Permaculture co-founder steps into limelight

The CSIRO’s Ted Lefroy says it is not easy to measure how many aspects of permaculture have infiltrated mainstream environmental thinking and practice, but it is fair to say its influence has been profound.
“I think it’s been quite significant in its influence on broadacre agriculture, just take the two words of its origin, permanent and agriculture and look around Australia’s landscapes,” he said.

This interview by ABC radio’s Landline program by Tim Lee was first published 28/03/2004. It features Rod May, an organic farmer and the former mayor of Hepburn, Ted Lefroy of CSIRO’s Sustainable Ecosystems, Su Dennett and  Maureen Corbett from Melliodora as well as David Holmgren. You can read it in full down the fold or at the ABC website.

Permaculture co-founder steps into limelight

Reporter: Tim Lee
First Published: 28/03/2004

It is a scene befitting a parable from the Old Testament, the herdsman shepherding the goats, which in turn feed he and his family. But David Holmgren is no prophet wandering stoically in the wilderness. His tangle of trees, most notably the high-yielding tree lucerne, form the cornerstone of a vivid demonstration of the worldwide movement known as Permaculture which he co-founded some 26 years ago.

“It’s a prime tree fodder, 24 per cent protein. It’s why it’s called tree lucerne … and it’s one of the major feeds that we feed our milking goats,” the co-author of Permaculture said.
“At the same time we’re cutting back the tagasaste, or tree lucerne, it’s also releasing nitrogen from the roots, which makes that more available for the fruit trees which we have planted between.
“By cutting it back and keeping it down we’re allowing the fruit tree canopy to be dominant. Before we had goats we just used that material as mulch around the trees.”

He says permaculture seeks to harmoniously combine elements of nature so that the land can provide in a much more sustainable manner than conventional land use allows.
“We’ve got about 120 fruit and nut trees that produce a substantial surplus, but we’re basically just providing for our own needs from the property with extensive gardens and orchards. The goats are our dairy supply and some meat, so we’re doing a sort of mixture of things. We’re not commercial farmers but it’s very much an integrated system,” he said.

His partner, Su Dennett, says permaculture requires a shift in thinking.
“I guess if you want to change the world, there’s that maxim that to change the world you must change yourself, so if you do things by example it’s a much stronger message than just talking,” she said.

Other practitioners of the system and experts agree.
“Like a visionary three centuries on, he’s not only concerned about the next 10 years or whether the earth will sustain itself over the next 50 years, he’s thinking long-term, he’s thinking 300 hundred years I reckon,” Maureen Corbett, a permaculture practitioner said.
“I think what he has done has been able to synthesise an academic or intellectual quality, if you like, with a fairly practical, pragmatic approach,” another organic farmer, Rod May said.

The CSIRO agrees.
“He is a visionary and I think that sums up his work and his place in this whole thing,” said Ted Lefroy of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.

These trees yield Mr Holmgren between one and two tonnes of green fodder annually from just one hectare of formerly blackberry-infested land at Hepburn in the Central Victorian Highlands, now that the land has been re-habilitated.
“In terms of bio-diversity, three’s a huge increase in the structural diversity, the number of native birds, there’s obviously a huge amount of food,” he said.
“It was a place where you could pick a few blackberries in the season and maybe graze a couple of goats on the place.
“Now we support four goats without any imported feed, we support of a flock of a couple of dozen chooks and half a dozen geese all grazing on this property, as well as our fruit and nuts trees and dams and house, so it’s a fairly substantial increase in carrying capacity.”

In some semi-arid parts of Western Australia, the use of tree fodder has tripled carrying capacity.
“Clearly from a permaculture point of view, the commitment is household food production, community food production, and regional self-reliance,” Mr Holmgren said.

Ms Dennett says the permaculture lifestyle suits her.
“I like the down to earth lifestyle and I’ve found that very empowering and to grow your own food and to eat your own food delights me,” she said.
“We’ve got plenty of things in the dam like yabbies and fish, fresh goat’s milk from the goats.
“I make cheese from that, yoghurt.
“It doesn’t only have to be do-it-yourself because what you’ve seen here today is not only what comes out of our garden, it comes from lots of people around us. We do a lot of bartering and we do a lot of buying of the fresh and the dry.
It’s a fabulous place to get food around here you can get all sorts of things.”

