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
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.
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.
“For me, permaculture is finding people’s best selves and putting them in a position where their best selves can flourish“
Cecilia Macaulay is a PA member, permaculture educator, designer and Declutterer Extraordinaire, specialising in “life design”, She runs classes on sensible permaculture design both inside and outside and workshops on decluttering and communication. Her work is accessible through her website and blog, and youtube channel. She has travelled extensively, particularly in Japan, and has taken inspiration from her travels to her work.
PA volunteer Julia chatted to Cecilia about the importance of “people care” and “life design” in her permaculture philosophy, the role Japan has played in her life and work, and the simplicity of permaculture’s applicability to all areas of our lives. Cecilia’s approach to life and work is simultaneously highly pragmatic and optimistic. She sees permaculture in all aspects of her life: from outside to inside to cleaning to reading — she knows that permaculture is always around to offer solutions to our everyday problems and to help us feel more alive and happy (though not “comfortable”– that is a word Cecilia does not like!).
PA member and former PA Board member Dr Cally Brennan is a permaculture designer and educator based in Canberra, and founded Canberra Permaculture Design. Prior to working in permaculture, Cally held roles in academia and in the public sector, working in energy and climate policy.She is also the designer of one of the PA limited edition T shirts with the slogan ‘Permaculture. Do you dig it.’
Cally spoke to PA volunteer Julia about why permaculture came at the right time in her life, and how her past experiences have shaped her understanding of it.
How did permaculture come along, and how was it shaped by your background working in academia and climate policy?
I have always had an interest in sustainability and I have always loved gardening. My grandfather was involved in the Dig for Victory campaign in the UK, we had some lovely holidays visiting his garden. This first sparked my interest in gardening. I have worked in academia, mostly from realising that it was fun to educate people, and like many people in the world, you disconnect your degree from what you want to do in life. So, I tried a range of things until I settled on permaculture. I studied ethnomusicology, a mixture of music and anthropology that explores how people use music to express their cultural identity. I was also lucky enough to do some fieldwork in Malaysia and Singapore. Predictably, there were not many jobs in this area! So, it was on speck that I decided to join the public service.
I came to Canberra in 2006 as a graduate and then found myself in an analytical role in economic research. It didn’t quite fit with my moral side however, as I was coming to conclusions that I fundamentally disagreed with. I ended up working in energy efficiency and climate policy. Working directly on the ground in dealing with climate change policy was a lot! I found that there was a lot of politics involved in climate policy, on both sides. The urgency of the issue was such that I didn’t want to spend the next few years writing and working on things that were basically there to pretend things were on track when they were not. I felt I could make a bigger impact doing other things with my life. So that’s where permaculture came in. I had learned about permaculture when we had first moved to Australia in about 1994. I first remember visiting a garden in Freemantle, WA which had a lot of tyres in its designs. So my conception of permaculture around then was lots of straw mulch and old tyres! It wasn’t until I joined Permablitz ACT in 2009, that I learnt what permaculture was really about. I met a horticulturalist in the group who knew a lot about plants. He had the ability to make you feel like you could try anything, and that it was good to try new things and to not feel constrained by tradition. My conception of permaculture changed to something that was exciting and different and new. I did a PDC with John champagne and Phil Gould back in 2011 and that was the usual brain-popping experience when I realised it was just about common sense. What struck me was how good it would feel to be doing something on an individual level that was regenerative and helpful. I could do both important civic participation through protesting and doing a small thing in regenerative permaculture. Permaculture was an area where I could learn about how nature worked.
I later set up Canberra Permaculture design, because I could design, draw well, and use my interest in sustainability. I built a client base and some confidence. I’m now rushed off my feet with people who want to find out more about permaculture, which is great! For a while, it was a good balance to be working on the big picture stuff (but no direct connection with people) to actually legislate on building standards or energy plans, and then the small picture stuff of doing something with my own life and my own garden.
