Ingrid Weihmann is a nutritionist and co-owner, with Cliff Jefferson, of Only Natural, Timaru's organic shop
I have just got back home from a two-week Permaculture Design Course on the East Cape of New Zealand, and it has given me a very clear vision of the way forward to create healthy and sustainable
communities. The experience was even more profound for being held on a marae. I think many of the participants in the course were left with a strong impression that we have much to learn from traditional Maori culture in terms of what is real wealth and the importance of community. Ironically, the local newspaper ran a front page feature describing the people on the East Cape as ‘have-nots’. Personally, I would consider access to abundant, varied, clean and fresh food sources - and the old knowledge of how to harvest and use it – plus close family ties as pretty good indicators of prosperity.
Designed to maximise productivity
Permaculture is essentially a system of design for housing and land aimed at maximising productivity. This is achieved by utilising sound science and by working with nature as much as possible rather than spending a lot of time and money trying to whip it into some unnatural shape. Permaculture systems are designed to have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. Thus they are truly sustainable, through generations of human custodians.
Permaculture is based on three ethics:
• Care for the earth, including all living and non-living things – land, water, air, animals etc
• Care of people, to promote self-reliance and community responsibility
• To pass on anything surplus to our needs, eg labour, information, money, to promote the first two ethics.
Beauty and grace in permaculture
It was no surprise that my fellow students were all thinkers, compassionate, spiritually conscious. There is a beauty and grace in permaculture design that feeds the soul. It is all about making connections between the elements in the system. When I read Michael Pollan’s ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’, I was profoundly inspired by Joel Salatin’s systems at Polyface Farm, which are a good example of permaculture. His pasture is managed so that his cattle graze at exactly the right time for maximum nutrition and maximum potential regrowth of the grass when the cattle are moved to the next paddock. Then a couple of days later, when any parasite eggs in the cowpats have hatched, a mobile chicken run is brought in and the chooks eat the larvae, spread the cow manure and add their own, while eating the grass to produce high-nutrient eggs. The productivity of Salatin’s farm is astounding and diverse – a far cry from the sterile, chemical-reliant monoculture that is the norm.
Small well-designed farms
I believe that well-designed smallish mixed farms would give New Zealand stability in food production in a post-peak oil era. Furthermore, the nutrient quality of the food would be excellent – pasture-fed, healthy animals, and plants from soils enriched by animal manure, not made lifeless by application of chemicals. Water resources on the farm could be cleverly managed on the property by means of dams and/or contour ditches called swales. Instead of seeing trees as a waste of productive land, the smart farmer would appreciate their value as an integral part of the system in terms of animal shelter and forage, food for humans, windbreak, enrichment of the soil, and carbon sequestration.
High quality nutrient-dense food
As a nutritionist, I am excited about the potential for such farms to produce really high quality nutrient-dense food. I like to think of such food as beyond organic, because it comes from a diverse and complex system that truly promotes the proliferation of soil life. Sadly some organic food is produced in a monoculture where chemical inputs are simply replaced with an allowable organic alternative. If, as seems likely, food nutrient content is relative to the health of the soils that sustained it, organics needs to step up a gear. There is a growing body of science that points the way to revitalised soils, eg using compost tea or effective micro-organisms.
Simple and wholesome
My permaculture course was catered by accomplished cooks, preparing simple and wholesome dishes from mostly local, organic ingredients such as seafood, fish, mutton, pork, and grains and veges from the garden. No packets mixes, white flour or sugar. It was a perfect fit with the whole philosophy of permaculture – sustenance from our own bioregion and no waste. The bones from the roast simmered to make tasty and nutritious soup the next day, and food scraps were given to the chooks, pigs or compost. There is real hope for a healthy and fulfilling future if more of us start embracing these principles. If you would like to know more about permaculture, the Permaculture Institue of New Zealsnd have a helpful website at www.permaculture.org.nz or check out the Permaculture Research Institue of Australia at www.permaculture.org.au.