Food Forest

When people first encounter the idea of a "permaculture" they often ask, not unreasonably, where can I see it. At least in southern Australia, it isn't always easy to point them to a property where they can see the ideas laid out in practical form. Permaculture is a recent design concept, it takes a while to make it a reality and the idea is so all encompassing that few properties can do more than display the skeleton of a system or a "work in progress". One place where visitors can see a very integrated, practical, commercially successful example of permaculture design applied to a small farm is the Food Forest, at Gawler, forty five minutes drive north of Adelaide.

The Food Forest is a creation of Graham and Annemarie Brookman.

Graham qualified in Agriculture form Roseworthy Agriculture College and now works for the University of Adelaide. Annemarie also works now and again in teaching roles for TAFE. While the property is now returning an income from the garden and orchard, both Graham and Annemarie are realistic about the importance of the "off farm" income. Especially during the establishment phase, a reliable source of funds to pay for irrigation, fencing, orchard stock and the land itself was essential. Working a job and bringing a property up to profitable commercial production at the same time isn't easy; there is always a conflict between time and money. The approaches which the Brookman's have brought to bear on their land and their lives in order to achieve this are an excellent example. No wonder that well over a thousand people visit this property every year to witness permaculture at close hand and to taste the fruits of their labour.

The 15 Ha property was acquired in two stages. The first planting was made in 1983 and a second block was purchased 11 years ago.

Geese are integrated into the orchard
Geese are integrated into the orchard

The Food Forest is located on the Gawler River, and has a deep silty soil, which had only 0.7% organic matter. Soils are mainly tilled with an Agroplow on the bigger areas and by a "chicken tractor" system in the gardens. A mixture of permanent perimeter fences and mobile internal fences made with droppers and netting or three runs of electric tape gives good control of livestock. Organic manures and the use of legumes and green manuring have increased the organic carbon to 2.1% (and still rising). Wheat straw mulch is used on the gardens in the summer.

Compost is made with deep litter from local layer sheds, watered and turned with the bucket on the tractor. It is spread by a local contractor onto the grain paddocks, which in turn supply feed to the chooks on the Food Forest. In the orchard the compost is placed right under the drippers so that the water drips through the compost to feed the trees.

Wood ash and zinc are used, especially to supply the requirements of nut crops such as pecan, walnut and pistachio. Graham told Acres �the NASAA organic standards, by which we farm, allow us to use micro-nutrients to correct known deficiencies, such as the zinc which is critical for the health of our nut crops�.

In the market garden, which has been certified by NASAA since 1985, the mulching and chicken tractoring has produced soil into which planting can often take place by lightly hoeing down a row. A good mulching mower is considered a very important tool by the Brookmans' and crops are grown for weed suppression, green manure and harvest, either between the tree lines, in the open paddocks or in rotation between crops in the vegetable garden.

Chickens and geese are an important aspect of weed management and fertility. Much of the property is protected by a cat and fox proof fence which permits integration with poultry and grazing with native animals. Alpacas have also been used on agistment, but hard hoofed animals have no place on the fragile soil of the Food Forest due to the compaction which inevitably results from sheep and cattle.

The Brookmans find that alpacas, which come from a friends property in the Barossa Valley, are very effective against wireweed. Wallabies will graze black nightshade, marshmallows and thistle and bettongs provide some control for soursobs. The bettongs do not eat the growing plant but will dig for the soursob bulb. Geese are used for grassy weeds and have virtually eliminated Couch, which was once a concern.

The property is an important permaculture education establishment and the Food Forest courses, field days and tours are popular. The first invitation for people to visit the property was made in 1987. So many people were ringing and asking questions that responding to the calls was interfering with the work program, so it was decided to offer courses and field days.

Autumn and Spring "field walks" are now a regular calendar feature for The Food Forest. Graham told Acres that the property does not look at its best in autumn, there is plenty of food to show and taste.

Pistachio orchard during winter
Pistachio orchard during winter

The Brookmans tend to "hibernate" in winter, to get a break from intense timetables, and the soils are too wet for much foot traffic anyway.

There are at least 160 fruit and nut varieties over 150 native plant species on the property and they have recorded 84 bird species.

Warragul spinach has been grown for sale for some time but a range of other "experimental" bushfoods planting's can be found on the property. Graham reported that scrub cherry is doing very well in its third year and quandang, appleberries and a range of indigenous (locally occurring) acacias are also showing promise. Graham and local Bushfoods expert Glenn Christie are trying to work out the ideal host plants for quandang (which is unable to feed for itself in normal field conditions and depends upon a host plant to source some nutrients) including useful timber species such as Callitris culumellaris, which has a white ant resistant wood.

The main vegetable crops are lettuce, capsicum, leek, brassicas, sweetcorn, curcubits, silverbeet, rhubarb, herbs and a small patch of the Warragul spinach. Only fancy lettuce are grown (ie no iceberg) so the crops are in the ground for as little as eight weeks. A rotation is used to ensure that each area has a regular spell from lettuce. Growing lettuce at the right time of the year use of good home made compost helps to prevent disease and ensures quality.

About 80 varieties of apples produce fruit from December (Vistabella) through to August (Lady William). With so many varieties, obviously some obscure and are not great eating, but Graham estimates a dozen or so are excellent. The Food Forest also grows about 30 varieties of pears.

Produce is marketed to local families and restaurants and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (an organic store in Adelaide) and other organic stores.