Wow! So you’ve done so many different things, how do they overlap? Where do you see parallels between permaculture and energy policy?
Having worked in energy policy, it’s amazing to know how much permaculture is about energy, and energy efficiency is fundamental to permaculture design. Permaculture is about capturing energy in your house and your garden. It’s nice to see this linked: the more I learned about energy from work, the more I deeply understood the workings of permaculture.
That’s really fascinating, and it’s great to see how all the varied experiences in your life have combined together to help you understand all of these different processes, and your background seems to have influenced significantly your perception and understanding of permaculture! I was particularly struck when you were speaking about your days in Permablitz ACT, where the horticulturalist in the group had this “can do” attitude about trying new things and seeing what worked. Has that philosophy influenced the way you approach permaculture design in your garden, home and life, and new clients who may not be familiar with permaculture?
The experimental side of my permaculture practice is reserved for what we do in our garden! I make the mistakes on behalf of other people so I can share what I have learned. The most effective design incorporates water into its heart. Canberra is a semi-arid climate normally (though this year it’s quite moist), and last year was terribly dry. I’m now very aware of passive water harvesting. I experiment with these designs in our garden, and then I suggest ideas on water harvesting. I generally build my designs about passive water harvesting: everything is about water here. There’s a lot of opportunities though to capture water: it’s very often wasted in residential properties.
What are some of your most effective passive water harvesting techniques you’ve found on your own properties?
French drains and swales are two of the most effective designs and are at the right scale for a residential property. In ours, we’ve used drainage channels through our driveway, so we’ve diverted water from our driveway and directed into a small swale around a raised bed. It has worked really well I love it!!
Anything you’re listening to that’s inspiring you at the moment?
What are your New Year’s permaculture resolutions? Anything on the horizon?
Balance is what I need to work on. I need to work out how to balance my business and the important service that I provide with everything else in my life. We’re still establishing this garden, and haven’t run workshops this year. We had a massive hailstorm that hit us in late January of this year that smashed everything up, and along with the poor air quality and smoke in January and COVID later on, we couldn’t run any in person workshops outside. We’re at the moment now doing a lot of infrastructure work: putting in a chicken coop and a greenhouse. I’m trying to find a balance between doing designs for other people and getting onto the things that I have to do now: putting in the greenhouse, getting the beans in and all of those big and small tasks that come up all the time. I need to make sure I have more time for us: my family and myself as well. It’s easy to run yourself ragged because people want help and you can help them!!
Dr Cally Brennan is a professional member of Permaculture Australia, the national member-based organisation in Australia. Sign up as a member here today to join hundreds of members across Australia like Cally advocating for permaculture solutions.
This article aligns with the permaculture ethics (Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share) and permaculture principles including Produce No Waste, Catch & Store Energy, Integrate rather than segregate and Use Edges and Value the Marginal. Find out more about the permaculture principles and ethics here.
Cally is wearing one of the Permaculture Australia T shirts, featuring her design ‘Permaculture: Do you Dig it’. These limited edition T shirts can be purchased here.
In our monthly video interview series, PA Members Morag Gamble, John Champagne and Lachie McKenzie share their experiences working with community permaculture projects across the globe. Key lessons learnt include:
community led projects and solutions are key to success
youth led activities are effective to bring positive change, and
the importance of promoting and re-learning Indigenous knowledge and traditional skills.
The panel members
Lachlan McKenzie (Dip. Permaculture) is the Co-Director of Permatil Global. He has been immersed in permaculture since completing his Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 1994. His permaculture adventures took him to Timor-Leste in 2001 working for 5 years with Timorese NGO Permatil and consulting for International NGOs providing trainings (including PDCs), writing curriculums, creating educational materials and demonstration sites. This culminated in co-writing and producing the Permaculture Guidebook from Timor-Leste in three languages. An accompanying bi-lingual Permaculture Facilitator’s Handbook and permaculture educational DVD were created working with IDEP Foundation in Bali and post-tsunami Aceh, Indonesia. He volunteered with the Permaculture Association Britain for two years, working with permaculture projects in the UK, France and Portugal. He is a core member of the International Permaculture Education Network (IPEN) project, current Chairperson for Permaculture South Australia and loves to keep his hands dirty in the garden.
