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The Permaculture Power Of Big Machines

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Clockwise from top: The new house dam, as it was being constructed. David Holmgren doing a Reading the Landscape presentation at Yandoit Farm. First cut–a paddock becomes a multi-functional road. The design team, LtoR David Holmgren, Lisa Jackson, Dan Palmer (& Ciela), Darren Doherty, Geoffrey (the dog) and Michael Jackson.
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Bulldozers are often seen as symbols of destruction, but when they are in the hands of a permaculture designer they bring about a transformation of rural landscapes beyond anything that can be achieved by hand. Yandoit Farm, between Castlemaine and Daylesford in Central Victoria, is undergoing a five-year wholefarm makeover. In April this year, many litres of diesel were burned in a permaculture festival of earth moving! These once-in-a-lifetime landscape improvements were carried out alongside an earthworks course so that students could get direct experience of the process.

When Michael and Lisa Jackson bought this beautiful 140 acre property along the Jim Crow Creek, they took on a going concern, with tractors, equipment, a shed full of hay … and cows, lots of them. With a great sense of responsibility for their sixtysix newly acquired family members, they dived into everything bovine. Michael said, ‘It wasn’t long before we noticed health issues emerging within the herd. Although minor and considered “normal” by traditional farming folk, we weren’t comfortable with this. A friend introduced us to Pat Colby’s book Natural Farming [Scribe Publications, 2004] which provided many of the answers. The overgrazing had depleted key minerals and compacted the soil drastically, reducing its microbial biodiversity. Sick soil = sick pasture = sick cows, and so the quest began. We are fortunate to have David Holmgren, Dan Palmer and Darren Doherty in the area and, as well as drawing on their advice, we have completed our PDCs and are fully focused on the regeneration of Yandoit Farm.’

Water For Every Farm

Australian farmer and inventor, Percival (‘PA’) Yeomans, was an early activist in water sovereignty, as well as the designer of the Yeomans Plough. For reasons of cost, reliability, philosophy and water quality, many landowners want to be independent of mains water supply systems. Yeomans saw that a combination of big machines, which were becoming available from the 1950s, and good reading of landscape, gave farmers and smallholders opportunities to hold more water – in the soil and in dams – and by getting roads and dams in the right places it became clear where to plant windbreaks, orchards, build a house and grow crops.

At Yandoit, a 21st century version of keyline design helped Michael and Lisa work with nature rather than against, to bring permaculture to their property. This autumn, after months of planning by ‘Regrarian’, Darren Doherty and Dan Palmer of Very Edible Gardens, two kilometres of roadways, two beautiful large working dams, and one small dam and wetland were created.

This was a huge undertaking, drawing on the resources of the whole community. Lisa and Michael were pleased as punch with their new farm layout, and incredibly thankful that it was done so well. On the question of fossil fuels Michael said, ‘If more oil had been used to heal and regenerate our environment, things would be a whole lot better – it was strangely empowering to burn some diesel for good’.

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New Entrance, New Road

The slopes of the farm are treated with keyline ploughing using a Yeomans Plough which lifts and aerates the soil but doesn’t turn it over. This action improves the soil, catches more water and improves pasture. With less compaction the water soaks into the soil more quickly instead of running off to the dams; now it’s the roadways themselves that become the major catchment for the dam.

To get this water into the dam, the gutter along the side of the road must fall at a steady rate – usually a one metre fall for every 300 metres travelled, but even 1:500 is possible. These falls are so gentle that you hardly notice, and it means that water travels at a walking pace, so it’s not destructive and eroding. It also means that the road snakes across the landscape, in contrast to most roads and farm tracks.

To achieve a slight but consistent slope needs careful surveying – if markers are inserted about every twenty metres a skilled grader driver, with laser level attached to the machine, cuts the track, first putting aside the topsoil for later use. Local earthmoving contractor Graeme Jennings was the man for this job – using his huge grader blade with the accuracy that most of us could only get with a hand trowel.

Looking To The Future

Planning for trees and their propagation are the next priorities; thousands of trees are to be planted over the next few years. Michael and the Yandoit Farm crew will progressively fence new paddocks along each side of the new roads, working with contours and the landscape. In the new paddocks, holistic planned grazing systems will be implemented in each paddock using temporary electric fencing and portable stock watering systems.

Some more fertile land will be kept as arable land for food production. Revegetation zones and wildlife corridors will be created across the farm, and paddocks designated for livestock management will be converted progressively to reflect a savannah-style treed landscape, with individual trees and small copses of oak, carob and mulberries planted along contours.

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Keyline ploughing using a Yeomans plough
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The new dam filled with water.

The Best Of The Old And Best Of The New = Resilience

Yandoit Farm is on its way to achieving the vision of increased food sovereignty, water for all seasons, increased independence from nonrenewable energies and being part of a strong supportive community. Michael and Lisa have made strong links with the more traditional neighbours.

Former owner of Yandoit Farm Maurice Holden said, ‘It’s certainly different, I suppose time will tell if its a good thing’. Neighbour Robert Morrison said, ‘Being a fifth generation farmer neighbouring the Jackson’s property, it is pleasing to see Michael and Lisa breathing new life into this rundown land, and treating it with the respect it deserves. With ownership of any agricultural land comes the responsibility of honest and genuine custodianship, for our very existence depends upon it. While the full restoration of this property may not happen overnight, I am sure the enthusiasm shown so far will go a long way to realising the Jackson’s goals, and we wish them well with their future life on the land.’

Percival Alfred Yeomans (1904– 1984) was an Australian inventor known for the keyline system for the development of land and increasing the fertility of that land. As a mining engineer and gold assayer, Yeomans had developed a keen sense of hydrology and equipment design. Yeomans assumed management of a large tract of land he later named Nevallan in New South Wales. Here he developed improved methods and equipment for cultivation. His designs won him The Prince Philip Design Award in 1974. [Wikipedia]

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