Permaculture Stories: Debbie Hunt of An Alternative Life Learning Centre

Permaculture Stories: Debbie Hunt of An Alternative Life Learning Centre

Debbie Hunt and Kieran Malone moved to Bungonia, NSW in 2012 to escape the city, lower their carbon footprint and live in line with their values. They have regenerated their block, combatting frost, heatwaves, lack of rain and wind, and have opened An Alternative Life Learning Centre, to provide workshops, tours and design consultancies on sustainable living, gardening and food production. Debbie’s property was on high alert for bushfires for 79 days straight during the 2019-2020 bushfires in southern NSW. Just 6 weeks later, she had to close to visitors again due to COVID-19. PA volunteer Julia talked to Debbie about her approach to building resilient systems and what permaculture can teach us in the face of food insecurity.

What brought you to make the big move from city to rural and why Bungonia?

There was a combination of factors that led us from our suburban life to living An Alternative Life on a small rural property in Bungonia NSW. The never-ending cycle of bills, work and feeling like there was never enough time, to spend with the kids, to get out into nature, to do the things we loved. Feeling like we were stuck on the treadmill just doing the daily grind was one of the driving factors, we wanted to feel more connected to each other, to our surroundings, to our natural world. We wanted to downsize our debt and our bills so we could work less and live more.

We also had a growing understanding of the vulnerability of our food system to extreme weather events and the impacts this could potentially have on price and potentially supply so we wanted to develop our own self sufficiency farm, that would supply our family’s food needs and to reduce our reliance on the corporate food.

We chose Bungonia as it is a beautiful area, the landscape and sunsets are stunning and there is huge areas of National Park and native bushland, but it was also about convenience and the ability to be within travelling distance of Canberra and Sydney allowing for off farm employment when needed.  The area is a cool growing region, getting enough frost each winter to be able to grow stone fruits, berries and grapes. We also knew it would be a difficult area for growing food, conditions can be pretty extreme, at an elevation of over 700m it is incredibly windy at times, we get extreme heat over 45˚C, annual rainfall is low, on average 600mm and drought is a regular occurrence. It also gets extremely cold in winter, down to -8˚C

A rare snowstorm!

Paint a picture of your site: how has it transformed since you purchased it, what kind of processes and practices have you implemented to improve and care for the land?

Our block was an old bush block that had never been farmed or had livestock, half of the farm was remanent native bush primarily of Casuarina and Eucalyptus. The other half of the property was heavy clay that had been baked hard as rock as it had been cleared of all vegetation by the previous owner, other than a handful of large trees everything had been stripped and exposed to the sun. There were some radiata pines had been planted as wind protection, but little or no soil or pasture improvement had been undertaken.

When we arrived we sectioned off parts of the farm that were to be dedicated to bush regeneration, as there was no previous farming on the property the seed bank in the soil was mostly native so letting nature rewild these areas was our approach. They are now overwhelmed with native plants including grasses, shrubs as well as fruit and seed bearing trees that keep the cockatoos and parrots with a supply of their favourites and for the most part out of our orchard. We have planted over 300 food trees including things like sugar maples for maple syrup and stone pines for pine nuts.

A before and after at Bungonia

What is your approach to your gardening system?

Our focus across the farm is on creating resilient and adaptive food systems.  

We draw on a multitude of approaches from numerous land management, growing and garden systems both old and new. We get our inspiration and ideas from people and cultures from around the world, there is much knowledge that has been lost since the inception of modern farming however in some parts of the world practices that have sustained people and environments for centuries are still being practiced and offer us great insight to the sorts of solutions that can be implemented even when resources and modern day machinery is not available.

We admire, respect, and learn from the skills and knowledge of local Aboriginal people who managed the land and used it for food and shelter, in a sustainable way for tens of thousands of years. We try to our utmost to manage the land is a way that is sustainable – meeting our needs now whilst not reducing the lands capacity to provide for generations in the future.

