Permaculture is continually expanding. It is building skills, experience, knowledge, tools, strategies and design thinking. As we learn from and collaborate with nature we get smarter. And we explore systems for a truly sustainable future that allow systems to regenerate. In this interview with Richard Telford, creator of the permaculture principles icons and leading publisher, discusses the future of permaculture.
Interest Changes but our Knowledge Keeps Expanding
Interest in permaculture waxes and wanes with the need for it. During the pandemic there was a really strong need for permaculture. Then it changed. Richard explained “I think people felt Permaculture wasn’t so relevant because the system was coming back together…or it appeared so. People felt, I guess, more secure and then the demand for permaculture.. waned.”
In fact, Permaculture has pioneered many things from compost toilet systems to the powerful Transition Town movement. What will the future bring?
Our Knowhow is growing
Richard continues “the future for Permaculture is brightest when the system is shaky. But I think for people who really want to live a life that’s rewarding. hands-on, connecting with nature and the Earth, and to community then there’s a lot that permaculture has to offer. But I don’t see that the majority of people are particularly interested in that. So, for those of the of us that are on that path it’s fairly steady. And I think we’ll see big fluctuations when the need arises” says Richard.
Resources for a Better Future
But you know we’ve been creating these amazing seed banks and developing these systems for a long time I’ve been doing it for years. There’s a valuable source of information and experience that can be shared with other people when it’s needed when it’s valued.
Give it a Go!
Richard has been a Jack/Jill of all trades. “I built this house and had no idea how to build a house. It was that whole thing about wanting something to happen. And being passionate and making it happen. Even though you don’t know how to do it. And [it’s about ] finding the right people to work with. We’ve got a couple of boys that were home-schooled most of their time when they were younger. And we found the only way they really learn is when they’re interested in something. And I think it’s the same with me. When I’m interested in building a house – I’ll build a house. I restored a car (the old Kombi). I did the fibre-glassing and mechanics and upholstery. And all those things because I wanted to make it happen. And same with creating the permaculture principles website and designing the icons. Any of these things. I was really driven by seeing a need. And I wanted to make that happen.
Stepping Into the Unknown
I feel like I can do anything that I’m really passionate about now. At least give it a really red hot go. So, I really want to encourage people to have a go. The best way to do it is to find somebody local and work with them…. I’ve got a number of different mentors around town. And I ask questions! We used to talk about empowering people helping them feel that they could give it a go. And then people are starting to say ‘oh you know they really need to get an expert for this’.
I think it’s important to be good at something that you can earn a living from. Get really good at something that other people will value. And for everything else – just have a go yourself. Because if you if you don’t have to pay someone else for doing it – often you’ll do a better job. And it’s money you don’t have to earn yourself. And you come out of it with skills and experience. Often, it’s very rewarding.” [Richard Telford]
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Richard Telford made a career in Permaculture by putting his values and ethics into his work. He works with a “just do it” passion and commitment to meet the need.
What Richard Knows
Richard knows “You can create a career for yourself in permaculture using your previous experience. Most people have some kind of Interest or career before they get into Permaculture. And then, they have some kind of crisis point where they go “what am I doing?… This doesn’t align with my values!”.
And so, rather than dropping a career, embody principles and ethics into your whole being. So that, everything you do aligns with permaculture.
Find somebody who’s practicing what you’re interested in and work with them. Gradually try and embrace it. Incrementally improve the way that you do things.
Richard’s Career Path
Richard tells his story. “Well I was working in advertising as a graphic artist in the early 90s. And I built up my skills and a career in that over a number of years. And found that the people I was working with, and things I was doing really didn’t align with my values. So, I just decided to hit the road and go exploring.
So I bought an old Kombi – a 75 VW Kombie van. And hit the road traveling around Australia with a plan to travel around for a year. I did some freelance work. As I was going, I came across permaculture. I actually saw a sign on the road that said Permaculture with an arrow on it so I followed the sign and saw another one another one and ended up at Bill Mollison’s place [in Tyalgum]. And Bill was teaching at PDC at the time I poked my head in. He gave me a grumpy old look. So, I had a look around and went on my way. I think that started my journey of interest in permaculture and I continued traveling around Australia.
Travelling and building skills
The plan was to go for a year and it ended up taking me about five before I got back. But I got involved with the Rainbow gatherings up in Cairns. And some of the protests from there. That was really amazing. Because it showed me that if you really want something to happen you’ve got a put in. And do it yourself. It was also my first real experience of intentional community.
We travelled across in a convoy after the Rainbow gathering to Darwin. And got involved in some of the protesting up there at Jabiluka. And I discovered the book ‘Introduction of Permaculture ‘ by Reny and Bill. I started to see suburbia in a completely different way and asking “why aren’t we growing food in the streets?”
In the Jabiluka protests and that was really questioning the way society exploited natural resources. And I produced a zine we called ‘Tribe’. It was the first time I’ve really using the skills to do something that I believed in. So, I continued traveling around Australia and ended up down in the southwest W.A. (Western Australia). I became involved in the protest to save Karri and Jarrah forests in the southwest.
