The following article was developed while preparing to host a forthcoming farm tour for the Southern Fleurieu Permaculture Group on applying permaculture principles in property planning. You can view a printable version, including an updated One-Page Place Assessment here.
After several years working in and advocating for sustainable food systems, in November 2012, we purchased 19 hectares of grazing land near Second Valley, 80 kilometres south of Adelaide. Our vision for the property is to cultivate a diverse, small farm that meets a large proportion of household food and energy needs as well as an income through direct marketing. With integrated forestry, grazing, revegetation and horticulture, we hope to develop Yarnauwi as an experiment in viable, sustainable small farming for the Fleurieu Peninsula. Farm enterprises and elements will be stacked to perform multiple functions and increase profitability, and will be developed at an economically and personally appropriate pace.
For our first couple of years, we’ve spent a great deal of our time trying to engage in thoughtful observation, learning the rhythms and patterns of the landscape. As we’ve tried to reconcile our own impatience to get things done with the pace of the climate and the land, we’ve adopted Wes Jackson’s assertion that “if your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” It’s a reminder to be patient, to acknowledge that ecological systems have their own sense of time, and that many of the intentions of our planning may only be experienced by our grandchildren.
Observe and Interact
As we’ve puzzled over what it means to develop a relationship with place, we’ve applied a range of observational strategies to articulate our discoveries, and to inform our planning.
- Develop a One Page Place Assessment: Brad Lancaster’s Place Assessment model is an excellent strategy of gathering together available climatic and ecological information about your patch of ground. The totem species concept that is part of this is a useful tool for visioning what it is that you want habitat restoration to achieve, and to design habitat for key species.
- Get Different Perspectives: The early stages of planning were spent poring over as many different maps, satellite imagery and photographs we could access, through Google Maps, Naturemaps and archival sources. Combined with taking walks around the area, this is essential in getting a mental picture of how the farm connects with the broader landscape, as well as identifying changes over time, unusual areas for further inspection, and so on.
- Measure and Monitor Stuff: We constructed a bunyip level to measure slope across the property, informing potential future land-uses. Combined with topographic maps, slope information allows us to predict and map patterns of flow for water across the landscape. Other key things we measure and monitor include rainfall and dam water quality, based on salinity, pH, turbidity, and macroinvertebrate populations. We also measured soil structure and dispersion through a number of simple tests, and conducted a first soil nutrient test. All of this data allows us to track the impact of our interventions and respond accordingly.
- Journal: From the beginning, we’ve kept a farm journal in which we record weather observations, lists of plants and animals observed, and activities we conducted on the farm. We review the entries at the end of each year and compile an Ecological Calendar of Operations. This calendar combines climatic observations and data, plant and animal activities, regional cultural events, on-farm activities, weed management, livestock husbandry, plant propagation and government compliance information into a central document. The observations from subsequent years are compared with the master document to monitor changes over time. Our farm blog has also been an essential tool for reflecting on our process and inviting comment and discussion from our community.
- Take Photos, Draw Pictures: Photography and sketching are valuable tools in cultivating observation. Photography is also useful to track change particularly when photographs are taken at regular intervals at set photo-points. We’ve tried to do this in areas where our intervention has been high, for example, rubbish-filled gullies that we’ve cleaned-up, conducted erosion control works and then revegetated. Since human time is different from redgum time, photographs are also essential in reassuring yourself that change is occurring!
- Talk to People: Early on, we contacted a number of farmers, permaculturalists and others in the neighbourhood and asked if they would be willing to show us around their properties. This was essential in developing our understanding of the unique limitations and potential of the landscape, but also in forging connections with the community. Our vision of permaculture is not one of frontier self-sufficiency, but of distributed, local self-reliance.
- Research History: Researching history has a practical purpose in understanding pre- and post-colonial land uses and their impact on soils and water, and helping to define possibilities. However, in addition to being a productive landscape, we view the farm as a social and cultural phenomenon nested within the history of the landscape. Understanding the stories of those who have had a connection with this patch of ground increases the richness of our own experience, and broadens our vision for the future.
With data gathering underway, we began to plan our property uses. This was informed by our observations but also by our vision for the farm. At the beginning of our search for a suitable property, we brainstormed and recorded what we were looking for, together with the enterprises and lifestyle we desired. This initial brainstorm has continued to influence our planning process, and over time, has been shaped by an understanding of the landscapes capabilities, and many an evening spent trawling the internet for advice.
- Develop a Farm Business Plan: Developing a draft farm plan has been essential in helping us to articulate a number of essential elements of the project, from future visions, to enterprise timelines, budgetary targets, family and personal development intentions and more. We used the format of the NSW Primary Industries’ How to write a business plan and review farm performance AgGuide, with some of our own tweaking to make it more relevant. Because a farm is a living environment, we think of it as a collection of processes rather than products. The Business Plan reflects this as a process document and a thinking tool subject to regular revision.
