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Andy Kenworthy talks to Trish Allen about life on her unique sustainable organic farm, and learns about permaculture, the design science that made it all possible
Austria, 1950. A family of wealthy refugees from the bomb-damaged city reach a simple alpine farmhouse, and are invited in. They lay their valuables on the table—rings, watches, even Persian carpets—and ask for food. The farmer’s boy, amazed, tells his foster father to take the treasure. The man gives the family food, but angrily sweeps the goods to the floor. “Worthless,” he says. You can’t eat that.”
I heard the story in 2007, half a century later, when I visited the ‘boy’, Joe Polaischer, at his home at Rainbow Valley Farm, near Matakana. The man’s tale offered an intriguing glimpse into the permaculture pioneer’s unquenchable passion for self-sufficiency, local resilience and sustainability, and how it had driven him to create what I saw around me. Just a few months later, Joe died as a result of a brain tumour, leaving a huge gap in New Zealand’s green community.
In 1988, when Joe and his Kiwi partner, Trish Allen, set out to build their sustainable lifestyle, their newly purchased 21 hectares was described as “rubbish land”, overrun with gorse on an unforgiving subsoil of heavy clay. Today, after more than two decades of relentless toil, Rainbow Valley Farm is one of the most inspiring examples of sustainable living in the industrialised world.
Trish now runs the farm, with the help of volunteers. She too came from a poor family, and remembers her father growing all the family’s veggies. She has always loved gardening, winning the school prize for the ‘best eight rows of vegetables’ as an eight-year-old, which later sparked an interest in nutrition, then called ‘health food’. When I phone her to arrange an interview, she cuts short our conversation. “Sorry,” she says. “Can you phone me back? I’ve just got to kill a stoat.” Some things about life on a farm don’t change.
Rainbow Valley Farm is secreted from the road down a sloping drive, sheltered by more than 13,000 trees, all planted by Joe and Trish. Joe’s alpine heritage is evident in the design of the wooden cattle stalls you pass as you descend, and in the orderly dome-shaped firewood piles at the bottom of the hill. A stream babbles gently through the lush greenery; trees whisper overhead. It’s difficult to imagine the early years of toil that went into all this. “I am really glad we didn’t know then how much we had to learn,” says Trish.
Everywhere are signs of righteous activity: handcrafted wooden fencing; a simple, small, well-maintained tractor. Then you pass a rice paddy. It’s a reminder that this farm was built on experiments, the things people said you couldn’t do here that Joe gleefully did anyway. People say the devil is in the detail. Here, the opposite is true. You start to notice small, clever things: the design of the irrigation channels cut into the drive; the individual chicken shelters hidden in the undergrowth.
“We are still not totally sustainable, and we don’t claim to be perfect,” says Trish. “Setting out to be an organic farm, an education centre and a model for permaculture was ambitious, but any one of those things is achievable depending on your energy and passion.”
Permaculture is an ethos that can be difficult to pin down: it’s a way of looking at design, rather than a prescribed set of rules or techniques. It was created by Bill Mollison, an Australian-born psychology and environmental science graduate lecturing at Hobart University, and student David Holmgren. Their first book on the subject, Permaculture One, was published in 1978. Joe came across the book in 1985, when he and Trish were living on Waiheke Island. They were instantly impressed by the way it brought together everything they had been thinking about.
“It’s not just about gardening. It’s a way of living your life sustainably,” says Trish. “To me, permaculture is really about changing our thinking, from consumers to conservers, to living happily with less. It is less about the individual things, the compost, the wind turbine or whatever, and more about the way they can be integrated, the connections between them.”
The main farmyard is dominated by a robust two-storey wooden building and a healthy looking flock of guinea fowl, chickens and ducks. The building was Joe and Trish’s first home here and now provides accommodation for volunteers, and space for a workshop and an educational area where they run courses for the Permaculture Design Certificate.
The birds are the farm’s pest control system: the guinea fowl are fast enough to catch jumping bronze beetles, the ducks deal with the slugs and snails and the chickens eat all sorts. The birds provide fertiliser, free-range eggs and the occasional bit of meat for the table. Most of the time they simply enjoy themselves, following Trish around at feeding time like a picture from a children’s storybook. (The unfortunate stoat had been making a meal of the chicks and ducklings—until the cat got hold of it.)
