Sunday, January 13, 2008


Dear Family and Friends,

In this blog, I'll try to convey something about the systems of agriculture to be used in Atamai, the village project we're working on. The aim is to achieve a high degree of food self-sufficiency (but not complete self-reliance), to do this with minimal fossil fuel input and efficient use of human labour among other energy inputs. The potential of growing plants for other uses is also of interest - fibre, fuel, medicinal purposes, for example. The images above represent a New Zealand Permaculture garden (not ours) and a Permaculture map or land plan, which looks rather like the maps that appear at the meetings we have on this issue.

Permaculture is one of the forms of food-growing that will characterize this project. It is particularly relevant to the use of somewhat degraded land for production, or for steep or marginally fertile land. The best land in the village area will likely be cultivated by French Intensive gardening methods, which has in common with Permaculture very close attention to the health of the soil, and differs in that plants are grown in beds, and these plants are mainly annuals.

Permaculture is a contraction of 'permanent agriculture' and focusses on the development of a complex, very diverse, designed system of mainly perennial food plants. It originated in Australia in the 1970s with founding thinkers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. They describe Permaculture as 'an integrated and evolving system of perennial or self-peretuating plant and animal species useful to man....a philosophy of working with rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour, and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating an area as a single product system. '
Permaculture has since been adopted in many places across the globe, with research being done on most continents. Australian Permaculture experts helped Cuba reorganize its agriculture during the 'special period' after Cuba lost its source of oil when the Soviet Union dissolved. It makes the assumption that food security requires sustainable agriculture, and that the high degree of dependence of industrial agriculture on oil to restore nutrients to dead soil, to provide herbicides and pesticides to pest-attracting monocultures and to fuel soil-compacting farm implements, is not sustainable. In addition, the destruction of diversity of strains of plants useful to humankind, such as has occurred in rice in industrial monocultures, threatens the resilience of food-growing systems to challenges such as climate change.

In Permaculture there is minimum tillage, fertilization and weeding and no use of chemicals for insects and other pests. Its proponents claim that the amount of food (of many varieties) produced per hectare is greater than in industrial monoculture. There is a role for animals in a Permaculture system; however a diet based on Permaculture would likely derive most nutrients from plants, and include fewer grains than a current western diet.

A Permaculture garden has plantings in 'zones', starting at the kitchen door, based on the frequency of need for humans to visit that part of the garden or of elements of the garden to require human attention. Culinary herbs, salad greens and citrus trees should be reachable without getting your slippers wet. The chickens should be not too far off; vegetable gardens and orchards are next in priority. Grains and forest are further off. Outside that, ideally, is wilderness.

Fruit and nut trees are of major importance in the system. The first element in the design of Atamai, after terracing of the steepest hillsides, was the planting of 7000 fruit, nut and forest trees of considerable diversity. There has been much attention to agricultural water, with a visit from an Australian expert in 'keylining', a system of making the most of scarce agricultural water. We may require energy input (oil-based) to dig ponds and contour some parts of the land. Soil has been tested. 'Terra preta' (an Amazonian agricultural method of returning carbon to the soil) has been prepared. Tools have been purchased. There is a small team of young people working on a variety of tasks, such as caring for the tree plantings. Road layout for agricultural purposes has been planned. In a few weeks, an exerienced land manager will begin work to implement an overall plan of work. A yield is expected next season.
Finally, it is important to remind ourselves that about a third of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change are the result of current agricultural methods, with tillage being part of the problem picture. It is a matter of urgency to change these methods globally in the direction being developed in Atamai and other such experiments. These will reverse carbon emission from soil to carbon sequestration in soil.
Notes on ourselves: Some of you kind enough to take an interest in these issues have said you'd welcome a few notes at a more personal level, to tell you how we ourselves are getting on. Glad to oblige!
We're both very well. Jack is slender and fit and succeeds most days in prodding me to walk or cycle.
For a few weeks we have actually been living on the land, in a pre-existing house which we share with a young family. The property is called Te Mara, Maori for garden, orchard, cultivation, as it is destined to be all of these. Living here is very pleasant. The little kids of 5 and 3 are delightful, and help to soothe our deprivation of grandchildren (of the same ages, as it happens.) They bring me loquats and strawberries they find growing here, and decorate my computer keyboard with nasturtiums and bracken. Who could fail to be inspired when working at a flower-bedecked keyboard! It does have an effect on work output though. Yesterday I sat on the floor (we have very little furniture) to read about Permaculture; within a minute I had small people sitting either side of me, and we were reading 'Froggy Went A'Courtin'' instead.
We have hens, a rooster, a duck and a bantam, all of whom came with the property. The lay astonishingly large brown eggs which we greatly enjoy. The children and their Mum walk down the road to feed them and put them in their coop every evening.
Cycling to get groceries certainly satisfies requirements of a daily work-out. The families share a car and other resources. Jack and I are waiting for our ship to come in, bringing our household stuff. We will then move to another pre-existing house on the land. I'll be sorry to move away from this family; we will get more work done, though, and it's only an 8 minute walk (at a 45 degree angle, no kidding) up or down the ridge to visit.
Jack spends most of his time on this project. The other thing he's doing is to work on a discussion paper on population issues for a meeting of the International Forum on Globalization in February in San Francisco. I've helped with this in a minor way. I've continued with some of my work by e-mail, relating to students in Canada and elsewhere, helping a bit with the Afghanistan work. I'm also trying to catch up on some broad learning in relation to the project. It's very stimulating to sit in on meetings dealing with such things as Water (last Saturday's topic) and listen to a pretty high degree of expertise on the subject. Last week I attended a 3-day workshop on 'Practising Democracy'. which seemed relevant both to this stage of many work-meetings, and to the subsequent social organization of the village. It was entirely experiential, a novel educational experience for me; I learned useful things about consensus -seeking and relating to authority. It was held at a nearby community, Riverside, established over 60 years ago by Christian pacifists. The community is no longer Christian, but continues as a very interesting group of people.
I visited my Australian family over Christmas, and was able to spend a good deal of time with my mother and my siblings and their families, watching in my last few hours there, the magnificent Sydney Harbour fireworks display to welcome the New Year.
I recently read former NZ prime minister David Lange's account of how New Zealand adopted its nuclear-free policy, and will try to write a review on this soon. I think there's a useful analogy to explore in NZ's relationship to the ANZUS treaty and Canada's to NATO.
I send my heartfelt love to the many dear people who read this blog.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren (1978) Permaculture One - a Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. Tagari Publications.

Bill Mollison (1979) Permaculture Two - Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture. Tagari Publications.

David Holmgren (2002 )Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability.