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Tom (a lifelong agriculturalist, farmer and now a Permaculture Teacher) and Zaia (musician, administrator and cook) have for the past seven years, been working towards self-reliance and sustainability on their acreage property in Kin Kin.
Using Permaculture principles, they are making the most of working with nature and free resources available; making their own supplies; and learning along the way how to be more self-reliant. Tom and Zaia are integrating animal systems to build their soil health, provide food for their family, and get work done around their property to save them time and energy. On the way, they are teaching others on site how it’s done.
Their story is about enjoying the journey on the way to the destination. We share their achievements so far – the finished and unfinished projects - and where they go from here …
Our goal is self reliance - not self sufficiency! Self sufficiency is a state very hard to obtain in this modern world. You would have to live in a substantial community to be fully self sufficient, and not have to rely on fossil fuels or any shop whatsoever (just consider underwear!). At this stage, we do not feel we are ready to attain that status, but we are trying to minimise our need for outside input as much as possible by doing as much as we can for ourselves.
When we first moved onto our property in 2005, it was neglected and overgrown with lantana. Despite the challenges that lay ahead, Tom said he wanted to “live the journey” and do everything on the property himself. We knew this process would take longer, but it meant not having to take out a mortgage and working full time to pay it off. It also meant getting as much material second hand as possible, by being in the right place at the right time. Tom had become interested in Permaculture and wanted to start converting the property into a Permaculture site.
Whilst the property is 34 acres, we use and live on a cleared area of around 5 acres including the house, vegetable garden (approximately 30m x 15m), food forest, resource storage area, and paddocks for our animals including their foraging space.
Our Journey Begins ...
Initially one of our first jobs was to start clearing the lantana around the house area. We started digging and to our surprise, discovered a concrete path, steps, an old barbeque, and some long-forgotten overgrown mandarin and orange trees. We pruned them back and tried to restore their health with mulch and the chopped prunings. Keeping the grass away and building up around the trees a fungal-based compost that would actually fedd them, this created an environment in which the trees could thrive.
A soil test through the SWEP lab showed that our soil was mineral deficient, and our solution was to remineralise using the animals.
To replenish the soil, we followed a basic recipe recommended by Pat Coleby in her book Natural Farming and amended it for our needs. We feed our animals mineral supplements and they process these minerals into a bio-available form through their manure. This becomes a slow release nutrient refertilisation system so we don’t have to rely on outside inputs other than the animal mineral feed. The manure is then redistributed around the property to build soil fertility.
Harvesting Natural Resources
Living on the down side of a slope, with a rainforest on a ridge some 70m above, we recognised an opportunity to work with nature and harvest the natural flow of nutrients downhill. The rainfall helps filter down the leaf litter and minerals from the forest floor and rather than wasting this natural resource, we try to slow down and passively collect the nutrients by using swales.
At the top of our property, the dam overflows into a large swale which captures water and helps prevent erosion by slowing it down so nutrients can be reused rather than washing off the property. As we are not on town water, and rely totally on tanks and our dam, good water management principles are critical, especially in dry times. We do have a semi-permanent creek and water hole that can be utilised if need be.
We currently have four swales built on contours running through our veggie garden which help retain moisture for our food crops, and further swales throughout the property. We’ve planted a wide variety of plants both on top of the swales and in between including grasses, trees, legumes and root crops.
Swales are essential to slow down the water flow through the property, so that nutrients stay on the property longer and sink into the soil (where we want them!) Swales hold water and slowly release it to the soil below, ensuring the soil is moist even when dry periods have already set in.
We have two water tanks harvesting rainwater from different roofs, and a third and fourth tank about a 30m vertical rise above the house, some 150m away.
We also pump water from the dam with a solar pump up to the fourth tank. We water our vegetable garden using hoses and sprinklers with gravity fed dam water. Our philosophy on water management is to water small trees until established, then to prune and mulch them, using the prunings as additional woody mulch that feeds the soil. Once established the trees fend for themselves on rainwater.