A local upmarket restaurant called the Wheatsheaf Inn vies with the Brookman farmhouse as the oldest building in the district (Annemarie says her place is older, at 150 years). The chef, David Woodard makes a renowned bushfood foccacia which Annemarie says is "fabulous". Both Graham and Annemarie love being part of the bush fabric and history of the area and strive to encourage a sense of history and community. They said that they feel they are "part of the landscape" by virtue of the old farmhouse and buildings, the development of a natural "organic" food forest, their experimentation with bushfoods and revegetation of parts of the property. The omnipresence of the Gawler River which spills onto the flood flat just metres from the house in wet years, the shrieking of cockatoos as they move along the bush corridor protected by the river and the massive Red Gums provide a backdrop for everything done on the farm.

Graham and Annemarie were keen to tell us that they have never been preoccupied with "just product for profit". They are excited by the networks and connections which they are able to build and encourage based on healthy food and sustainability.

For instance the chef at the local restaurant "Poppoms" appreciates the freshness of the locally grown produce changes the menu seasonally to account for what is available. Annemarie recently picked some produce in the early morning, as is her custom, and delivered it to the restaurant within a couple of hours. A little later she was back to enjoy a meal with a friend, and was pleased to see her own laksa herb adorning the main dish and fresh fennel on the butter. They may be "weed" to some but others appreciate the freshness, flavour and seasonal variety and strive for ways to incorporate them into the meal. She has been overjoyed that one of the retail outlets is keen to take the more of the obscure but tasty varieties, even if they are not commercially known.

Graham was thoroughly irked when some beautiful Italia grapes would not sell because they have pips. Unable to waste them, he is fermenting a fine wine in the warm room over the compost toilet (an air-lock ensures that it is sanitary!).

Excess produce is dried with a Harvest Maid dryer in the laundry and is very popular with friends, people who attend the courses and the local basket customers, who come once per week on a set day to collect their order. Annemarie cannot produce enough to satisfy the demand.

Pistachios, being the main crop, are the only produce not totally sold within the bioregion. From 1.5 tonne only about 60 kg are sold in Adelaide stores, the rest being sold at the courses or through an organic wholesaler in Victoria. The pistachio crop has grown to the stage where it is also now dried off-farm. About 4.5 tonne of fresh pistachio reduces to 30% weight after and drying and grading. The cost of grading is almost covered by sale of the non-splitting nuts, which are retained by the grinding contractor and cracked for confectionary use.

Graham is enthusiastic about everything he grows and does but clearly reserves his main passion for the carob project. He says that South Australian grower Andrew Gebhardt brought a large number of promising carob varieties to the state the "World Carob Collection" in California, which has now been bulldozed.

Graham is pursuing the best human consumption carobs from these selections and is concentrating on the fresh bean. He is searching for the best low tannin, high sugar varieties which he says "can be eaten like a mars bar" or processed into powder or syrup which is delicious.

Most other growers are looking for the seed market and the imported powders are variable in quality. Graham says that there is a problem with imported powder because the tannin content is variable, making it difficult to create a consistent end product. Graham dreams of coming up with a high quality organic carob product and is seeking to stabilise cultivars for high quality. He says the seed market, which the Europeans are concentrating on, has lost the plot. He says it is mainly a "dog food" market.

"We want to produce a pod filled with sugary syrup, which will be a good, drought resistant prospect ideal for southern Australian conditions."

"We have to get the pollination right, especially the ratio of males and hermaphrodites to females."

Graham and Annemarie both believe that carob should not be marketed as a chocolate substitute. Annemarie grew up three kilometres from the Belgian border, and therefore appreciates good chocolate, but she says "they are different products and they are both good".

"If people come to carob expecting a chocolate experience, of course they will be disappointed. Each has its own characteristics."

"One of the advantages of carob is that it can be picked from the tree and eaten straight away and it does not melt even when you leave it in the car."

Graham is also keen to tell visitors about his research into differential grazing, using a variety of poultry, native and soft-footed animals. He is relieved to have ceased using herbicide and hoes and to have reduced mowing to a minimum. When I first met Graham he was obviously concerned about converting a 15 hectare property from a minimal herbicide management schedule. While he was happily experimenting with low-volume application using �herbi� apparatus, he could not see how the large area of young trees could be managed without Roundup. Now he speaks enthusiastically the grazing geese, bettongs and other animals. He says "the lynch pin to the change has been the fox proof fence and the grazing animals. Admittedly we have more marshmallow and black nightshade than we would really like, but we recognise it as part of the biodiversity of the property and it is generally still under control, both weeds have fantastic root systems which aerate soil acquire nutrients from down deep and the chooks appreciate nightshade fruit".

Graham continues "probably the most radical thing we have done is to include native animals in a farm ecosystem. The other thing that surprises people is that I actually encourage sour sob to grow up the tree rows".

Carobs, walnuts, chestnuts and pistachios
Carobs, walnuts, chestnuts and pistachios

"It is generally recognised, especially in Europe, that deciduous trees and bulbs are useful plant guild with a natural relationship. But we have been slow to exploit it in Australia."

"Sour sob grows rapidly in autumn and winter blocking out many nasty perennial weeds. It dies off in summer to form a thin mulch, ensuring that irrigation reaches the target trees and is not wasted. It will grow vigorously in a 450 mm rainfall area, about half the requirement of jonquil and daffodils."

"Sour sobs fit together with the Brush Tailed Bettongs, which love to eat the sour sob bulbs. The Bettongs in turn are a great aid to revegetation."

"They harvest many types of seed and carry it away to food stashes, just like squirrels."

"Inevitably they forget where some food stores are so we have groves of acacias, jojobas and other plants germinating all over the place."

From one male and three females introduced four years ago, there are now at least 30 individuals in small territorial colonies.

The Food Forest is a very well managed, diverse, integrated property, with a well developed farm plan, it serves as a prime example of a dryland permaculture development which is also certified organic and which contributes significantly to training and education of a new generation of eco-farmers.

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