Human Nature Food Systems Design

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Reflecting on Stefan Sobkowiak’s workshops in April this year.

It was a great pleasure to host Stefan at Habitate Farm for a workshop on fruit tree training and soils. Thanks to all involved for organising the tour and hosting Stefan, Doreen and James here in Dunedin.

IMG_0970When you are busy on the land it’s a welcome inspiration to have a teacher such as Stefan come and reinforce the principles of permaculture through workshops in your bioregion.

We need well documented examples of permaculture systems and The Permaculture Orchard is probably the best film documenting a commercial permaculture orchard.

Stefan has set up and runs an orchard that produces a quality food for a sizeable customer base.

His customers join as members, then enjoy visiting this beautiful farm, meeting each other and browsing the aisles (rows) to gather food (his is a members-only U-Pick Farm).

For me permaculture is as much about making beautiful inspiring places as it is about the quantity of food produced, so this aspect of his farm was great to see. Flowers are grown, for example, in amongst the productive plants and offered free for customers to pick, adding further delight to the diversity of edibles in each row.

What has made Stefan’s farm successful?

I would say systems design. The basis of permaculture is the conscious design of systems which overlap to form a constructed ecosystem inspired by observed natural ecologies. Stefan has clear, explainable system patterns, that allow for patterned replication and expansion across the farm. Examples are the Nitrogen Fixer-Apple-Pear/Plum trio’s, the ripening-time ordered rows, the tree to shrub to perennial planting patterns, the animal rotations through the rows, the mowing patterns and many more.

One of the great achievements is to have taken the benefits of a forest ecology (layers, diversity, predator / beneficial insect and bird habitat, pioneer / support species) and to have patterned them into a system of rows, allowing for ease of management and customer U-pick harvest (the needs of human nature).

The mulch layer

Looking to the mulch layer we find the key to what has allowed all of this to happen with minimal maintenance. A plastic mulch. A simple logical solution and yet so mind-bendingly hard to come to grips with for those of us that associate plastic with environmental degradation.

In Stefan’s system it is allowing large scale diversity and production. Stefan’s is a commercial operation,with irrigation, posts, wires and overhead sprinklers for frost fighting, there is a lot of infrastructure there, why not add a layer of plastic and be rid of untold hours of weeding and instead use that energy for establishing and harvesting the diverse and abundant produce?

There may be some good reasons. I am sceptical as to whether this system would work as well in a coastal New Zealand climate where grass and other weeds grow all year round. So many books and now movies on permaculture are from either sub-tropical or continental climates, we have to take the principles of these ideas and examples and not necessarily the techniques. I hope someone, (including myself), tests this plastic system in a coastal New Zealand climate. Unfortunately I have seen too many examples over the years of plastic or weed mat put down permanently on the ground only to be overrun with grass and buried, and then the weeds we are trying to avoid, grow back on top. I have had to remove plastic layers buried amongst ornamental gardens, tangled with roots. It’s a difficult, destructive job.

Stefan has observed worms moving organic matter through holes to underneath his plastic. In local ornamental examples that I have seen this has not happened fast enough, the garden looks brilliant for the first ten years and then plants start to decline, the soil below the plastic layer is starving for organic matter from above.

In this, his latest video, Stefan shows the difference in growth rate where plastic was not used, no competition does make a huge difference.

An alternate system that we are using for orchard/food forest establishment is based on Martin Crawford’s system of using woven weed mat.

We put a strip of weed mat each side of a newly planted row for one or two years and then lift it and immediately plant heavily with carefully chosen varieties. The weed mat if carefully moved can be used again and again to kick start more orchard / food forest rows – perhaps a useful system up to a small commercial scale.

We have a side by side trial with a row that has support species planted and is minimally weeded and only roughly mulched. Growth in the weed matted row is at least thirty percent more after the first year.

Because of our non-stop grass growth the use of animal grazing as the primary understory layer of production has strong appeal. This limits under tree diversity but gives us important animal yields.

Training vs Pruning

I am sold on the tree training techniques that Stefan introduced us to. They are brilliantly systematic and solve many of the issues that I have had with trying to combine heading back of branches and only half training branches down. I look forward to trialling these on new trees and renovating old trees to this system.

Stefan talked a lot about autumn tree planting for good establishment of trees. This year through my nursery I am offering an earlier delivery of our certified organic bare root fruit trees (the end of June) and several customers from Stefan’s workshop have requested this. Hopefully the apple trees believe that autumn is here by then as they are still in full green leaf as I write in mid-May.

I have always pruned back my nursery trees before delivery to around one metre so that they grow strongly and branch low for my home gardener customers. I will leave them un-pruned for anyone wanting to use Stefan’s training system, if so I think you need to ensure little competition, good fertility and consistent moisture to achieve the growth and branching required. Growing Fruit Trees: Novel Concepts and Practices for Successful Care and Management covers the techniques Stefan described.

I look forward to many more well documented evolutions towards our shared vision of beautiful, diverse, productive, perennial polycultures.

Jason Ross

The Six Figure Farming NZ Tour

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Visit the Six Figure Farming NZ Tour website

Curtis Stone and Jean-Martin Fortier, are two of the leading lights in the urban farming movement, and they happen to be good friends. We spoke on Sunday about a NZ Tour through the month of February (2016), and the plan is firming up.

This will be a chance to meet and learn from these dynamic and powerful visionary urban farmers, who have proven their worth by making a very good living farming what seems like remarkably small plots of land, and in Curtis case, land he doesn’t own.


