Two small properties in Western Australia, 10 hectares in Nannup ( the mythical town of “Seacliffe” in the movie “Drift”) and 20 hectares in Karridale, constitute Merri Bee Organic Farmacy. Operators Stewart Seesink and Bee Winfield are together creating a permaculture, a natural system of perennial abundance to satisfy human needs for food, shelter, energy , community and wilderness forever. They believe Hippocrates was right when he said 500 “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be they food”. Organic food is powerful preventative medicine.
The cleared, steep and degraded piece of rural land in Nannup has largely been restored to abundance over 30 years.
“When I first came here there were only 5 trees. It was over grazed by horses and covered in doublegees” says Bee. The first 8 years were spent pulling them out, but the paddock furtherest from the house never got weeded. But the double gees died out naturally never to return. A valuable lesson was learnt. Doublegees like other prickly or bitter plants, are natures way of protecting soil from over grazing. The lazy solution to doublegees turned out to be simply understocking and getting a healthy cover of mixed plants in various stages of growth and decay on the soil all year round.
Bee designed and has now largely implemented a ‘closed loop’ system in which the yields and by-products of one enterprise are used to satisfy the needs of another. On this mixed farm, nutrients are constantly circulating and water and energy are harvested by multiple elements. “We aim to return perennial vegetation to the land, then gradually introduce animals as the trees and other plants establish. This mimics a natural ecosystem’s biodiversity but uses food plants and animals from all over the world. In a forest you have the conditions soil microbes need to thrive and therefore you maximize the transformation of nutrients into plant available foods.” The couple now produce food with forgotten flavours and medicinal qualities because the soil biology is coming back.
Stewart and Bee make their living solely from farming ,selling from the produce of their permaculture of over 100 species of rare fruit and nut trees, at the Margaret River Farmers market most Saturdays, and delivering to loyal Perth customers once a month. They enjoy the contact with “their families” watching kids they help to nourish grow. Bee says kids have the best palate and often send their mums back to get Merri Bee eggs, pork , lamb or kale. Yes, kale! Their mums appreciate produce with long keeping properties and marvelous aromas.
Their other passion is creating space for wilderness and seeing wildlife returning.
The food forest also not only supports wildlife but the farm livestock: chooks, pigs, ducks, geese, sheep, alpacas and jersey cows as well . Acorns are popular with the sheep, pigs and cows, as is sheoak, poplar, willow and coprosma. Says Stewart “ What we’ve discovered is that cows like to browse trees, not just grass, and unlike grass, many trees are green all year round. Its the trees and perennial pasture plants with deep roots that bring up minerals from the subsoil which keeps our animals healthy. They are also photosynthesizing year round, therefore pumping carbon from the air, and injecting it deep into the soil all year round.
Bee and Stew grow cereal grains on areas previously “ploughed” by the pigs … broadcasting wheat and mulching over the seeds by hand. They don’t like to rely on fossil fuel and heavy machines, preferring to use animal “tractors” which fertilise, weed and turn a profit or food. They are constantly refining low energy methods of growing.
Says Bee “Neither chemicals nor artificial fertilizers have been used here for the past 20 years. Trace element lick blocks, seaweed, biodynamic grain and woodchips from Western Power line clearing are the farms only inputs. We compost green waste of neighbours and make compost tea as well”
The BD grain for supplementing the free range chooks and pigs diet is the expensive input, costing $500 a ton, with freight also $500. Bee said “We think it’s worth the cost to have no chemical residues in their feed”
. There are an estimated 50 million types of soil bacteria and 50 million types of soil fungi which do amazing ecological services. They are capable of reversing climate change, but they are sensitive to agrichemicals and ultraviolet light.Climate change in this South West corner of W.A. is very obvious to anyone who has had their hands in the soil in the same district for a few decades. It is crippling and I think this issue has got to be tackled full on”
Bee thinks the role farmers and gardeners can play in literally saving the planet, is huge.
“Clearing and cultivation of land has reduced average soil carbon levels from around 8% to 0.7%, and obviously that carbon has entered the atmosphere. We are into reversing that , regenerating soil with CO2 through plants. Sustainable soil management strategies such as cell grazing can rebuild soil carbon levels, turning agriculture from a greenhouse gas liability into a carbon and methane sink.”
Bee says that anyone who makes compost is meaningfully offsetting GHG emissions and breeding menthantrophic bacteria which “eat” methane.
Stew added “What has been destroyed can be repaired. We now know the importance of vegetation to rainfall and know how to repair ecosystems …. we just have to get cracking on it on a massive scale.“
Both Stew and Bee are involved in permaculture teaching and consultancy, with
Stew specialising in placement of access roads and water harvesting earthworks such as swales. Bee conducts regular farm tours and composting workshops and particularly welcomes youth and conventional farmers to come see what strategies inspired by permaculture ‘s founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren have achieved here.