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My Visit to PRI Zaytuna Farm

After studying and working with Permaculture in Mexico for the last four years of my life, it was an honour to be able to visit Zaytuna Farm for the first time — the home of the Permaculture Research Institute Zaytuna Farm, Australia. The visit was in the month of August, 2013, which had really nice weather during the day and was quite cool at night. Despite being in the sub-tropics, we even had ice over the tent on two mornings!.

After arriving there I was surprised by the fertility and the abundance of life on the farm, even at that time of year — it is hard to believe that it used to be a worn out old cattle farm, in which excessive grazing and erosion was occurring on a day to day basis. I learnt that the farm was bought by Geoff Lawton in 2001. However, due to a busy consulting period, most of the work only really started in 2006.

Knowing the work Geoff has been doing, I was expecting an impressive water system and Zaytuna farm definitely has one. While on the farm tour with Will Hill, we walked in and along most of the 2.4km of swales and visited the 16 dams, all of which have spillways that allow overflow water to passively run back into the swale system. The combination of swales and plants gives a great abundance of a large variety of species — all working in harmony to provide shelter from the winds, protection from fires, firewood, mulch, fruit, nuts, oils, medicines and water storage.

Food forest systems were developing everywhere, all at different stages, allowing me to observe and understand the development of the natural processes that have animals doing the weeding and fertilizing for us. Cattle would go first, grazing for two weeks, and then the chickens are fenced in the area for another two weeks to finish the weeding and fertilising. Straight after the chickens have been moved, the food forest team comes with all the trees to plant, including support species and productive trees. All the trees we planted had been propagated from the nursery and the main species used for support species is ice cream bean.

The staff at Zaytuna farm are working on a database of plants to give an exact number and description, however, we could see there is a great range of diversity in productive trees. Bananas are planted in circles and in swales, along with taro, sweet potato and more. Black and white sapote, mulberries, feijoas, kumquats, rosemary bushes, mints, ginger, different types of lemon, orange and many others are to be found growing on different parts for the property. The Mediterranean garden was covered in figs, olives and citrus. The urban garden was next to it, with raised beds, more herbs and veggies.

The kitchen garden was amazing, and huge! It has rows of ginger, lemongrass and basil around the edges. It was double dug on contour and the diversity is just amazing — lettuce, cabbage, carrot, chilli, capsicum, snowpea, chive, spring onion, garlic, beetroot, sweet potato, gotu kola, fennel, dill, cucumber, taro, Brazilian spinach, marigold, calendula, mustard, thyme, kohlrabi, turnip (we dug one out that was 1.2kg), swede, radish, horseradish, parsley, celeriac, celery, broccoli, boc choi, tat soi, comfrey, and more.

Different types and sizes of bamboo were growing everywhere — around dams, and in long strips, like those lining the beautiful “Bamboolevard”, which gives access to the main crop area, made with the help of cattle and chickens also. The tractor goes through once at the beginning of the season to form the land for a better growing shape. The plants then go on top of the mound, and compost and mulch are laid on the ditch next to it to encourage the roots to grow downwards. The rows are of varied lengths — some of them over 100m long. Many rows were filled with so many potatoes that they can’t be harvested all at once, since is not possible to eat them fast enough without their getting old. Barley was harvested by hand and processed into soup. Wheat was growing next to rye. Other rows had turmeric, onions, kale, garlic, mesculin, greens, giant yam and zucchinis. The chickens were there also — working to prepare eight more rows at the time. Compost tea and biofertilizers are also commonly used.

Livestock includes six dairy cows — milked at 7am and 3pm — seven beef cows, two horses, three goats, two dogs, around 25 rabbits and 100 chickens. Cattle and horses were moved around 50 cells around the property, divided by an electric corridor that can be activated and deactivated in different areas of the farm.

Communal showers were heated by a rocket stove mass water heating system. It was very effective in providing hot showers for the 19 people who were using it. It’s fired with small bamboo sticks and other leftover wood from the farm. The toilets are compost toilets in which the liquid drains into a living, biological cleaning system that works in two series. The humanure is ultimately composted, before being used in the garden and around trees.

At the time of the visit, David Ferris was the person in charge of the energy systems on the farm, and he ran us through how it works. It’s just as interesting and excellent as the rest of the farm. Since the beginning, it was configured to be a 12kW system, although they are only using 6kW now. Some other characteristics of the system include the 24 (65W) amorphous panels, the 16 (12V) batteries connected in series, an energy switch to increase amps. They also have a backup petrol generator to ensure the batteries do not go under a 45% charge. The meters are read regularly and written into log sheets, so as to always have accurate information on the system.

Dave shared an analogy with water systems — in which the batteries are the thought of as the tanks, the energy would be the water and the pipe is the cables. He also mentioned that a good way to start out is to create a system that will be expandable as the project grows, and that it’s a good idea to start with a 48V system, which uses four panels and four batteries with a 2kW inverter.

The visit to Zaytuna was great, not just in regards to the farm systems themselves. Human systems were awesome too. At the time I was there, there were 11 interns doing the 10-week internship, which is now run three times a year (three PDCs are also taught every year). As well as Geoff, Nadia and Latifa, some of Nadia’s family from Jordan were staying at the farm, sharing their amazing knowledge in cooking and self-sufficiency. The staff that runs the farm include a farm manager, internship manager, WWOOFer manager, a chef and his assistant, one administrative person, and six WWOOFers.

The staff and students there were all amazing people from very different professional backgrounds and from countries including Australia, Jordan, Colombia, Chile, Singapore, Mexico, Holland and the U.S. All of them were very friendly with us and in no time we felt like part of a family. We really would like to thank all of them for their support and friendliness.


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