Have you taken any inspiration from permaculture principles?

Yes in one way or another we use all the permaculture principles across our property and in our lives but I guess the one that resonates most with us do is “Value and respect diversity”.  We have a diverse range of growing systems, some gardens are under cover and protected from animals and birds that might steal our food, some are out in the open and free for all to share. We have food forests, traditional raised vegetable gardens, a mixed orchard integrated with chooks and ducks, aquaponics system and a small undercover market garden. We have trellises of berries, grapes, kiwi fruit and passionfruit. Some of our vegetable patches are planted traditionally other  are just allowed to go to seed and grow much more naturally.

We plant a huge range of fruit as an important part of our personal food security strategy and ensures we have something to harvest year round in Autumn we are harvesting figs and raspberries, in Winter and early Spring it is citrus, in late Spring and the beginning of Summer, berries such as boysenberries and strawberries are in season, then we get apricots, cherries, plums, apples, pears, almonds, hazelnuts, nectarines and peaches from early Summer through to mid-Autumn. Some of the fruits we grow require heavy frosts, some are much more tropical this way regardless of the season we always have something to harvest. We also plant a large variety of annual vegetables this way if one of our crops is attacked by pests or suffers disease, we do not loose our entire food supply.

We encourage biodiversity on the farm by protecting large parts of our property for native bushland that supplies food and habitat for all the local birds, animals and insects. Without a doubt diversity is the key to our success at being able to supply ourselves with an abundance of food from the garden year round and through extreme weather.

What gravitated you towards your philosophy of “fair share for all”? How do you practice this in your everyday life and work?

We believe that fair share extends beyond people, to all living things, with this in mind we dedicate more than 70% of our farm to native habitat. Our efforts to preserve land for native flora and fauna is repaid a thousand times over, it is the diversity of life on the farm, the insect eating birds and reptiles that do the bug and pest control in our gardens, it is the health of the mycorrhizal fungi beneath the soil that keep our fruit trees and gardens growing strong.

We strongly believe that the skills and knowledge to grow food should be available to everyone in particular those struggling to meet their food needs. We sponsor people in need through our courses and workshops for free and when they have completed the course, we provide seeds, tree and resources so they can get growing on their own.

We also share our harvest with those in our community who are struggling to meet their food needs and do not have the capacity or room to grow their own. We also share our knowledge and services to community groups who are working to “sow the seeds of a sustainable future”

Tell me about An Alternative Life Learning Centre. What inspired you to start this business and what need are you filling here?

Primarily we started An Alternative Life Learning Centre as we wanted to bring together a network of people who are looking to be part of a community not based on competition, consumerism and capitalism but instead operate on a basis of compassion, collaboration, and cooperation. At the same time, we saw a growing need for people to learn skills associated with personal food production and resilience.  Working overseas I saw how communities were implementing a range of strategies to improve outcomes during and after extreme weather events, improved communications systems and networks, the building or evacuation centres and organisation of teams of on call volunteers, local food storage for communities that may have transport routes interrupted, new methods of growing and food preservation techniques. I also saw that these programs were indeed working and saving lives. In Australia we either deny that climate change is happening or tend to think that we will somehow be unaffected, that it is something that will happen elsewhere to other people.

Having studied climate change extensively over the years, we knew there was an increasing likelihood of our communities being impacted in negative ways by extreme weather events and there was a growing need for people to understand the risks and undertake strategies to build resilience at personal and community levels. There was also an increasing awareness of climate change and a move of people looking to live more sustainable self-sufficient lifestyles, so we opened the learning centre to give people the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to make the change.

What is on the horizon for 2021?

There are always a multitude of new projects on the go here on the farm, we have just completed building a bedroom cabin for guests, both those attending our workshops and those just looking to experience living an alternative life for a few days.

We have designed an urban food garden that would supply a family of four in fruit and vegetables year round and intend to implement the design over the coming months.