But Mr Holmgren says that to view permaculture as purely a means of achieving household self-sufficiency by sustainable means is to grossly understate its scope and its objectives.
“I think there’s also a perception in the wider community that permaculture is a system of organic gardening and it is in reality much more than that,” he said.
“It’s really a design-system for sustainable land use and livelihood and really Permaculture has a lot to contribute to the sustainability debate. I think we’re more likely to see a lot of interest in that aspect in the next few years.”
“I think a lot of people are doing all these little things that have always been part of permaculture, there’s a lot more awareness about energy efficient buildings, about composting, about recycling, about waste management, permaculture was always putting it together, it some sort of intelligent system,” Maureen Corbett said.

The CSIRO’s Ted Lefroy says it is not easy to measure how many aspects of permaculture have infiltrated mainstream environmental thinking and practice, but it is fair to say its influence has been profound.
“I think it’s been quite significant in its influence on broadacre agriculture, just take the two words of its origin, permanent and agriculture and look around Australia’s landscapes,” he said.
“We’ve had about 10 years of Landcare, a lot of environmental awareness and, increasingly, interest in how we perennialise the Australian landscape, how we introduce more perennial species.
“That’s a fundamental principle of Permaculture and it’s one that’s risen in parallel as we’ve come to learn more about the Australian landscape.
“Another thing Bill Mollison made a point of right at the beginning, was this idea of learning from nature, and looking at the way that nature has arrived at solutions in different environments and taking a lesson from that.”

In the mid-1970’s Bill Mollison, a psychology lecturer at the University of Tasmania, joined forces with David Holmgren, then a young student.
Raised in Perth by socially radical parents, Mr Holmgren’s concern for the environment and intellectual rigour, flourished under Mr Mollison’s mentorship.
Shortly after, Mr Holmgren’s thesis was jointly published as Permaculture One.
“I see Permaculture One being published in 1978 [as] right at a crescendo of new environmental solutions emerging in response to the first awareness about limits to growth and then the oil crises of the mid-1970’s,” Mr Holmgren said.

Mr Holmgren’s pivotal role in developing permaculture has scarcely been recognised.
“I can truly say that that’s attributable to the tireless work of Bill Mollison and his charismatic character and his work around the world, but the concept itself is clearly more than Bill Mollison’s promotion and spread of it,” Mr Holmgren said.

Last year, 25 years after Permaculture One, Holmgren, the quietly spoken ‘green’ revolutionary, published his re-vamped version permaculture.
Since then, he has been on the speaking circuit, spreading the gospel and continuing his environmental design work here and abroad.
“I think David in particular is a bit of an unsung hero,” Rod May said.
“He was in my view the slightly more softly spoken of the pair and I’m very glad to see that in the last few years and in particular with his latest publication, he’s getting some of the recognition that he deserves because I really do think he’s got a really profound message for us, whether we’re small farmers, whether we’re gardeners or whether we’ve got very large properties.”

So how has permaculture influenced broadacre agriculture?
Rod May, a successful organic farmer, says it is difficult to measure.
“You see evidence of the permaculture movement out there in broadacre agriculture, behind the scenes a bit in regards to the whole farm planning phenomena for example, certainly the multi-functional use of trees and shrubs,” he said.
“I think that’s probably the most visible edge of it that I’ve noted on the landscape. But I guess it’s something that you need to look closely at to be able to discern and the integration of crops and animals and mixed farms and multi-functional production systems all bear the hallmarks of the permaculture movement.”

At nearby Blampied, Mr May runs a mixed farm producing livestock, wine and a mainstay of organic fresh vegetables grown using permaculture principals.
“I think with permaculture on the surface, we can see the very obvious way that bio-physical systems can be integrated on the farm level and we’ve seen that here on our farm, but the other side of permaculture that’s not so easily seen,” he said.
“I’m not sure if it was ever one of the intended ideas of permaculture with Mollison and David Holmgren, but that is the economic integration that we’ve seen with our farm.
“In particular where we’ve got multiple products coming from different production systems and over the years there’s been tremendous amount of insulation against variations in the market, and in that sense I think permaculture has got a very valuable lesson for farmers in the 21st Century.”

