“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.