I made a connection between the Jabiluka protest and the saving the old growth forests. I saw that it was all part of the same problem. And one thing that I really got from the protest was it was quite aggressive. Coming from the protest side it was very confronting to be telling the timber workers that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. There were lots of really full-on protests happening. Forest workers coming into the sites and bashing people and things. And I just didn’t want to get involved in that.
Action – The Tree Sit
I thought a tree sit would be a pretty safe way to to approach it. And it gave me a ‘ticket in’ to go for respite at Carter’s Road. So that was the beginning of a whole other journey at Carter’s Road Community.
I met up with Jody Lane and Chris Lee and a bunch of other amazing Margaret River forest protesters. And the house that they’d set up as a respite for Forest protesting became an unintentional community. It was a permaculture-based unintentional permaculture community. I guess it had a dozen residents or so. There were a whole bunch of other people coming through the place fairly regularly. When I arrived the core members were about to go away for a Joanna Macy retreat. They needed somebody to look after the place while they were away. So, I offered to do that for two weeks and ended up staying there for about two years!
During that time David Holmgren was traveling down the west coast. I was really curious who this other fella was. Because, I’d only heard of Bill. And so, I went out to meet and hear David speak. I offered for David, Oliver and Su to come over and see what we were doing at Carter’s Road (now called Fair Harvest). We showed them what we’d been working.
I let David know that I wanted to do work if he needed help with graphics, graphic artwork or design let me know. David told me that he was putting together a book about the principles and wanted some help to design the icons. So, that was the first permaculture project that I did – the Permaculture principal icons.
Driven by Passion
My passion is really around visual communication. And helping people get an understanding on different levels. So, you get initial sort of grasp of what something is and then you can go deeper and deeper if you so desire and that sort of aligns really well with with visual communication and the way an advertisement’s set up because, yeah, sort of grabbing someone’s attention and layering depth into that. After doing the icons I was interested in how do you present that information in a way that’s a bit more digestible to people because the the book was pretty hard going. I think for a lot of people – especially as an entry level book. It’s not really suitable.
Seeing the Need
At the time I was searching for how to find out more about permaculture and everything I found on the internet was really around people’s projects and farms and things like that it wasn’t really anything that just explained what permaculture was. So I looked at incorporating the icons and work that I did and the work that David did and the essence into a website which is the permaculture principles website.
In 2008 David Arnold was working to put together the permaculture calendar. It was all about the same kind of thing – helping people get an understanding of what the design principles were. So, we worked together on developing the calendar. And have merged the calendar in with the website over the years the principal’s website. Initially it was really just sort of a summary of the principles and ethics. I worked with David and Su’s son Oliver Holmgren on a upgrade to the site and we started to develop a store for the Holmgren Design website. I was selling books from under my bed!
When RetroSuburbia came out, that’s when the business sort of really took off. So, we started employing others. We’ve got Christine Cahusac handling all of the sales and we’ve been developing the distribution side of the business for selling primarily David’s books but also other permaculture self-published books. And I’ve also been involved working with David and Su in producing doing the artwork for RetroSuburbia – quite a number of their titles.
Earth Restorers Guide to Permaculture is the latest book – the most recent one that I was involved with. I worked with Emma O’Dell who now works with us as well. She handled the artwork but I was sort of directing that with her. So it’s managed to tie together all of my interests really particularly the RetroSuburbia project because the house that I’ve built here in Seymour – Abdallah House is one of the featured case studies in the book and lots of the things that I’ve been doing are in that book. It helps to tell my story. I’ve managed to do the artwork. And now, I’m distributing and selling. And it’s the whole box and dice in that book for me!
Dr Sandra Tuszynska, a Soil Restoration Microbiologist, digs the world of soil restoration. In this video she explains how bacteria and fungi consume nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus. And then tiny predators digest the bacteria and fungi and release the nutrients in a form that feeds plants. Good soil enriches the world and creates healthier plants that require less fertilizers. This of course, feeds the us all.
Dr Sandra Tuszynska tells us how to build the right conditions for diverse microbiology, create better worm farms and enjoy richer results.
“My background is in Agricultural Science and I ended up majoring in microbiology because I knew that microbes can literally clean up the mess we’ve made you know pesticides and all kinds of chemical nasty stuff, oil spills. Once I found that out I was like – well agriculture is really actually riddled with with all kinds of chemical treatments that we apply to our soils and our animals and our plants, so what a wonderful way to get into this idea of using microbes to actually clean up the mess we’ve made (deleted and) and go back to the original way that it was designed to function.”
“We want our plants to have oxygen-based microbiology around them so that they can create more oxygen and space for the roots to grow in. Because our plants are very much loving of oxygen. Even though they produce it in their leaves and we breathe it in. While they love the carbon we breathe out, they also need their roots to be in a very lovely, friendly place for them. And that means oxygen needs to be present as well as moisture. And, as well as all their friends on their roots which are the fungi and the bacteria”. There are many benefits in working with these microbial systems and putting them back into our depleted soils.