Being Resource Self-sufficient
We don’t want to rely on buying in outside inputs and are aiming to achieve a ‘closed loop’ system in time. We currently do buy seeds for plants we don’t have yet but save seed from plants we already grow to replant on the property.
We are trying our hand at growing tea (we are BIG tea drinkers, especially green tea).
We make our own potting mix and have bins with a variety of potting mixes (on the ground to the right in the photo below). A fungal based mix is used for trees and shrubs and a bacterial based mix is used for vegetables.
Tom built us a poly tunnel with the help of a wwoofer, which consists of a shade house (for more advanced potted plants) and a hot house (for seedlings).
This is our seedling area inside the hot house which is a warm environment to encourage propagation.
The shade house is the perfect structure for raising plants in our climate.
In terms of mulch, which is another essential ingredient for retaining moisture and feeding our gardens, we grow plants like vetiver and lemon grass to chop and drop. In summer, when grasses grow before our eyes, even the paddocks with cows mowing them can’t keep up so we slash this and use as mulch. We mow around the house and grass clippings are then recycled back into our soil. We are just coming out of the dry, so we do not have much mulch to play with at the moment. Our mulch bins are located in a central position but this section of the garden is being invaded by a very stubborn jap pumpkin vine, but we don't mind much!
Our worm farm resides in a bathtub (the bathtubs we collect have been give aways from farms or bought second hand). The worms inside are fed scraps, manure and garden waste.
We buy some building materials that we can’t reuse or have to buy new but we build our own compost and soil.
Another system we use for making compost is the 18 Day method. See how it's made in this video:
From time to time we’ve had additional help to finish some of our projects from both WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) and travellers through Help Exchange, who voluntarily work and learn from us in exchange for food and accommodation.
This year we held a P.E.T. (Permaculture Energy Transfer) Day, and with help from members of Noosa Permaculture, were able to plant and mulch another 45 fruit trees.
Waste not, Want not!
All our friends know we’ll gladly take their waste materials and reuse it! So we have become a drop off point of sorts for unwanted building materials.
We were lucky enough to have a friend with lots of trees who needed them cleared for a new driveway. In return for Tom helping him clear them, we ended up with the timber for free. We also heard about a sawmill in Gympie that had closed down and with a bit of time and effort, Tom dismantled a building and snared a stack of useable building materials for nothing. As part of another exchange agreement, Tom invested some time and demolished a shed, bringing all the beautiful old timbers home, where they are stored and awaiting use. As the old saying goes: ‘Someone else’s trash might be your treasure.’
We used some of the recycled timber to build our carport, shed extensions for additional storage and, along with river rock harvested from our creek, built an outdoor bathroom (incomplete at this stage).
Our Never-Ending Projects
As you can imagine, we have a number of unfinished projects around the place, but we’re in no rush! One of these is our Food Forest that we’ve been working on for two years. To support the fruit and nut trees (mixed citrus, custard apple, olive, lychee, loquat, blueberry, boysenberry and mulberry), we’ve planted pioneer species and legume plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.
These include Icecream Bean (a tall tree that we prune back), Pigeon Pea, Crotalaria and Popcorn Cassia (medium sized), Pinto Peanut (as ground cover) and Tulsi ‘Holy Basil’ (a perennial woody weed). All these species are chopped and dropped as mulch to provide fungal bacteria that help feed the soil and plants. Tom has also installed water points in the Food Forest area to help establish new plants as needed.
With the Food Forest, we’ve discovered that very little maintenance can provide us with continuous food. We use sweet potato as a ground cover as well as a food source. As the forest grows, legume trees interplanted with the fruit trees help feed them so they produce an abundance of crops.
Our chooks mostly free range but we have some working for us in a chook tractor preparing the next patch for planting by removing weed seeds and fertilising the soil.
New patches are planted out with buckwheat, alfalfa, legumes, ground covers and fruit trees.
The overgrown mandarins and orange trees we started with when we first arrived yielded us several hundred kilos of fruit last winter.
