A Conference full of Bill Mollisons

Daryl Hannah at APC10 Gala Dinner

Going to your first Permaculture Convergence can be a funny thing to experience. For a start as we were checking in at the resort where we were staying just outside Cairns my wife nudged me and quietly pointed out the number of grey haired old men with white beards hanging around the lobby.

“Bill Mollison look-a-likes!” I whispered to her. Jane had never met the co-founder of Permaculture and was keen to be introduced to him. Later that evening she spots another one and says to me, “I’m pretty sure thats the real Bill Mollison who was just checking in.”

“No. I’m pretty sure thats a fake one.” I replied.

Next morning we jump on the mini bus to take us to the Steiner school where the 10th Permaculture Convergence was to be held. We notice a former governor general of Australia, Sir Michael Jefferey sitting upright on the bus next to young casual backpackers and various rough looking permaculture representatives from around Australia as the bus ambles its way rocking back and forth down the road. We meet Leonie Shanahan on the bus always grinning and happy in her pigtails and colourful T-Shirt.
Sitting in front of us is Lindsay Smith-Moir the business brains of PRI Australia . Lindsay is an accountant, musician and a director of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. He grins broadly in his cowboy hat and points to himself as he says “Guess who stood up yesterday and introduced the former Governor General to the mob?” Lindsay was in good spirits and keen to do some snorkling  on the reef after the event was over.

Darren Doherty

So we arrive at the conference and wandered around trying to get our bearings. A capacity crowd of 350 attendees is already  milling around. Apparently 350 was the cut off number that the venue would only allow.

Pink and white wrist bands in place we looked through the program. So what was the highlight for me? Because we had just completed a Soils DVD with Geoff Lawton I wanted to listen in on the various topics on regenerative agriculture to see if we missed anything on the DVD.

Regenerative Agriculture

Up front was Darren Doherty and his team of articulate new breed permaculture designers that are reinvigorating the Permaculture brand across the Australia with their Regenerative Agriculture Workshops that are bringing to Australia some interesting experts like Eugenio Gras from Mexico.

“We work with farmers, not the neo liberal bourgeois!” said Eugenio as he pumped through his well crafted power point presentation highlighting the grim work of AgriBusiness and its influence on poor Mexican farmers who have turned to crime to make ends meet.

Eugenio Gras

“We don’t go to farmers and tell them about Permaculture.” he said. “They’ve been taught so much bullshit – that they do not want to know anything more!”

“What they want to know is how to make some money so they can get out of poverty.”

Thats exactly what Eugenio does, teaching Mexican farmers how to make their own bio-fertilisers very cheaply. By rejecting the expensive fertilisers at $30,000 per year which was sending Mexican farmers broke down to only $5,000 per year making their own, struggling farmers are now starting to make ends meet and then once they have some cash in their pocket – only then are they introduced to other Permaculture principals.

Pasture Cropping

Another highlight was Col Seis talk on Pasture Cropping which is a method of restoring fertility back into the land by allowing grasslands to flourish and mimic the natural functions of nature. “Why don’t we farm more like we garden?” said Col.
He has a zero til policy. He never plows his pasture, allowing grasslands to flourish and then he uses farm machinery to kind of push the grass over and use it as a mulch by flattening it.

Col Seis on Pasture Cropping

He then sows cereal crop seeds directly into the mulch allowing the cereal crop to grow amongst the weeds. He claims to have a diversity of over 50 weeds that grow amongst his crop. No herbicides are ever used.  Col says other farmer shake their heads and say “Look at all those weeds growing in the main crop!” But other stock feed farmers see something else. “Look at all the stock feed growing with the main crop.” they say.

The movement is spreading with over 2000 pasture croppers already established in Australia. Col claims that the population of insects on his property at Winona has increased 600%. You would think this would be a matter of great concern for many farmers but not Col.

“I found less insects attacking crops.”he said. In fact Col claims the method of controlling insect attack is to have even more insects! “The grassland is full of predator spiders and wasps.” he said. These creatures limit the number of insects. A member of the audience questioned Col how he deals with a locust plague?

Col’s reply was ingenious. “Locusts need bare ground to lay their eggs in.” Most conventional farmers plow their fields – a haven for locusts, but on Col’s property – the grasshoppers just keep on flying past looking for bare soil to lay their eggs. Col’s brother owns the adjoining farm and works it in a conventional manner. He has 4 inches of topsoil. Col since turning to Pasture Cropping has actually increased the depth of his topsoil to around 12 inches! Now thats real soil creation. Quite an achievement.

From Left, Lisa Mollison, Bill Mollison hungry and eyeing an orange, Geoff Lawton and Lindsay Smith-Moir

The Real Bill Mollison

The next morning at breakfast I notice the real Bill Mollison coming over to our table with Geoff Lawton. I nudge Jane. “Thats the real Bill Mollison over there!” I say.

“Thats the same guy I saw last night!” she whispers as she is introduced to him. We are thinking of getting an interview with him on camera with Geoff Lawton to include as an extras feature on the Permaculture Soils DVD. Imagine Geoff and Bill discussing the future of permaculture together. Can we pull it off? (Yes we did)

But Bill Mollison is hungry and looking for food. He playfully growls like a lion, fingers outstretched . “I gotta eat something first!” he says, “Look out or I might eat you!” He growls again eyeing off Lindsay’s orange.

Permaculture Facebook?

We were also treated to an impressive demonstration of the new online Permaculture social networking website that would allow people who have completed a PDC to view each other’s projects, profiles or find an approved permaculture teacher in their locality. Geoff Lawton and Patrick Blampied demonstrated the system for the audience who all seemed excited by the project. Although financed by PRI Australia with Craig Mackintosh overseeing a team of programmers building the software, Geoff Lawton said that it was a gift to the permaculture world and hoped all permaculture people would use it.

Who are You?

Daryl Hannah speaking at APC 2010

I can’t remember the next day or what I saw. It all seems a bit of a blur but I do remember chatting with Lindsay Smith-Moir at the dinner table when Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison arrived at our table. Suddenly we were sitting at the main table and then Hollywood star Daryl Hannah arrived with her copy of the permaculture bible. Daryl starred in films such as Splash but I much preferred her performance as a back-flipping crazed assassin android in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner Movie. Tonight though, Daryl was clutching Bill Mollison’s The Permaculture Design manual as she presented it to him to autograph.

Photographers started snapping away like crazy. Bill turned the page carefully to see  that it was already autographed by someone else. He  studied it a moment and then turned over to a fresh new page, flattened it with the palm of his hand and lifted his pen carefully and looked up at Daryl Hannah and said quietly, “How do you spell your name?” I don’t think he knew who she was.

Daryl Hannah was then introduced to Geoff Lawton who politely stood up, smiled and said to her, “Who are you?”

The next day I said to Geoff, “Did you do that on purpose?” Geoff said he didn’t recognize her at all. He thought she was one of his old students. It seems Permaculture gurus can spot a food forest swale through a tangle of trees from a mile back – but not a Hollywood actor!