Jakkalskloof Permaculture Farm
Permaculture is proven to be more effective in small-scale systems - but what about large-scale? Jakkalskloof Permaculture Farm, site of the proposed Xhabbo Ecovillage Project, is making serious inroads into demystifying the myth that permaculture has no commercial application.
Located about 12 km from the town of Swellendam, Jakkalskloof (at the time of visiting) was home to trust members Andrew McChlachlan, a trained horticulturist, and Wendy Crawford, SEED’s permaculture facilitator.
Arriving late at night, we had to wait for the next day to do a tour of the permaculture garden, which was part of a larger vision to develop Xhabbo Ecovillage as a self-sustainable intentional community and demo model and resource for other communities.
Andrew took us around the farm, which at 160 hectares, was an inspiring example of the potential of large-scale permaculture.
Two is better than one
Every plant in this impressive permaculture farm had a role:
- Wilde als (African wormwood) was next to Artemisia, which is a good cold remedy but also an insectory plant (attracting beneficial insects)
- A Wild Olive (pictured) has comfrey at its base - also used for chopping and dropping as a green mulch
- Vetiver grasses stabilised edges
- Boomerangs (half-moon shaped microcatchments built on a downhill side of a plant or tree with shallow depressions behind them) capture water - essential with the hard, clay soil of the farm.
Fruit fever in a Mediterranean climate
The orchard was a two-year experiment to see what would do well in the climate of the area, which is characterised as Mediterranean with an average rainfall of 1000 mm per annum, and suffers from extremes of temperature, including drought.
The soil is hard with an impervious layer of clay and rock under the soil, slowing water drainage, while bad grazing management and the encroachment of alien vegetation were further challenges.
Today, the orchard is home to macadamia nut trees, pomengranates, almonds, wild peach, cape wild plum (pictured) and tree fuschias.
Drought-tolerant carob trees are planted as a windbreak - a dire necessity in an area which suffers from howling winds, blowing the flowers off the fruit trees before the fruit has a change to form.
Borage is interplanted with the fruit trees, while empty basins display where the nitrogen-fixing keurboom will be planted.
Mulching plays a heavy role - vetivers and green mulch help retain water, creating an environment for mycorrhiza to operate beneath the soil, and protecting against that ever-encroaching invader, kikuyu.
Andrew told us that he runs through the kikuyu a couple of times a year with a weed eater, and collects the chopped grass for mulch.
Harnessing power from the sun
Walking on we encounter the hub of Jakkalskloof Permaculture Farm’s power - a solar system with six panels that was installed two years ago. Worth around R60 000, along with DV boards, regulators and deep-cell batteries, the solar system could be complemented with a wind turbine to take advantage of prevailing winds.
According to Andrew, if it rains for three days, they run out of solar power and even with a further three days of battery life it’s not enough. “Sometimes it rains for a week here. It’s essential to have as many input systems as possible, ideally hydro, wind and solar”.
Andrew’s eyes lit up as he envisioned such a system: “The wind is so efficient that it would need a dump if it produces too much electricity. Once the batteries are full it could go to heat our geyser, or pump water up a hill.
We could then let the water run down the hill at times of low power and recharge through the hydro system - it would mean we wouldn’t need to store so much energy”.
Managing water through swales
Andrew pointed out a large diversion swale, a kilometer long swale (or ditch along a contour) that wraps around the hill and feeds the dam. One of the lessons learned came through water-logging.
“We intended to spread the water to allow it to filtrate slowly throughout the area, and there’d be less need to irrigate. But the underground water system is still there, and it resulted in damming up. We’ve ridged it up and are starting to create drainage so portions of the bed are not underwater”.
The big swale is a tree shelter belt, and once the trees are bigger the plan is to plant guava’s and bananas.
Terracing for intensive vegetable production
Andrew pointed out rows of terraces - where clover and rye were first planted with the idea of creating biomass for chopping and dropping and to increase soil nitrogen with legumes.
“It’s a winter grain production area - we’ve done well with barley, oats, rye and wheat. Then there’s the nitrogen fixers: broad beans, fava beans, clovers and lupens. Summer is a lot tougher, we have to irrigate the maize in summertime, but we’re still able to plant cow peas, sunflowers and bush beans. The idea is to build these terraces for intensive vegetable production".
“We’re not yet able to live off our produce entirely, but that’s not been the focus – we’re still developing the farm, Andrew said. “We’ve put in checked dams below each dam, which work a bit like sand filters leaving pebbles and sand particles behind and helping us reduce sediment. Cleaning up dams is incredibly expensive – it’s actually cheaper to build a new dam entirely”.