Other projects have included the set up and maintenance of all our animals. We have approximately 50 chickens, four goats, five cows and our most recent addition are the geese.
Our Animal Systems
The chooks range in age from chicks to retirees and are spread over four different areas. They have some great job perks but their roles differ!
In area 2, the Kitchen Garden, Layers live in a large enclosure and they are currently working on the ‘Nutgrass Eradication Program’, helping us remove a difficult problem. Their job perks include food treats in the form of additional weeds thrown to them whilst we are in the garden. They seem happy with this arrangement as part of their workplace agreement!
Area 3 is the main pen that is home to quite a few hard working girls and one very lucky guy. They free range and are primarily egg producers.
In area 4, we have the bantams, mummies and babies, a restricted zone for new recruits, trainees and mothers at large.
The chicks range in age from 2 weeks to 4 months and are separated according to age.
When they are ready to join the workforce, they have a choice of three different career pathways!
Excess eggs are sold locally and we crush the dried eggshells and feed them back to the chooks weekly for calcium. We do buy in some organic grain feed but aim in the future to grow our own. Our chickens will eventually also prepare areas on the property where we will grow their food.
We have five cows including a desexed male we are raising for meat, two jerseys we hope to milk in the future, and a bull calf we hope to mate with the older jersey cows.
Apart from providing meat and milk, their job descriptions also include daily mowing and remineralisation of our soil with their manure. Their workplace is in paddocks during the day (they are rotated regularly) and their holidays are taken at night when they come into the yard to rest.
We have two girl goats, one desexed male, and a male who is coming of age to mate.
Their current job description is to keep the dam wall grass short! They are a mix of different breeds of milking goats although we haven’t started yet. We hope to breed the young male soon so by April we hope to have kids and start milking.
The geese are our newest arrivals and whilst we were hoping to have goslings this year, sadly a goanna stole the eggs out from under the mums. They’re in share accommodation with our chickens and quite happily co-exist in a paddock. They don’t need housing just yet, only water access. Our plans for these latest workers are to provide us with eggs, meat, and manure.
Another addition to our system are our native bees. Tom found a wild native beehive in a log he was cutting. He cut the bit with the hive out, blocked the two ends again and gave the entry a little roof. Then he put it in our Kitchen Garden, so they can roam freely through any flowering plants to help with pollination.
Some of our Challenges
As with any project one embarks on, there are learning curves and challenges almost daily. We’ve had to learn to live with snakes, wild dogs, and foxes, and the sadness of seeing animals we love taken. We’ve lost guinea fowl to wild dogs and chooks to snakes, and their chicks to mice who came up under the bottom of the chook pens. As a result of these learning experiences, we had to cement the base of the pens, fence all areas for our domestic animals, and snake proof our chicken areas.
Regular tenants in the kitchen garden include a red-bellied black snake and brown snakes so we have to be cautious around our compost bays and materials. To keep warm, they love crawling up under the carpet we have on top of the compost.
We had challenges with rearing our chickens for a while when they suddenly stopped laying and became miserable. We realised the need to swap from barley to wheat grain feed in the hot weather because the barley heats them up too much and they go off the lay. Knowing when to swap to summer feed has been part of the learning process.
Another challenge has been learning how to deal with water issues on the property. The best time to learn where the problems are, is the time you least feel like donning a raincoat and umbrella – right in the middle of a downpour! Tom has been out in the rain many times observing where the water is running and eroding to see where we needed to improve our systems to divert, drain or add a swale. Each time we have addressed and corrected a problem, our property has become more efficient. So next time it rains, take a walk and observe.
There’s also been the frustration of so many projects still incomplete but I’ve learned to be patient and enjoy the moment. The journey is more important than the end result and the lessons we have learned so far have been substantial.
One of our successes however, is the abundance we grow in our kitchen garden. Variety is the spice of life and in the garden, plant diversity has helped overcome the insect problems by confusing pests, so our produce stays healthier and less affected.
