Lessons from Melliodora
For quite a while I have thought I would like to make a living from farming. After constantly hearing my dreams of farming, my wife Christine who has a real understanding of the hard realities of farming suggested I go to a farm to get real experience (reality) before I jump in to something I know very little about. And she suggested I apply to do an internship with the co-founder of Permaculture, David Holmgren. So I applied at Melliodora, in Hepburn Springs.
When I got accepted to do a three week internship I read a book called Fields of Farmers by Joel Salatin, which is about mentoring and interning. I attempted to heed his advice for the intern: from first accepting everything and forgetting judgment up front to not being a prima donna about the jobs that need to be done. “Chances are there is more to any procedure than you know. Devote yourself to accepting the protocols and techniques of the master you’re with. Every task is a valuable component of the entire process. Jump in, it’s all about immersion” (Salatin).
Salatin states that he has learned something from every farm he has visited. Sometimes it‘s simply a slick new gate latch. He goes on to explain that interns must not be casual observers. “When you’re out working with a mentor get up where you can see. What really is the technique? How does he hold the hoe? Foot placement? Body placement? Eyes in relation to hands? Every single thing, every single thing has a host of nuances”.
I have just completed the internship. Melliodora is a 1 hectare garden farm and sustainable home which is a model of small scale intensive permaculture. David Holmgren and Su Dennett designed and built the sustainable home and farm (with many helping hands) and they maintain mixed food gardens, orchards, dams and livestock (chooks, geese and goats), as well as do ecosynthesis (use of introduced species to fill niches in a disrupted environment, with the aim of increasing the speed of ecological restoration) creek revegetation.
Melliodora, January 2015
David and Su openly shared their knowledge and experiences with me and the other interns. To be able to spend three weeks working at one of the best examples of permaculture under the guidance of such experienced mentors was a real privilege. I learned by observing David and Su and by doing the daily garden farm chores. Perhaps I learned most through osmosis, just being there.
Sue with an Austrolorp Chook
I had many stimulating chats with David and Su. There was much time for dialogue and explanations about why things are done in such ways at the garden farm. On one occasion in the garden I asked David about his method of gardening and he explained the importance of intuition and listening to his emotions. For example on this summer day it was cooler and it had been raining earlier which provided extra moisture in the soil. David described how this ‘autumn-like’ weather made him feel like planting, and so that is what he did today: sowed carrots, daikons and butter lettuce.
David and Karl sowing carrots, daikons and salads
Melliodora has been designed to mimic the patterns and relationships in nature. After 30 years it continues to work productively and sustainably due its systems management. Many applications such as chooks and orchards have been adopted (rather than single use farming) which require interconnected knowledge. Human physical labour rather than complex machines are used to organise and maintain the permaculture garden farm.
Human labour with simple machines is mostly used
The amount of embedded knowledge that David and Su have can be overwhelming at times. To try to cram into three weeks a lifetime’s knowledge and experience couldn’t be done on my notepad which I kept with me at all times. However through the stories I was told and the context of doing , the internship became a means of developing habits –not just procedural how-to’s but the way I think and behave. The effectiveness of the internship was that it put me, the student, next to masters who have earned their status through time and trial.
My confidence gained as David explained some of the mistakes and changes in thinking they had made in their thirty years at Melliodora. And what he has learned from his mistakes and observations. For example David described to me, while we were picking hazelnuts, how he had originally placed too much lime in the soil for hazelnut trees. Also he described how his original thinking at Melliodora had a large focus on fruit trees but now his focus has increased on nut producing trees.
Some highlights of the three weeks included walking around the property in the rain with David observing and maintaining water flows. This was very exciting and educational for me as we walked around in our raincoats seeing water fall from the sky and flow along the contours of the land. David has designed the landscape of Melliodora to catch and store water from a large catchment of 40 hectares. On this day I observed the two dams (0.8 Megalitre and 0.3 Megalitre capacity) fill up with water to capacity – much needed to maintain a healthy intensive vegetable garden and orchard at this time of year.
David in the rain observing a leaky weir in situ
Another highlight was working in the garden with David and two other interns from France , Karl and Aline. Being in the garden for several hours each day allows one to observe and become attuned to changes and progressions in plants and animals.
David sowing potatoes in comfrey
Simple design: the most used garden tools located immediately next to garden bed
The meals together were great. The food was brilliant, healthy and delicious. There is something about eating, preparing and cooking your own food immediately from your garden and animals that cannot be matched.
Working with David and Su, their immediate family and other interns, and interacting with the local community allowed me access to a potential vocation without the full responsibilities of running a business. At Melliodora, I got to test the waters of permaculture garden farming and see if it is something I want to seriously pursue.