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

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).

New Zealand’s 20 Hectare Food Forest

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It’s not every day you see, experience and explore the intricacies of a 20 Hectare (50 acre) food forest. Its scale impacted all of us, even in its early establishment phase. This event at James Cameron’s Wairarapa food forest, was the crescendo workshop on the Beyond Organic NZ Tour to date, due to the sheer scale of the project.

Gary and Emily Williams of have been leading this project for the last two years and Gary kicked off the day by presenting the history and design. Then we headed out in a convoy to see the result of the recent winter planting of 5,000+ trees.

Many lessons have already been learned on the site and it has raised the bar for future projects of a similar or larger scale.

There was an abundance of discussion in the field, led by Gary, Emily, Matt and Stefan, before coming back for a most delicious lunch put on by chef Dave. The afternoon began with a presentation by Stefan followed by group practice in polyculture design.

This project is a valuable demonstration for anyone looking to transition from monoculture to polyculture, and take on a regenerative approach to food production. Through hosting this educational event, the Cameron family are making an important gesture of support that will inspire many others as they undertake large scale projects, now and into the future.

Stefan Sobkowiak / Gary Williams / James Samuel

If you are lucky enough to live in the South Island, we’re on our way to see you. The first South Island workshop is in Motueka (March 27th), then Christchurch (March 29-30th), Dunedin (April 1st-3rd) and finally Hawea Flat and Arrowtown (April 5th & 6th). Check the calendar of events for details and registration – as one of the participants posted on the Facebook page, “If Stefan is coming anywhere near you, GO!”

Presentation 2 – first given March 24

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This alternartive presentation was given at the Wairarapa workshop on March 24th.

Stefan’s Presentation

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People have been asking for this . . .