We are hosting a new range of on-site events including month “Get a taste of farm life” tours which include a guided tour of the farm and all the gardens and growing areas as well a 3 course lunch of farm produce.

We are running “design and plan a food garden” and “design and plan a mixed orchard” weekend workshops as well as a range of practical skills workshops including planting, pruning and propagation of fruit, berries for beginners and will also be hosting some family farm fun days during the school holidays that will include a host of family fun activities.

The pandemic has caused a lot of people to consider making the move from urban to rural. Any advice on how and where to start?

We started to see people making the move to urban to rural prior to the pandemic, a lot of people were made aware of our need to build resilience personally and at a community level happen during the fires of 2020. Images of people in Australia on the beaches waiting for the navy to come and rescue them, people spending NYE fleeing fire under terrifying circumstances, the loss of communications and basic services electricity, clean water, sewerage, and service stations running out of fuel was a considerable wake up call for how underprepared we are to cope with and recover from disasters, the pandemic only emphasised the problems with our food system and supply chains and increased the realisation that the current systems could not always be relied on and again increased the numbers of people looking to grow their own food and live a more sustainable self sufficient life.

In terms of where to start, before you start spend as much time as you can understanding your site and your local conditions, research the rainfall and temperature ranges. We always advise people not to just look at averages but extremes, how much rain will you get in drought years, how hot does it get in a heatwave, how much snow or frost your site gets in an extremely cold year find out what the fire history in your area, this information will give you a good guide as to what sort of resilience strategies to use when designing your food system. 

If your strategy is long term then we always suggest people start with what takes longest to grow and produce, food trees – fruit and nut trees can take year before they are producing a reasonable crop so get them in first, they will grow and provide shade and shelter for your vegetable gardens and growing areas but it takes time for them to establish.

You can follow an Alternative Life Learning Centre through their Facebook page, and hear about their latest events, tours and workshops through their website.

Permaculture Stories – Jared Robinson

Permaculture Stories – Jared Robinson

“Our main focus is to continue providing access to local food through the community garden and introducing various workshops/demonstrations that address barriers to food security, educate about good soil and plant health and offer hands on experience in growing your own food.”

Jared Robinson chatted to PA volunteer Julia about his background in permaculture, its future under coronavirus and the most underrated piece of space in the garden: the verge.

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Meet the PA Directors – Wendy Marchment

Meet the PA Directors – Wendy Marchment

The next installment of our ‘meeting the team’ series –  celebrating the amazing diversity and skills of the volunteers that keep Permaculture Australia running. This includes the Board of Directors – six extraordinary women volunteering their time and skills for twelve months.

PA’s Kym chats with Wendy Marchment from the Board of Directors – about how she got involved with permaculture, plans for 2020 and how she ‘walks the permaculture talk’ in her daily life.

How did you get into permaculture? 
My vague memory is that my Dad had some copies of the International Permaculture Journal in the early 90s and had visited Tyalgum where Bill Mollison was at that time. Around the same time I watched The Global Gardener series on ABC TV which resonated with me and subsequently bought the book Permaculture One.
I’ve been involved in various permaculture activities over the years whilst living in South Australia, Queensland and now Victoria. I particularly enjoyed teaching whilst working at Northey Street City Farm.
I love spending time outside creating edible gardens where I’ve lived. Lately, particularly during this COVID time and not working, I’ve been spending a lot of time on creating extra spaces and plantings on my large suburban block, as well as some design adjustments.

Banana crop. Photo credit: Wendy Marchment

Where do you live, and on what sort of property? 
I’ve lived in Geelong on a north facing, sloped 1300sqm suburban block for the past 7 years with a 1960s cream brick veneer house that I share with my uni student son, our much loved mallinois rescue dog and sometimes an international student. I have a diverse range of plantings including a few experiments, for example bananas that I have actually obtained the odd bunch from. I’ve had to focus on soil improvement since my block had hydrophobic, sandy loam soil with little life in it. There’s been lots of free stable manure and coffee grounds used, in addition to green manure crops and heaps of straw. Two large worm farms in bathtubs help with this. I tend to cook what I grow and share or barter the surplus. Since I have limited storage space, my preserving is limited and often ends up as well received gifts. I’m getting more organised with seedsaving but still scatter various seeds around [in the garden] which leads to pleasant surprises.