Morag Gamble is an award-winning international permaculture teacher, speaker, designer and practitioner. She is the founder of the Permaculture Education Institute and Director of the registered charity, the Ethos Foundation. Morag is based at a UN World Habitat Award winning permaculture village in Australia and has taught permaculture in more than 20 countries over the past 25 years. She leads the Permaculture Educators Program – the first comprehensive combined online Permaculture Design Certificate and Permaculture Teacher Certificate. Morag is co-founder of the iconic Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast University Community Garden and the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network and many other local food initiatives around the world. She leads permaculture camps for schools, nature kids programs for young children, and mentors many young people in permaculture.
John Champagne (Dip Permaculture) has more than 25 years permaculture experience in teaching and projects in Australia and internationally, including Indonesia and India. John is recognized as an elder within the Permaculture Movement in Australia and continues to be active in permaculture. He was on the Board of Permaculture Australia for three years and is the Convener of PA’s Permafund, a registered charity that receives and distributes funds to permaculture projects worldwide. In 2018 John was one of the drivers and organisers of the Australasian Permaculture Convergence (APC14) held in Canberra. He is based at Brogo Permaculture Gardens in NSW.
Video interview: What does effective permaculture aid look like?
PA’s PERMAFUND provides small grants to community permaculture projects across the globe. They have funded 51 projects in 15 countries with a focus on food security, regenerative agriculture practices, seed sovereignty, women’s empowerment, and permaculture education to name a few. Donations over $2 are tax deductible in Australia.
PERMATIL GLOBALis making permaculture tools and knowledge accessible to everyone across the globe, working with people to strengthen food sovereignty, facilitate environmental regeneration, mitigate climate change and build resilient and sustainable communities everywhere.
ETHOS FOUNDATION, in partnership with the PERMACULTURE EDUCATION INSTITUTE, is supporting local permaculture initiatives in East Africa. They are committed to supporting community led programs that are guided by the ethics – earth care • people care • fair share.
PA member, educator and permaculture design consultant Janene Price chatted to PA volunteer Julia about the lessons she’s learnt from lockdown, how we can effectively inspire people to take up the cause of permaculture and its popularity under the new normal (plus some design tips for public gardens who get pesky visitors!).
PA member Janene Price is a permaculture educator and consultant, whose business,Love to Grow, in Byron Bay helps people implement effective permaculture garden design. As well as private gardens, she works with public gardens, most notably at Harvest Newrybar, where she also runs permaculture and gardening workshops for the public.
“Jeff concluded years ago that growing soil and growing food would be the most important skills for humanity in the next thirty years – a conviction that hasn’t changed since. Asked whether he thinks that permaculture and regenerative farming skills will become more important in the future, Jeff answers with a resounding “Absolutely”.
Jeff Pow and Michelle McManus are the faces behind Southampton Homestead near Balingup in the Southwestern corner of WA, where they are regeneratively farming meat on 130 acres. After a three-year break from chicken farming, they are just returning to raising pastured meat chickens again, while also running a few heads of cattle and some pigs for their own consumption and as an additional income. Clydesdale horses for work and enjoyment are complementing the grazing regime to improve pasture and soil. Southampton Homestead is home to the only micro-abattoir in Western Australia. PA’s Education volunteer Martina chats with Jeff and Michelle about combining permaculture, regenerative agriculture & organic practices to improve their land, and the importance of growing food and farmers for a resilient food system.
