The Food Forest

Planning Your Property

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The beginning of the dream

How often have you heard of people who bought a hills property as a result of a spring drive.... Ah the green paddocks and frolicking lambs, the fresh air and wonderful views. And how long did they last when it came to weed management, hay making, livestock husbandry, icy winds and trying to convince things to grow in thin old soils?

Before buying or designing a piece of land we must be brutally honest with ourselves and answer the questions:

  • 'What activities in life give us most satisfaction?'
  • 'Can we sensibly commute from here?' 
  • 'What are our medium to long term goals?'

Make your list

If you still come up with managing a piece of land at the top of the list, then issues of landuse, size and location must be answered. We listed: close to a good school and public transport to Adelaide, reasonable for commuting and of all things in SA (Annemarie is Dutch) close to a river!

The big wine companies have specified exactly what soil profile, what slope, what altitude, what frost risk and what water requirements (both quantity and quality) fit their purposes for growing premium wine grapes. For someone growing olives they can afford to be less fussy; frosts can be more severe, water can go above 1500 parts per million salt and wind speeds higher. So if your dream is to grow particular crops choose a place that will suit them as well as you.

campervan on the blockMany properties offer a range of micro environments: the mid slope of the sides of a valley is often frost-free, rocks store lots of heat, soils are often thin, well drained and leached high in the landscape whilst deep alluvial soils and waterlogging are found low in the landscape, olives do better on the northern slopes in the colder parts of the Hills and Flooded Gums like the deep soils and ready moisture near creek lines.

To someone experienced in reading landscapes the property is almost yelling out what its different bits are capable of; Redgums signal a shallowish watertable, Pink Gums warn of low fertility soil. David Holmgren, one of the originators of Permaculture, can walk a property which has some remnant native vegetation and give stunningly accurate forcasts of soils, water, frost and property potential.

For lesser mortals, the digging of a soil profile pit with a backhoe or a soil core, a soil test to tell you about pH and fertility and flow and  quality tests on water supplies are essential, even if that only means opening up a tap full bore and measuring how long it takes to fill a 20 litre bucket with your mains water (which is usually about 500-700ppm salt).

Developing your property

property planHaving chosen a property it is now time to establish boundary windbreaks and think about a house site. Unless you are mainly on your land for the view it is almost always better to nestle your home out of the wind and the most devastating fire path, at the Key Point, where the slope changes from concave to convex. Here you'll usually find reasonable soil depth, frost drainage and access to water.

The house should be north-facing and hopefully run on solar power but certainly using a solar water heater and home grown wood for energy. If building an environmentally responsible house there is now very little excuse for not installing a composting toilet and a reedbed to enable grey water reuse. Quite a number of these systems have been approved by the Department of Human Services (previously called The Health Commission) and they promise savings of up to 200,000 litres of clean water in toilet flushing annually as well as providing a few barrow loads of excellent compost (your very own compost!) and top quality irrigation water (polished by your reedbed) from basin, shower and sink outfalls.

An eco-home does not need to be expensive and there are a number of architects who specialise in designing and retrofitting such houses.

Now for the real challenge: a detailed scale map or a big aerial photo needs to be arranged so you can exactly mark soil types, cliffs, creeks, existing improvements etc (onto a transparent plastic overlay) and then you are able to plan, fantasize and make the most dreadful mistakes on another plastic overlay. These designs are then discussed with other members of the family, friends and experts using measurable areas and other data, and altered many times until you are ready to drive the first post or lay out an orchard in the right place.

Fences and water mains are the skeleton of the property and can make your life a dream or turn it into a nightmare as erosion takes grip, your own animals eat your trees or you are simply driven crazy by opening and closing gates. Force yourself to explain the fence and water systems to someone who is happy to question the illogical. (Annemarie has popped many of my over-enthusiastic planning bubbles).

Putting the flesh on the skeleton is where the artistry of farming is exhibited and given that permaculture designs are based on energy  and enviromental priorities they can look very different from conventional farm plans which are usually driven by principles of yield and income maximisation.

How we developed The Food Forest

Perhaps a quick walk through The Food Forest would help explain... People spend more time in the house than any other place on the property so it becomes the hub or centre of activity and we put lots of effort into making it efficient, comfortable, beautiful and handy to services and fresh foods. Moving from the verandah we pass the lemon tree, a herb patch (fresh ingredients for cooking) and a vine-covered sandpit, cross a lawn with slippery dip and rough cricket pitch and enter the perennial garden, winding our way between herbs, rhubab and asparagus until we pass under the vine shading the stone western wall of the chook house from which the hens go out to work in the surrounding market garden beds of lettuces and capsicums.