It’s a short walk uphill to the main house. Nestled against the hillside, it is insulated with a green roof, complete with dangling grapevines. Inside, the natural curve of a sawn tree limb forms an archway. A floor mosaic flows from room to room. A secluded reading room is lit by sun shining through glass bottles built into its wall. The main room features another mosaic, reminiscent of a stained-glass window, which doubles as a radiator when the tiles are warmed by a super-efficient wood burner nearby.
Outside is the vegetable patch: inches of rich dark humus built up through years of mulching. In any season a fresh meal can be picked there in minutes, often complete with plentiful fruit for dessert. Standing outside, beside a table laden with a feast of gorgeous, colourful abundance and with the evening sun gilding the orchard and grapevines, I think that this could be what heaven is like.
Could I ever create something like this? Trish recommends starting small and steering clear of debt, which sounds doable. She has seen too many people take on too much, become disheartened, and abandon it all. With Rainbow Valley Farm as your inspiration, it’s easy to see how you could get carried away.
As for Trish, she’s already working on her next challenge. “I have been doing a lot of thinking about succession,” she says. “We have some wonderful younger people working here, and I will inevitably need to step back at some point. There is a season for everything.”
See www.rainbowvalleyfarm.co.nz for more information on their farm tours, workshops and courses
Permaculture for beginners
Ecologist, designer and author David Holmgren has developed 12 core principles to describe the unique permaculture approach
1 Observe and interact
Joe and Trish didn’t turn up with a bulldozer; they moved their lives here, and then took time to understand the landscape’s hidden potential. Permaculturists don’t do things to a landscape or group of people, they do things with them.
2 Catch and store energy
Limitless energy flows over land in the form of sunshine, water, air, plant and animal life. Permaculture seeks to channel some of this energy without disrupting its natural flow. For instance, Joe and Trish’s home has high northfacing windows that catch the sun’s warmth on a terracotta floor.
3 Obtain a yield
Look for hidden crops and outputs. When possums are trapped on the farm, they are used as eel bait, then the eels are smoked for dinner.
4 Apply selfregulation and accept feedback
Check if you really need to own or do something. Listen to others and be acutely sensitive to the effects of your actions. Even as Joe and Trish’s reputation as experts grew, they remained open to learning.
5 Use small and slow solutions
Permaculture respects nature, rather than seeking to dominate. The idea is to use what’s already there, and introduce small, slow changes to create what you need. It has taken 21 years for Rainbow Valley Farm to progress this far, and nobody thinks the work will ever be complete.
6 Aim to integrate rather than segregate
The temptation to artificially separate plants into monocultures is resisted, which is why Rainbow Valley’s orchard is often described as a ‘food forest’. It has no formal lines of fruit trees and an amazing variety of plants.
7 Produce no waste
In permaculture there is no such thing as waste, just renewable resources ready to be reused. For instance, Rainbow Valley Farm has two beautifully made composting loos, and its Matakana market stall serves crêpes on calla lily leaves and provides moist flannels instead of napkins.
8 Use and value renewable resources and services
The ultimate aim of permaculture is to use only renewable resources. That’s why most of the machines on the farm are people-powered, and why this year Trish learned how to use a scythe.
9 Design from patterns to details
Joe and Trish didn’t say, “We need an irrigation system”. Instead, they looked at the way water naturally flowed through the site and used gravity and a system of dams and ponds to take water where it was needed.
10 Use and value diversity
To the uninitiated, the farm may look almost chaotic. This is one of its greatest strengths. For example, if a pest attacks your neat rows of plants it will infest all of them, but if those plants are scattered among others, only some will be affected.
11 Use edges and value the marginal
Biodiversity is often concentrated in the zone where different environments meet: on a beach, for example, or at the edge of a forest. Permaculturists seek to increase these areas, stimulating biodiversity where ‘conventional’ farming strives to artificially enforce regimented separation.
12 Creatively use and respond to change
The long-term success of a permaculture project depends on the ability of those driving it to remain flexible and open to change. With the loss of Joe, this has been Trish’s greatest challenge, and one she still faces every day.
To learn more about permaculture, go to www.permaculture.org.nz