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
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.