Next to the chook house is the nursery, the spray of its watering system cooling the chooks as well as the nursery plants on hot days.

We progress into the orchard, shutting the gate behind us because we've entered a part of the property protected from foxes and cats by an electric fence. Here we have many types of stone, pome and citrus fruit including 60 apple cultivars as we're looking for some which adapt well to our particular conditons. Two hundred metres further and we enter the nut grove with walnuts and the tough pistachio trees which require almost no attention after their initial form pruning. Finally there's a zone of native scrub which really does look after itself.

young geese in orchardSo there's a steady lessening of energy and attention required by crops as you move further from the house, very unlike a farm I worked on in Canada where the house was just downwind of the piggery and you had to use a car or take a cut lunch just to go to the shed. The spatial planning of a farm should be complemented by the concious design of energy flows and interactions. On our farm one area is controlled by geese who graze the grassy weeds, chooks who take care of codlin moth and bettongs who eat sour sob bulbs. Click here to see the Food Forest farm layout.

In some of the countries around the Mediterranean, there were places where human-designed forests emerged much more productive than native forests and much more stable than monocultural tree cropping or annual agriculture. The Cork-Pork forests of Portugal where pigs grew fat on the acorns which dropped from oaks cultivated for their cork bark survived as a system for a millennium. Chinese pigs gorged themselves on mulberries and silkworms converted the leaves of the same tree into the Worlds most valuable thread. The forests were fertilised and weeded by the pigs.

Today, the same ground is used for growing annual crops, crops reliant on large inputs of fertiliser, sprays, fuels and machinery. But even with all these non-renewable inputs, the system  is losing overall fertility and some people are nibbling at models for  returning the ground to perennial systems; systems which are stable enough to promise the ecological sustainability which remains the ultimate precursor to our survival.


In the late Seventies, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren synthesised the set of design principles for the sustainable occupation of The Planet by humans known as Permaculture. The philosophy promises the production of high quality food without the use of significant quantities of non renewable resources or biocides. A common use for land in Permaculture designs is as food forests and some of these latter day (and theoretically designed) forests are now a decade old and starting to yield their secrets. There are also surviving examples of traditional Mediterranean systems which are relevant to Australia but only a few big thinkers, like David Holmgren, have made the connections to date.

David tells of a family who have occupied a 7ha farm in the Po Valley in Northern Italy for four generations. With essentially organic production techniques, the little property supports the 8 adults and assorted children who manage a polyculture including grapes, walnuts, wheat, soybeans, native forest, lucerne and livestock. They achieve yields comparable with their neighbours who require some 20ha of land per viable family unit and who consume vastly more non-renewable resources per ha. The Permaculture-inspired food forests have tended to have very large numbers of species, many times the number of species endemic to a particular area. This is in part a reaction to the staggeringly simplified current commercial farming systems (for example on the Adelaide Plains we have only one significant commercial tree crop, almonds, yet there at least thirty fruit and nut species which we know will grow well). It also reflects the freedom of Permaculture designers from cultural and scientific conventional wisdom. This freedom, bravery or ignorance led us to jewels such as pecans, sapotes, persimmons, cherry guavas, Tahitian limes, white mulberries and pistachio nuts.

However, it is clear that these botanic zoos generally shake down to a much smaller number of species which are well adapted to the local environment, suit the people who are managing them and the equipment available and enjoy viable markets for their products (if the property has been setup to general surpluses).

Many of the food foresters with moderate surpluses over their household needs undergo the bitter realisation that they can give the products away but it is so time consuming to sell small quantities of food for profit that they may as well not do it. Food co-operatives have helped to solve that problem for the more creative operators. Many people started with the idea of self-reliance but found that they were very good at growing particular crops and have expanded production to the point of commercial viability. It is them and the people who designed their properties for substantial surpluses who can answer the question of whether such properties can be commercially viable.

Taking the property which my wife Annemarie and I run near Gawler in SA as an example, one must emphasise the importance of planning of development through time as well as spatial and species design. It was vital that we keep off-farm income rolling in while we capitalised and planted the property up.

nurseryIt was important to grow chooks and annuals to provide cash flow early in the development of the place. It was necessary to qualify for primary producer status to obtain tax refunds to be spent on further development of the block. We needed to establish a nursery to cheaply propagate and hold trees. Both of us undertook training in permaculture design so we had a vague idea what we were doing.

