It was my birthday and my family had spent the better part of the day shopping for ingredients for my birthday dinner before I realized I had an evening meeting to attend. With regret I was missing my own celebration, I boarded the CityRail anyway, for the monthly Permaculture Sydney North meeting. My family cooked and ate without me, later reporting it was delicious.
Arriving after dark, I was pleased to discover the meeting was only one block from the train station, and as soon as I approached the building, I knew I was in for a treat. With seating for about 100, people were just beginning to arrive. Patricia Meagher was the first person I happened to speak with, and I quickly learned she is a horticultural researcher for the Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney.
“Sydney is the site of the first Australian settlers. Farm Cove (an inlet in the Sydney Harbor on which the Botanic Garden sits) has been a farm garden over the years through history. It’s a very important part of our education program. There’s also an indigenous garden that is used for school education programs. Not permaculture per se, but they do do sustainable gardening. Really, you can’t garden without sustainability. It’s ridiculous if you’re not sustainable. The botanic garden’s role is to develop information then share that with the public.”
Patricia also told me that the Sydney Botanic Garden is the oldest scientific institution in Australia, and will be celebrating its 200’th birthday in 2016.
As for the organization, Permaculture Sydney North has about 500 members, with 8 teams: communications, advocacy, gardening (which tends to be the most active group), seed savers, living skills, shows/booths, and education. Everyone who is a member of Permaculture Sydney North is also a member of a smaller, more local group within their individual communities and neighborhoods. However the energy of this large, well-organized group of impassioned permaculturalists allows for a lot of action and staves off burnout. There are many opportunities to get involved in virtually any project, with lots of company and support. This organization seems to lift up its members, and participation seems to be a real privilege rather than a chore.
Each meeting consists of several pre-meeting activities, including plant exchange, “junk” exchange, bookstore, seedbank exchange, and t-shirt sales (and I’m probably missing something). President Andrea Pape welcomed attendees and introduced our guest speaker of the evening, David Loneragan, who gave a talk entitled “Leading Permaculture Food Growing and Production Techniques.” David, growing food on acreage in the Kangaroo Valley since 2004 and doing so quite successfully, gave an honest critique of perhaps one of the biggest limitations of permaculture.
“Permaculture lacks the dimension of the intention of producing food.” With this he quoted David Holmgren’s permaculture principle, ‘Produce a Yield,’ and continued: “A little bit here and a little bit there is simply not going to satisfy me, nor is it going to answer the question of how we will feed people. We have to produce stuff, otherwise, we’re just fooling around.”
This criticism was of particular interest as it echoes criticism I have encountered back home, both from the Cornell University, and our county Cornell Cooperative Extension.
David is conducting an experiment of sorts to find out what it takes to grow enough to feed four families of four. He reckons he’s doing pretty well toward his goal, though the other three families have not yet been identified. At the moment he trades surplus with neighbors. In front of about 100 permaculturalists, David bravely admits, “I like row cultivation for certain crops. If you want to produce stuff, you need some row cultivation, especially for alliums, etc. It would just take too much time mucking about if you didn’t do some things in rows. I also believe in growing annual vegetables.”
Much of David’s talk focused on specific strategies for increasing production, such as using fishing net to exclude butterfly moths and pesky cockatoos, and nesting flexible tubing to construct more durable hoop houses. David has received his Permaculture Design Certificate and has run several permaculture courses on his property, and is not afraid to point out that if we are going to employ permaculture as a sustainable solution, it needs to do more than make us feel good. It needs to produce!