The terraces have edge plants and insectary plants, protected by a wide shelterbelt (windbreak), and connected by a mainline 110 ml pipe across the valley which is used to flood the terraces.
“Flood irrigation is cheap if you have the water. It addresses the soil completely, taking about five minutes to flood and then slowly seeping into the soil over a day or two. It’s a system that we, as humans, have moved away from because of the advent of electrical pumps”, Andrew said.
Seed pelleting to propogate seeds
Referencing Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, Andrew told us that he’s been doing a lot of seed pelleting, which essentially involves enclosing pre-soaked seeds in little clay pellets before sewing to ensure greater results (uncovered seeds are often eaten by mice and birds and sometimes rot in the ground).
“We don’t spend a lot of time cleaning up the beds, but rather mow it and chop with a sickle and whatever falls propagates. For instance, if we have a lot of rye, which is a winter crop, we sow our summer crop then come with sickles and take off the seed heads of the rye and then we come and slash everything - the seeds are there for next season, we’ve taken our harvest and just dropped and mulched, and then the summer crop comes up.
It’s a no-till passive flood irrigation system”, Andrew continued. “It’s been five seasons now, this is our third winter season and we haven’t ploughed or added heaps of manure or fertilisers”.
Establishing a replicable model
“A lot of farmers in the region are curious, but we’re not making economic sense yet, so it’s not enough for them to come and copy us. Quite a bit of money has been spent every month to maintain the costs of the farm and we’re not yet at the point of meeting our expenses.
Once the systems are set up, we could do a lot more, or if we had a dedicated team working here. Right now it’s just me and Wendy and our focus is rehabilitating the soil for future food production”.
Gesturing to the valley in front of us, Andrew showed us the proposed site of the eco-village housing. We learned that the owner and founder, John Raimondo, wanted to build a village model of between 8 and 10 houses that share resources, with a biogas digester, one big laundry, kitchen and energy system.
While the reasoning seemed sound, Andrew questioned whether people would enjoy living so close to their neighbours as the proposed site didn’t seem large enough for 8 houses.
Practicing holistic management
Noticing a herd of Dexter cattle freely loitering about, I asked Andrew what their role was, apart from providing the obvious benefits of manure. “We practice biodynamics with them - they’re all organic and we don’t dehorn or brand them.
We also employ holistic management techniques based on Alan Savory’s methods – we put them in a smaller area for a short period of time and move them regularly so they don’t revisit the same place until proper regrowth has occurred".
The work that Alan Savory has done for positive land restoration worldwide is the most exciting thing to come out of agriculture in last 20 years!”, said Andrew.
Biodynamics and Flowforms
Biodynamics also influences their water management strategy, with FlowForms energising and regenerating the water.
Using BD preparations and soils also helps in regenerating the soil. In fact, Wendy Crawford has trained with Avice Hindmarch (my first permaculture teacher) and interned at Spier, so this is where her expertise comes to play.
In the picture below FlowForms are used so that water flowing through and into the dam mimicks nature's rhythmic flows - aerating and energising the water at the same time.
If you've ever been at a waterfall and watched how the water plunges down and into the steam, constantly moving, eddying and flowing you'll understand how FlowForms work - and why the water tastes so damn good!
Flowforms were conceived by the close study of patterns in nature - swirling eddies and flows with a tendency to move in figure-8s; whorls in wood, undulating seas of sand, how free-flowing streams meander and whirl, chambers in sea-shells etc.
The ‘figure-of-eight’ (lemniscate) movement in Flowforms has been shown to enhance water’s capacity to support life, returning water to a dynamic state.
Thousands of vortices (whirlpools) created by FlowForms provide powerful aeration and reorganise water subtly at the molecular level which improve the water quality and vitality...making water the foundation of a peaceful source of refreshment, renewal and relaxation (just think of that waterfall).
Pests and other issues
Andrew tells me that slugs and snails were such a problem that they couldn’t sew their vegetables directly.
“It was very disheartening so plant a whole lot of broccoli seedlings and find them gone the next day.
We eventually resorted to using an organic slug and snail pellet so now we can sew our peas, carrots etc, but we don’t like it very much".
With quite a predominant berry farming area, the area attracts lots of birds, so Andrew and Wendy make sure there is always enough to share.
Other than that, the main challenge they face is a scourge shared by most South Africans - the indomitable kikuyu.
By mulching extensively and using a weedeater on occasion, they manage to keep it in check, but it’s like an unwanted gift that just keeps on giving.
Apart from fruit crops and grains, which are doing very well (though Andrew cautioned that you need more volume than you realise to supply eight families with a loaf of bread every day) they do a lot of seed saving and are able to grow most vegetables.
They also grow sweet potatoes, Jerusalem Artichokes, beans, linseed (lot of success), vetch, clover, lucernes - cover cropping plants because they’re pioneering so much land.