Our site was 15 hectares of deep river silt of neutral pH with rainfall of 450mm so water use was a major preoccupation. We needed to choose some major species which the potential to tap into a shallow aquifer 15m down. We came up with pistachios, carobs, nut pines and pecans as well as about 100 native species so it was time to look at the potential profitability of the key crops before deciding on a mix that would deliver ecological and economic viability. carob orchardThe gross margins (amount per hectare) of income left after paying all the annual costs for pistachios was $10,000 which looked the best. Pecans were next but I was worried about productivity and variety choice for the Adelaide Plains so carobs got the second berth with gross margins between $2,000 and $10,000. Nut pines presented major doubts in terms of processing and profitability. So we built an ecologically diverse design, including 160 fruit, nut and vegetable cultivars and 140 native species around the main crops. These key species, pistachios, carobs and pecans, all had to be low input, deep rooted, moderately profitable and amenable to manual or mechanical harvesting.

In addition to income from those crops, there will be the superimposed gross margins of free range goose production, ecotourism, education and ultimately the sale of native animals to others establishing sanctuaries. This multiple yield phenomena also occurs in the more intensively managed parts of the property where two or three vegetable crops are harvested from a given part of the market garden annually and chickens utilise the crop wastes. The garden around our house is  superficially a cottage garden but also provides herbs and edible flowers for sale. The house and vegetable areas can be regarded as clearings in a complex food forest.

Reduced inputs

The management of our crops is organic, which can provide price premia of 30-100%, but which more importantly means that we dont have to pay for or apply any insecticides. We minimise the need for weed and orchard floor management operations by using grazing animals and we use a copper spray only once every two or three years to control fungi and lichens on fruit and nut trees. Our soil is deficient in copper so that input is doubly useful.

In the fruit and nut areas our fertiliser, in the past, consisted of composted deep litter manure from a local chicken farm. Currently we use certified organic compost from local sale yards. On the garden areas, the foraging chickens dispose of all pests, control weed seeds and fertilise the ground. Particular nutrient deficiencies are dealt with on a case by case basis, for instance the nut trees have received a mix of zinc oxide and gypsum.

Given that only high value products leave the farm, the loss of nutrients and organic carbon is minimised.

Our products are sold mostly locally so transport costs are minimal. We use the same containers for many months simply picking up empties when we deliver goods to local restaurants, green grocers or families.

We have one significantly higher input than conventional growers... time. Much time is spent observing, shifting animals from one patch to another, maintaining relationships with customers and looking after complex range of crops and animals. If one enjoys the work and feels that it is important that a sustainable land use model is developed, one could consider accepting a lower  hourly rate of pay than people whose main drive comes from maximising production, income and wealth in a world that is buckling under the effects of consumerism.


graham at marketOur marketing is largely by word of mouth and we pitch out prices between wholesale and retail. We supply restaurants, organic shops and have a stall at the Adelaide Showground Farmers Market once a fortnight, as well as selling directly to people who visit the farm for field walks and short courses. Other growers use  subscription farming, food cooperatives, have farm shops or attend local farmers markets. Some simply use the wholesale fruit market.

Commercial viability

Regarding a property as an investment which can return interest, we can divide that return into an increase in capital value or net profit (tax write offs are generally caught by the increase in capital value or equity). In our case, we are steadily increasing our equity in a property which has increased in value five fold since we bought it. Like most people who own property within 50km of a capital city (which accounts for some of Australia's best land), we rely on off-farm income to achieve our goals.

While the Government continues with the level playing field concept which forces our primary producers to accept the world's lower prices for goods (whether dumped and subsidised or resulting from exploitation of the environment or workers), there is an enormous disadvantage to growers who elect to produce food an environmentally responsible way. So we should be making urban Australians aware of the need for paradigm and policy change.

It is time for the 95% of Australians who live in towns to start taking some responsibility for the stewardship of the country in which they live rather than whining about poorly educated farmers who thrash the environment (to earn a miserable income because of economic policies approved by the Australian public who mainly live in cities).

Returning from that aside, the revenue statement for a food forest typically will have less expenditure and less income than a conventional property as optimum yields and food quality are sought rather than maximum yields, however the net profit or loss may be very similar. Certainly in the survey of organic and conventional farms done by Els Wynon of  La Trobe University, there was no spectacular difference. I am not aware of any such survey in the area of horticulture. Some food foresters are extremely successful commercial producers such as Brian Mason at Forest Range, whilst others are more interested in ecological enrichment and self-sufficing.

Looking at our development budget we are at the point where the income is about to equal the expenditure. Form here on the tree crops will steadily increase in production and will get some gross margin figures from a semi-mature food forest system. Meanwhile we will eat well, stay warm, meet wonderful people, raise sane children and do out bit for the future of the planet.