- Identify Limits and Enablers: Early on, we began to think about limiting and enabling factors, a process that flowed out of a ‘SWOT’ analysis when developing our first business plan. We were often frustrated by the limitations of not living on-site, of having a relatively limited income, and of balancing the care of family and a new baby with our responsibilities as landholders. On reflection, many of these limiting factors have also enabled other actions. For example, not living on-site has given us substantial time to plan, think about and revisit solutions. Having a limited income has supported this: by restricting our impulse to buy products to solve problems, we have been enabled to develop inexpensive and often more effective solutions.
- Start Planning Zones: One of the most recognised concepts from permaculture is that of planning zones based on management intensity. Zone 1 indicates the household, a high-use, high-energy sector, out to Zone 5, the ‘wilderness’ that looks after itself. Informed by observation and research we drafted zoned property design concepts, also considering factors such as solar access, prevailing winds, fire zones, views and road access. With significant gully erosion in two main areas, we also had non-negotiable land uses to consider. Essentially, we identified the gullies as future Zone 5 areas, and have planned inwards towards Zone 1. We supported our research and design with the services of a small farm consultant to assist in assessing the farm’s potential and to propose a farm layout based on our intentions.
- Consider Scale of Permanence: P. A. Yeoman’s concept of the Scale of Permanence sequences landscape elements according to their permanence and the energy required to change them. From most permanent and difficult to change to least, they are Climate, Landform, Water, Roads and Access, Trees, Structures, Sub-divisions and Fencing and finally Soil. These are valuable to consider in planning in order to minimise the financial and energy cost of interventions. While some permaculturalists are enthusiastic about reshaping the landscape at an early stage, we feel this should be tempered by careful observation and a solid understanding of local conditions. Not all strategies are appropriate for all landscapes, and some ends can be achieved by multiple means. As an example, The Mulloon Institute’s paper on Soil Decision Making offers a useful discussion in considering the appropriateness of different approaches to enhancing soil quality. The Scale of Permanence also highlights to us the value of temporary and functional strategies that allow us to fail quickly and refine our designs with minimal loss or effort.
- Assess and Value Resources: With relatively limited finances of our own, we immediately began looking for ways to collaborate with organisations to mutual benefit. This included connecting with bodies such as Clean Up Australia, or approaching the council for support in cleaning up and restoring gullies that feed a local reservoir. The most beneficial was developing a workplan for landscape restoration with the Natural Resource Management Board. With financial support and advice for revegetation, soil management, fencing and establishing livestock watering infrastructure, this was an essential enabler in supporting the development of the property.
- Plan Through Time: While our plan reflects what we might hope the property looks like in 50 years, there’s a lot of activity that needs to happen between now and then. We’ve tried to plan for a succession of enterprises. We became aware that pasture quality diminishes without grazing, so in order to maintain growth, we graze sheep. However, over time, we intend for the sheep to diminish in importance as later enterprises (orchards, forestry, and so on) succeed them.
- Find Out As Much As You Can Before Doing Too Much: We work to immerse ourselves in new information to support our planning and work. While this keeps our learning curve near vertical, it’s invaluable in helping us to make the best decisions at the time. For example, with revegetation as a current focus we’ve read widely, attended field days on woodland ecology and regeneration and compiled lists of plants associated with Pink and Red Gum Woodlands on the Fleurieu Peninsula. We’ve observed what plants thrive in equivalent landscapes, and learnt to gather seed and propagate locally indigenous species. We’ve researched kangaroo deterrents and built ever more elaborate tree guards. With all this in mind, our landscape has still been cleared and cultivated for the better part of two centuries. Any intervention is going to be somewhat contrived, and we hold no illusions about the potential to restore a pure, pre-colonial ecosystem. Because of this, we’ve tried to balance principles of habitat regeneration with our broader intentions of cultivating a viable, diverse human habitat. Our revegetation is planned to provide multiple functions, from habitat to timber, food, shelter, shade, firewood, picnic locations, campsites and play spaces.
- Learn To Love Spreadsheets: We love spreadsheets. We use them for all kinds of things. Comparisons of the species compositions of different ecosystems, comparisons of clay-tolerant, low-rainfall timber trees, comparisons of Mediterranean-climate fruit and nut trees. We use them to record pasture quality and grazing rotations. We use them for recording flowering, seeding and germination times for locally indigenous plants. And then we use them to plan what we need to do next.
- Start Small and Scale Up: Where possible, we’ve begun with small interventions, observed them, tweaked them, and then done more of what works. When planting trees, we expand the species that grow in the spots where they thrived. With erosion control, we tried to employ inexpensive strategies using local resources, then observe their impact. If they work, we try them elsewhere, if they don’t we redesign, refine or keep looking.
In the spirit of “integrating, rather than segregating”, our work on the property has been carried by the support of our community of friends, family and neighbours. Through this sharing of knowledge, tools, resources, time and sweat, the property is beginning the next phase of a long history, firmly based in an understanding of the unique limits and potentials of this unique landscape.