Colour in the garden. Photo credit: Wendy Marchment.

What do you do with PA – and what is the best part of your role? 

I’m just into my third year as Secretary on the Board of Directors and draw upon my experiences working in universities across many years. With a maths and statistics background working on projects, I have attention to detail and am organised so it’s a pretty good fit. I enjoy the fortnightly morning catchup with the paid positions [AMM Kym and Webmaster Kiran] – PA is lucky to have such capable people in these roles. I also like to create and improve, facilitate handovers and set things up to make it easier for newcomers. That’s still a work in progress and is part of the reason I’m still on the Board – along with the great group of people I get to meet and interact with.
What are your permie activities or plans for 2020 – and beyond?
It’s a bit hard to tell at this point given the unusual start to the year. Definitely more gardening. I’m looking forward to a little travel and catching up with friends and family. Hopefully I will also be able to get to a natural building course or two- I have a fascination with Cob and Bamboo.
In 20 words or less, describe what is permaculture and/or why it’s important?
Permaculture is fun and creative! It utilises design principles and observations of patterns in nature. It is essential for a healthy, resilient planet and communities.
Want to get involved with PA?
Read more about the PA People, including staff and volunteers here. If you’ve got skills to share and would like to join our volunteer team, please get in touch via hello@permacultureaustralia.org.au. You can also get involved with PA by becoming a member to help us advocate for permaculture solutions here.
Permaculture Stories – Mark Brown

Permaculture Stories – Mark Brown

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 interns

 

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!

Permaculture Stories – Paul ‘Ringo’ Kean – Tiger Hill Permaculture, Tasmania

1. Tell me about Tiger Hill Permaculture – how it began, why permaculture

Well, while spending several years doing permaculture consulting work overseas on commercial and aid projects, I was always searching for a hill station where I could set up a project to assist locals with research and development toward permaculture. Getting access to land was no problem but getting funding was. I had studied for some time with other teachers around Australia and completed two PDCs and part of an accredited permaculture training. My father introduced me to permaculture and when I did my first PDC, that feeling of wanting to be part of global change resonated with me. When needing to get experience in the field I packed my bags and headed off overseas as I had a burning desire to work with other cultures and do aid work. Fortunately when I returned to Australia I worked toward finding that special place and started looking nation wide. As my fathers family were from Tasmania, I looked this far afield and found Tiger Hill to fit all my search needs. My dream was always to create an educational community no matter where the location. So I invested in myself and have started setting up Tiger Hill Permaculture as a farm forestry model based on permaculture design. Now I take up to 60 volunteers annually and teach them practical skills towards sustainable living. I am totally self funded from salary.

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Member update – Goshen Watts

Goshen is a Professional Member of PA and is fully immersed in the Permaculture way of living. He lives in the suburbs in Geelong, a city in the state of Victoria, southwest of Melbourne. He gives to his local community by being the editor of the Geelong Organic Gardeners newsletter, and secretary of the local Transition Group (Transition South Barwon). Organic gardening is often a route into Permaculture… especially when Permaculturalists invite their local group to come and see their way of gardening! In the photo below, Goshen on the far right is showing the group his backyard micro-market garden:

Goshen’s property is featured in RetroSuburbia (David Holmgren’s book released in 2018) as an example of a food producing polyculture of mixed species on a small urban backyard using Permaculture Design and Principles. Read the case study online. Below, Goshen talking about the importance of nutrient cycling and fertility:
To learn more about Goshen’s Permaculture life, see his website. I met Goshen and his family in November 2018 – article by Dylan Graves