“We have numerous chickens and used to run tractors, which helps in the garden a lot with pests and also adding nutrient to the soil, but I don’t think it’s very friendly on the chickens - they don’t have the space to move”.
Further corroborating this belief, Andrew has noted over the past three years that chickens don’t breed well in tractors. So he decided to build an old-school chicken house which is shaded in winter with a nice scratch yard.
“I’ll bring them into the garden for work and rotate them - at least we'll have a good stock of chickens, from which we can harvest enough eggs to be able to sell. They’d be mostly free-range and largely feed themselves".
Chatting to Andrew as he harvested Jerusalem Artichokes from the kitchen garden, which was designed by Kent Cooper from Bergendal, Andrew tells me that in summer the garden flourishes as they don’t have constant waterlogging.
“Hydrological pressure pushes the water up so we’re trying to raise the beds so that the water drains out onto the pathways”.
Gesturing to one of the garden beds, Andrew tells me that currently it’s in shade because of the height of insectary bed and windbreak, but that it works great in summer. “That’s the beauty of permaculture systems - you create niches – some plants prefer shade, others don’t”.
“The purpose of the garden is to be a demo for workshops and courses”, he continues, “and it works well and provides a lot of food, but personally I’d choose to implement a Mandala system around my house because it’s more convenient and accessible”.
Eco-villages: Trials and tribulations
Though the site was a working project towards developing and supporting an intentional community, after a survey where people who had shown an interest were asked, among other questions, when they would anticipate making this shift, it became apparent that most people had no intention (as yet) of rooting up their lives and moving out to the country.
Thus, the decision was taken to withdraw entirely from the initial vision and instead hire a farm manager to continue developing and managing the farm in sustainable manner.
According to what was updated on the website - the trustees hope that an existing community may decide to take out a long-term lease on the farm and continue to live sustainably and serve the local and wider communities.
In the wake of this devastating news, I chatted to Andrew about what went wrong. “For any eco-village, there needs to be a clear entry and exit strategy, where people can pay the joining fee and build their house and still know they can sell it if they need to".
"People need to also be able to run a business with relative ease, and its difficult because it takes three years to start a business anywhere – with a farm taking up half your time, how are you going to make your money? If things are clearly defined it’s easier to make that first step”, he continued.
Andrew also feels that it’s important for communities to be able to make decisions for themselves and for the vision to adapt to the community and the landscape.
Given that the eco-village project had been terminated, Andrew was understandably a bit upset that the time and energy he’d put into the project might not be recouped.
And with his future with the project uncertain, he was admirably stoical. “I will always carry on - I don’t know where because it’s still up in the air. I’m not interested in a farm manager job where it’s just maintaining systems currently in place - I want to create a home for my family, to remain close to the earth, to farm and be part of something bigger and have a community that develops of its own accord".
"I have a little nursery and the knowledge to run that nursery. And I’m incredibly grateful that through being here, I’ve learnt a great deal about grazing regimes, large-scale land development, water infrastructure and so much more. Ultimately, the future looks a lot better with a tool like permaculture, for me personally and for the rest of the world”.
Jakkalskloof Permaculture Farm UPDATE
I contacted the new managers of Jakkalskloof to get the scoop on what's been happening since our visit.
Linda and Carl Wiseman took over the farm in September 2012. Fortunately they are both permaculture lovers - Linda has been practicing organic farming and landscaping for the last 15 years - while Carl is an inventor and technical nut.
Their mandate is to get the farm ready to open to the public as a teaching facility, in other words a model permaculture self-sustainable farm. There's also a possiblity that it may be used as a biodynamics training centre.
"I have a background in agriculture and hospitality, and am mad keen on farming with animals and being able to teach other people how to to go the self-sustainable route," said Linda.
Given the fact that she's also been mentored by permaculture and biodynamics guru Avice Hindmarch, I have great hopes for the success of this initiative!
What's more, the team is supported by Gram Jackson, a qualified permaculturist and phytotherapist, who gives courses in the use of medicinal herbs and kitchen plants. They've also held their first children's farm holiday camp.
As to Xhabbo eco village: "It's on a back burner for now - I am sure the owner is still keen to go ahead with a community - we just need to get some of the basics ready before we can start with the eco village. Andrew and Wendy did a wonderful job of getting the groundwork done and I am very sorry to see them go".
Get involved at Jakkalskloof Permaculture Farm
Jakkalskloof is looking for long term members and volunteers who are interested in working and learning about life and work on a self-sufficient mixed biodynamic permaculture farm.
This is not a job but a community farm-based lifestyle choice.
Contact: Linda Wiseman
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