Dr Sandra Tuszynska is running a course called soil restoration course. She says “I’m putting all these creatures and their superpowers into each lesson. There are units with several lessons each. They’re quite long and science-y and very meaty in terms of getting people to understand exactly how it all fits together and how it (the soil ecosystem) works. And then I show people how to actually create that for their soils. “
How to Boost Micro-Organism Diversity in Your Worm Farm
Instead of simply feeding your food scraps to the worm farm, keep the bottom tap open so any leachates do not fester. This also prevents worms from drowning. You can catch the leachate and pour it onto plants nearby.
Add more carbon. This includes egg shells, torn paper, hair and dog fur and leaf litter. This provides more nutrients and air.
If you don’t have enough food scraps to feed to the worms, then feed them some weeds. Not too many as long as the pile doesn’t get too hot.
Keep the farm moist enough to deter ants and other creatures.
Drill a few tiny air holes into the top
Farm Your Own Microorganisms and Worms
Converting waste into good soil is something everyone of us can do. Create a simple worm farm with a tall, large, bucket with a lid or an old garbage bin. Some council contractors sell old bins. And often you can get large food-safe bins from cafes and restaurants. Recycled bins are much better for the environment and will have less freshly volatile plastics.
Simply drill a few small holes (3mm) in the bottom (for drainage). Add a couple of holes in the lid (for air). Add shredded or torn-up paper and food and enough water to keep it damp. Then, find add native worms.
Support Our Native Worms
The worms usually sold for worm farms are the easiest worms to manage. But those of us who are skilled at raising worms, can have a go at supporting native worms instead.
Most people buy worms, but there are plenty of worms indigenous to your area, even desert areas have some worms. Research native compost worms because you don’t want to use earthworms. Look in the top layer of leaf litter of gardens. If you can’t find some compost worm, you can often buy Anisochaeta dorsalis worms in fish bait shops!
Getting started is easy and maintaining the system is almost as simple as putting the scraps in the landfill bin. Once the bucket is full, start another one. Eventually you can just tip it back into the garden.
Make Your Own Continuous-Flow System
Sandra strongly recommends that we do not disturb the rich mix of bacteria, fungi and worms. The worms don’t just eat the food, they eat the fungi and bacteria on the food. So try not to disturb this invisible microbiology. Simply leave the top 60cm undisturbed and harvest the content from below. This is achieved by either having access at the bottom of the system. In some systems, there is a grid to hold the bulk of the material and you scrape out from underneath this grid. Whereas, other systems, like the hungry bin, are more rate proof. The hungry bin has a funnel shape that compresses the bottom section that you harvest from. But the design needs extra security because the hatch has blown off ours too many times.
At the National Permaculture Convergence 2023, Mitra Ardron presented and facilitated a session on Speed, Scale and Permaculture. Mitra is currently working to deliver clean water to billions of people in Bangladesh. He challenges us to ramp up our efforts to effect change and build a better future.
Mitra’s steps for scaling up projects
Firstly, set the size and speed of your project as a goal from the start. Design the project so that it can grow.
Can we responsibly make decisions at the speed of change?
What happens if we don’t ? Can we focus on solutions rather than the problems ? Tackle the challenges of scale & speed. And maintain people care, earth care and fair share.
Observe and interact – the Problem is often the Solution.
Mitra says “Ask which patterns are ripe for disruption at scale? “
Use edges & value the marginal
Mitra invites us to explore the edges of what we are working on.
Produce no waste
Ask “How would your costs, and your unit economics, change with massive scale or a different biz model, or by eliminating waste or unnecessary steps, how would that cost improvement impact the uptake?”
Explore Some Alternative Structures for Scale
The different models are B2B2C (B to B2 to C) like a supermarket model versus B2c (B directly to C) like a farmers market set up. Then there is Partnering, and Facilitation which Mitra employs in getting producers to link directly with sales team by supplying technology that makes it is cheaper and faster to link them.
Use & value renewable resources & services
What untapped resources could you use to scale up your project?
Obtain Your Yield
How can you create a yield? For all those involved the yield needs to exceed input.
Create a positive feedback loop
Creatively use and respond to change, apply self-regulation and accept feedback. Ask can your organization stay cantered in the middle of chaos? And without knowing all the facts, is it able to allow responsible people to make, and change decisions at the speed needed? Responsive projects listen to the internal and external feedback.
Design from patterns to reach scale
What are the key parts of your project? And the edges between the parts? And the edges with other participants ? How do these edges change as it scales?
Understand and Work with Succession
Use backcasting to envisage alternative futures. How would your solution look at the scale of the problem ? How is that different than it looks now ? What initial steps do we take to get there ? Apply that to each of the detail elements.
When we apply Permaculture principles to our projects, think big and long-term from the start. There is one principle that Mitra sees as an anti-pattern – it is the concept of using small and slow solutions. Mitra and the world need the opposite. With good collaboration models, you will increase the project’s reach and impact.
Once we start thinking bigger, we make lasting impact and tackle the big polluting industries that engulf us.