Curtis and JM will be running a series of one day workshops, one or two 2-day workshops and some public talks as we travel through the country. They may also be available for consulting, if anyone would like some focussed attention on their own project.

Come and learn how to make a good living farming, without having to buy the land. Here’s what an urban farmer from Vancouver has to say, in his article about Jean-Martin’s November’s workshop in New York. Moss Dance:

I started to realize that some of my assumptions about farming were not helping me to succeed. Especially the idea that I needed a large amount of investment money to make my farm more efficient and productive. Here are some farmers who have made smart, strategic investments in small-scale tools and systems and developed a way to make a really good living from a small acreage. I was inspired! I’ve always wanted to keep my farm small, so I’m really stoked about JM’s motto of growing better, not bigger. JMs infectious enthusiasm and amazing practical advice make him a Rock Star Farmer – someone new farmers can look to for inspiration as they build the next generation of farming and food.

If Urban Farming is your thing, or you think it might be, and if you’d like to be kept informed as the plans evolve, leave your name and email address here

BTW Curtis warned me, they can get a little rowdy when they get together. Bring it on I say!

I hope we’ll meet on the tour.

021 252 0653

Ooooby on the BONZTour

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Sending out a big thank you to Ooooby, who joined Air New Zealand as a major sponsor of the Beyond Organic NZ Tour. Pete Russell describes Ooooby’s mission – to rebuild the local food system – and how this is being done.

Membership Marketing from a Permaculture Orchard

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Stefan Sobkowiak’s detailed presentation of the membership marketing model he uses to share the abundance from his Permaculture Orchard. It was given near the end of the Beyond Organic NZ Tour at the Palmerston workshop on April 3rd.

Beyond Expectations

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I’ve been in this business for 25 years and I’ve learned to so much.

I teach this stuff, but this is fantastic.

He’s turned my world upside down.

Not a day goes by when we don’t reference something we learnt.

WaihekeWorkshopThese are just a few of the comments that were repeated throughout the trip, from start to end and they made all the planning and effort worthwhile. This tour was all about you – who came, listened, questioned and connected to old friends and made new ones. Thank you for embracing Stefan and his quirky and delightful humour so generously as he imparted an abundance of valuable, practical and relevant ideas and knowledge.

There’s still more to upload to the Resources page, then into planning the 2016  tour!

A huge thank you goes out to all the people who helped organise events in their area and hosted us along the way. Stephanie, Carson, Tana, Charles, Trish, Mike, James, Benji, Catherine, Janice, Greg, Marion, Sharon, Phil, Harvey, Gary, Emily, Adam, Jeremiah, Jacinta, Petra, Matt, Michael, Camila, Jason, Peta, Helen, Andrew, Brendan, Toni, Ben, Robin, Juliette, Mark, and many, many others (please accept my apologies for not listing you).

Coastal Otago – Great Weather, Great Company

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The third stop on the South Island tour included three events in the Dunedin area. Wednesday began with a workshop at Jason Ross’ Habitate Nursery, where Stefan spent the morning sharing details of the training and pruning techniques with eager participants. Jason suggested we would see some changes as a result of what he learnt.

We ended the day with a well attended evening at Otago Polytechnic’s Sargood Centre.

Good Friday saw another full-house workshop at Central Park Farm, hosted by Toni and Brendan Meredith, who had done a fabulous job of setting up the barn for the presentations, putting on a feast for lunch and handling every little detail needed to make it a perfect day of learning and exchange.

This was a workshop of firsts. Stefan presented the economic model of his U-Pick membership model, and for the first time we had the pleasure of seeing an orchard planting inspired by the Nitrogen, Apple, Pear/Plum (NAP) trio’s that Stefan’s Permaculture Orchard has made famous.

Edible Canterbury Hui – 29 March 2015

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Almost 100 people turned up yesterday to the Edible Canterbury Hui.

This hui followed on from the inaugural gathering of September 2013 and a second one in March 2014, which together formed the Food Resilience Network and subsequently its action plan, Edible Canterbury.

The day featured Quebec-based farmer Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farm, and James Samuel who spoke about Ooooby and the growth in Urban and Local food and next year’s Six Figure Farming tour – which Vicki Buck made a point of showing support for. They have been travelling the country on their Beyond Organic NZ tour sharing lessons learned in creating highly productive food systems, and inspired the audience to think differently about how growing space can best be used.

A special moment of the afternoon was the signing of the Edible Canterbury Charter, with Acting Mayor of Christchurch Vicki Buck speaking on behalf of the Christchurch City Council, who had voted unanimously in support of signing the Charter.

She was followed by representatives from nearly 20 other organisations and businesses who committed to working together collaboratively to realise the vision of a food resilient region.

The afternoon concluded with a workshop on the proposed Food Resilience Hub, which is the next priority in the Edible Canterbury Action Plan. Short talks from representatives from Agropolis Urban Farm, A Brave New City, Cultivate, Garden City 2.0 and the Biological Husbandry Unit, showed how their work could feed into the hub. Feedback from small breakout groups pointed to the need for the Hub to be on an accessible site (suburban possibly but preferably in the central city), of a size that was not only suitable for demonstrating different growing systems but also being highly productive, as well as educational.

Edible Canterbury will follow this workshop up with a more focussed session with those groups who have committed their time to working on a collaborative proposal to make this Hub a reality. For further information about Edible Canterbury, email

Guest post by Matt Morris