In 2008 Tom did a Permaculture Design Certificate with Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton and then in early 2010, a Teacher Training Course with Geoff Lawton. At that stage, Tom also discovered he wanted to channel his passion for Permaculture into something constructive, so he began teaching, first wwoofers working on the property, and since mid 2010, full courses. Our property is now a Permaculture Demonstration Site, the ideal environment for Permaculture courses. It is a working property, so there are a lot of examples on site. We aim to keep our courses affordable, so that we can spread Permaculture knowledge to as many people as possible.
Having been on a farm all his life, Tom learned early on how to fix or create things. It is a wonderful skill to have, and he has been able to fix machinery and cars, build structures, create fences, operate heavy machinery, etc. We do not get other people in to fix things for us, Tom is able to do it all. If he doesn't know how, he will find out. This self-reliance has meant we do not spend much money and it is knowledge that he brings to his courses as well.
For the garden, this self-reliance means that we do not buy in any fertiliser, potting mix or mulch. We have instead a worm farm, turn compost into soil and cut our own mulch on the property.
At this stage we are buying some food for our livestock, but are hoping to grow our own in a few years. We minimise products we get from the shop and again are aiming not to have to buy anything in a few years.
This always was a long term project for us. It may take us another seven years or longer to become fully self-reliant and sustainable, but we are enjoying the journey and learning so much. It’s wonderful to be able to show others what they can do and how they can achieve it on their own property, no matter whether it is acreage, a small suburban block, or an apartment.
We have been looking for people who want to be involved on the property long term. People who are keen on Permaculture and sustainability and want to live the lifestyle. Unfortunately it seems that most people are not ready for this, or would prefer to have ownership. Ultimately, it would be fantastic to create a community of different skilled individuals on the property to try and achieve complete self sufficiency. We hope that once the property is more established, we will attract like-minded individuals.
In the meantime, more projects! Tom has recently found that we are not planting enough fruit trees and legumes, and that we should stack them closer together. You live and learn!
A great resource is Geoff Lawton's "Establishing a Food Forest - The Permaculture Way" DVD, which is available through www.permaculture.org.au. Here's an excerpt demonstrating the use of chickens to control pests such as fruit fly in a food forest.
We plan to add more dams for water and aquaculture; grow water chestnuts in bathtubs and ponds; encourage more diversity by introducing ducks and rice; and connect our solar system up so we can be independent and off the grid.
We have a gas stove but are looking at a solar cooking system. Tom also plans to harvest cow manure to generate methane gas in a digester for cooking.
We are hoping to split our native bee hive at some stage and then have multiple hives around the property.
Yes, it is frustrating sometimes to live with numerous projects half finished … but we do not have the financial pressure and we have the journey to look back at once it is finished. After all life is for living, in connection with nature and our environment. We make mistakes and learn. From that we grow and are able to spread our knowledge to others. Every day we become more passionate about sustainable living … and every day we are one step closer. I hope this encourages you on your green journey.
WORDS OF WISDOM:
- Take a deep breath, be patient and be prepared to take your time. As they say: "Rome wasn't built in a day." We have numerous unfinished projects around the place, and it is impossible to put a deadline to them, because life so often interferes. But as we work on these projects, we live the journey, which is more important than the destination.
- If you are the type of person who would like to get things done yesterday (like me), this journey really helps slowing you down. I have had to learn to be patient and to be happy with what we have, which is such a blessing!
- We live a truly wealthy life; we are surrounded by a beautiful environment; are able to grow our own food and have formed loving and respectful relationships with people and animals. These days when people talk of wealth, they think of money, whereas the true definition of wealth is clean air, clean water, clean food and loving relationships. A comfortable shelter of sorts helps as well, but if that is not quite there yet we can still manage if we have the other four.
Want to stay in touch with Tom and Zaia?
Their courses are listed regularly in our "What's On Calendar"; the course schedule for 2012 is available on www.kinkinsouls.com where you can learn more; and their blog shares some of the projects they’ve worked on.
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