Jeff’s motto is ‘Grow food and grow farmers’, as he sees a strong need for more small farming businesses. He is concerned about the decline in numbers of farming families and farms as well as diversity in the food-producing sector and is driven by the need to re-establish food sovereignty and a resilient food system. He tells me that there used to be 54 abattoirs in the Southwest of WA in 1992. Now he is the only one left and had to battle bureaucracy to be able to slaughter his own poultry. All rules and regulations are geared at big-scale agriculture, excluding small businesses from the market. In Jeff’s opinion there is a huge risk in this centralisation of agricultural businesses and services. “One big thing falls over quickly when something happens. With lots of little things, some will probably survive”, he explains. Jeff feels farmer’s democratic right to access the market place is taken away from them, when they are not able to bring food to market themselves without involving big corporations in the processing.
Southampton Homestead is run under holistic management principles and planned with the help of Regrarian Platform. Jeff and Michelle are self-taught farmers that take the best from regenerative agriculture, organic growing and permaculture to improve their land. They have taught at Fair Harvest’s Permaculture Design Course and are passionate about passing on their knowledge.
When asked about the importance of additional training opportunities that contain permaculture and other related knowledge systems, Jeff agrees that there is not nearly enough on offer in Australia at the moment to support farmers. Qualifications that focus on intense small-scale food growing are desperately needed, but Jeff argues that training in different ways of retail and marketing is at least as important. He says traditional retail opportunities like supermarkets are nearly impossible to access for small farmers and farmers markets mostly aren’t a financially viable alternative. Therefore alternative ways of marketing their products like community supported agriculture and online distributors such as Wide Open Agriculture will play a big role for new farmers. It would be irresponsible to teach new farmers food-producing without including the marketing side of the business.
To help this along, Southampton Homestead offers a residency program to train future farmers and is planning to become a not-for-profit education business in the longer run. His residents are not only gaining the practical skills of raising livestock, but just as importantly, business planning and management as well as marketing skills.
For Jeff, permaculture means ecological thinking. Part of what he has learned from permaculture is understanding and mitigating catastrophes. He says nothing will ever be perfect and you have to plan for things going wrong. Southampton Homestead once lost hundreds of chickens when a tornado swept through their property, and the farm burnt down completely in a bushfire in 2013. Jeff and Michelle have rebuilt it and have now planted over 1000 oaks, mulberries, poplars and other deciduous trees in shelter belts to mitigate the risk of this happening again and to provide fodder for their animals. The right plant at the right place for the right reason is one of the principles they have taken from permaculture.
There are golden opportunities for new farming businesses and he encourages aspiring farmers not to give up because they don’t have millions in seed money to buy property. Farming is labour-intense work and there are lots of opportunities to add more layers to existing farms and improve them by adding fertility and ecological services. He says his own land could support more businesses, but it has so far been difficult to find people to run them. Jeff’s advice when starting out is to master one aspect of farming before adding more layers, instead of trying to do everything at once. Business enterprises that could be added to existing sheep or cattle farms to increase soil and pasture health and to provide ecological services include pastured poultry, bees, composting, small-scale intense market gardening and many more.
Jeff comes from a business and management background, but concluded years ago that growing soil and growing food would be the most important skills for humanity in the next thirty years – a conviction that hasn’t changed since. Yet when he proposed to present a stall at his daughter’s university career expo, his offer was declined. He is convinced though, that times are changing and COVID-19 has made many young people reconsider their priorities.
Asked whether he thinks that permaculture and regenerative farming skills will become more important in the future, he answers with a resounding “Absolutely”.
Martina Hoeppner holds a Diploma in Permaculture and a Certificate IV in Training & Assessment, teaches PDCs and Certificate III in Permaculture in Perth and is the current Co-Convenor of Permaculture West. She contributes to Permaculture Australia’s Education Team and tries keep alive her own garden and three sons in her spare time. More information on the different types of permaculture education can be found here.
Martina is a professional members of Permaculture Australia, the national member based organisation in Australia. Sign up as a member here today to join hundreds of members across Australia advocating for permaculture solutions.