moment and though it was several years till I got my act together, I decided then to look further into this crazy new way to do living.
What’s happening at Purple Pear Farm? Paint me a picture of what it looks like around now!
Purple Pear Farm has just started out from a very trying period. Over the last couple of years we have failed to get the rains we rely on and the winters have had severe frosts that we rarely if ever get. In our normally warm temperate climate we can expect winter rains and one or two light frosts but these have failed us in recent years. Summer storms and showers in Spring and Autumn round out the water needs in a reliable year. Recent good rains have bought new life to very tired gardens, trees and pasture. Plants we were able to nurse through the big dry are now producing with great potential in Capsicum and Eggplant as well as a return in Kale and some of the greens that persist such as Rocket. We are blessed also by the “weeds” such as Fat Hen and Purslane that provide a nutritious addition to meals even in the dry times.
Our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has dwindled over this period with a group of subscribers who have been with us for many years supporting us through a difficult time of low to no production and now are able to once again enjoy the bounty of the Mandala Market Garden. Weed dominance in this period of regrowth has been a challenge though we are up to such a challenge with many opportunities to make biodynamic compost from the rampant biomass.
Kate Beveridge at the farm
What made you move to Maitland from Dungog? Were there any big adjustments that had to be made to your practices?
We started market gardening outside Dungog while I was supervising the Community Garden there. We were renting a beautiful garden on a property owned by Helen Graham and we found after a while that much of the food we grew was going to Maitland and most specifically the Steiner School there. We thought we could cut down food miles by growing the food on the current farm owned by Kate and run as a horse property at Anambah. The move facilitated the establishment of the Mandala Garden inspired by Linda Woodrow and her book “The Permaculture Home Garden” Going from a garden inspired by Elliot Coleman to the Mandalas was a great experience and I was keen to let the chickens do so much more of the work especially seeing as they seemed to enjoy it. It was difficult at first to get an orientation in the garden but soon we became used to the curves and the only real difficulty was finding the food on pick day for the CSA.
The chook dome
How has the drought affected you? What practices have you implemented to try and mitigate its effects?
The drought has been long and difficult. Feeding livestock has been such a hit on savings and keeping chickens and other vulnerable animals such as Guinea pigs alive in soaring temperatures meant huge attention to their needs. Lack of rain water has meant the cessation of production in the mandalas and gardening was confined to wicking beds. We continue to improve the water holding capacity of the soil and earthworks have seen swales and dams built to assist in holding water as high in the landscape as possible. We have also changed the types of crops we grow – such as swapping from our original “Purple King” bean for snake beans to better handle the change in weather conditions. We also include information to our subscribers on how to use some of the “weeds” we now include in the CSA shares.
Purple Pear Farm offers allotments for members of the community to grow their own food independently. What do you think of this system, is it successful?
The allotments have offered several people the opportunity to grow food in a cooperative arrangement. People working together is such a worthwhile way to share excesses and information and seeds. Several plots are taken by the Supported Employment Group MaiWel and two groups come on several days each week to grow food and take it to prepare while enjoying the open air and animal contact. Just getting hands into dirt seems to be a worthwhile activity and the benefits ensure they continue to come regularly to look after their plots. We have another young man who comes three days a week to garden and to do other work on the farm on the NDIS. Others have used the space to grow for a small CSA combining with other urban plots and a young single mum supplements her groceries with fresh food from the allotments. The drought has been hard on these participants and many have dropped out. There are now plots available. There are such possibilities for the scheme to work brilliantly given reasonable seasons.
Purple Pear Farm offers activities for kids and school groups. Why is this important? What do you want them to get out of visiting the farm?
Our tours for school groups, TAFE student and University students as well have become an important part of what we do here on the farm. From preschool and year 1 and 2 to year 9 and 11 all gain such a great insight into curriculum items from Paddock to Plate and studies on Local Food and sustainable agriculture. Regionalism and bio regions are popular aspects of tours for the older students. More and more University Students in Social Geography and sustainability are getting involved in our tours. We are keen to work with teachers to ensure the participants get the content they are seeking in line with their studies. The birthday parties continue to be popular with kids and word of mouth works a treat too!
Activities for kids on the farm.
What does 2020 have in store for Purple Pear Farm? Are there any exciting new things that are happening that we should know about?
The exciting new development for 2020 is the introduction of PDC Exchange at the farm. We are keen to support this initiative that allows people to complete their PDC through volunteering at a variety of permaculture sites (or just the one) with no up front cost but with working in exchange for the educational opportunity. We hope this provides access to this vital information for a wider group while providing relief from labour for us as we get older. It is done in a similar format to our internship with teaching in homesteading type skills as well as the permaculture curriculum but more flexible and not requiring a 10 week commitment. We are hoping for a succession to allow some young person to operate the Market Garden and CSA while allowing us to lead tours and workshops.
More time for cheese making and working with my bees would be nice too!
Check out Purple Pear Farm’s website for more information!