With organic farmers such as Rod May the very model of profitability and sustainability, there is little wonder Mr Holmgren staunchly opposes genetically modified organisms.
“I think the genetically modified crops is a classic furphy in terms of sustainability and there’s some desperate marketing ploys by the corporations to colour it up as being both useful in feeding the world, like the golden rice in South-East Asia and useful for farmers in terms of greater productivity,” Mr Holmgren said.
“Now there’s no doubt there’s some little technical advantages here and there.
“It’s a branding process, it’s a process by which someone can own intellectual property and then force control over agriculture. I don’t see it contributing greatly in any sort of sustainability sense.”

So Holmgren remains cautious and sceptical. He’s critical of the Landcare movement, which this year celebrates its 10 year milestone.
The Landcare concept borrowed heavily from permaculture practices, but Mr Holmgren argues the movement has scarcely evolved past the notion that pest plants and animals are the major causes of land degradation and that ferals and exotics must be eradicated.
“From a permaculture point of view these spreading plants and animals are sources of abundance that we should be using and it’s interesting how we’ve had to shift our attitudes to carp, from how do you destroy this, to how do you use it, as a resource?” he said.

Mr Holmgren views willows, chopped out of waterways in recent years, as exactly that.
“A lot of the so-called adverse effects of willows can be managed quite well by treating them as a fodder tree. And that we can more efficiently and better design than people did in the past, where people would cut down a big tree in a drought,” he said.
“Weeds don’t have right or wrong about them, what they’re doing is occupying damaged country,” Mr Mollison, co-author of Permaculture One said.
“If you can see that, then they’ll stabilise the situation, you can shut out the thing causing the damage while you get there and get the forest in underneath it and then they go.
“If people are gardeners and have grown some of their own food they understand enough of what’s involved. “

Mr Holmgren agrees.
“They’re actually prepared to pay a reasonable price for good land management,” he said.
“If people are completely disconnected from that, they are really dismissive of the issues to do with long-term sustainability. So, ironically, self-reliance, home food production could be argued is competition for commercial agriculture, it actually provides the social foundation for which we can have sustainable agriculture in this country.”
Across Australia there are housing estates now built on permaculture principles and several permaculture institutes.
“They’re being applied from poor Third World villages to settlement towns on the edge of the big booming cities of the Third World through to affluent communities in Europe and America,” Mr Holmgren said.
“It’s concerned with how people fit in with natural systems and how we design those to provide for people’s needs. So it’s a very broad, extremely broad and permaculture tends to focus on “what are the missing bits in the tool kit?”

Permaculture’s appeal and acceptance has waxed and waned, but many foresee its appeal growing again.
“If you look at the energy efficiency of industrial agriculture, we often burn up more calories producing something than they are worth themselves, that can’t go on forever,” Ted Lefroy said.
Holmgren agrees.
“The limits of the global economy and globalisation and the complete incompatibility between the globalised economy with suppressed commodity prices and long term sustainability really can’t be avoided for really much longer,” he said.
“I think that is very clear to a lot of people involved in innovation in sustainable alternatives, those involved in organic agricultural industry, those involved in research in new crops and new approaches and just innovative farmers, but this message isn’t coming through.”

Mr Lefroy says natural resources are growing ever scarcer.
“The real price of wheat has been declining worldwide for the last 200 years, things are tough in agriculture and we’ve got to look at every way of being smarter, at how we interact with the Australian landscape and how we use scarce resources,” he said.
“We’re going to be dealing with global oil peak which really means the end of cheap oil in this decade,” Mr Holmgren said.
“Potentially I think we can see a lot of good things coming out of that because we’ll also see, inevitably, commodity prices rise and the chance of farmers getting a better return for what they produce.
“I think part of that is going to be the community having to come to terms with where resources come from and being prepared to pay for those.
“There’s a lot more awareness now, but there’s still this drift, this general drift towards more and more consumption, more and more methods of unsustainable production.
“Overall you’d have to say that agriculture is less sustainable than when we wrote Permaculture One.
“The overall situation has got worse.”


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