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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Merri Bee Organic Farmacy

 Two small properties in Western Australia, 10 hectares in Nannup ( the mythical town of “Seacliffe” in the  movie “Drift”) and 20 hectares in Karridale, constitute Merri Bee Organic Farmacy. Operators   Stewart Seesink and Bee Winfield  are together creating a permaculture,  a natural system of perennial abundance to  satisfy human needs for food, shelter, energy , community and wilderness forever. They believe Hippocrates was right when he said  500 "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be they food". Organic food is powerful preventative medicine.
 The  cleared,  steep and degraded piece of rural land in Nannup has largely been restored  to abundance over 30 years.
 "When I first came here there were only 5 trees. It was over grazed by horses and covered in doublegees” says Bee. The first 8 years were spent pulling them out, but the paddock furtherest from the house never got weeded. But the double gees died out naturally never to return. A valuable lesson  was learnt. Doublegees like other prickly or bitter plants, are natures way of protecting soil from over grazing. The lazy solution to doublegees turned out to be simply understocking and getting a healthy cover of mixed plants in various stages of growth and decay on the soil all year round.
Bee designed and has now largely implemented a ‘closed loop’ system in which the yields and by-products of one enterprise are used to satisfy the needs of another. On this mixed farm, nutrients are constantly circulating and water and energy are harvested by multiple elements. “We aim to return perennial vegetation to the land, then gradually introduce animals as the trees and other plants establish. This mimics a natural ecosystem’s biodiversity but uses food  plants and animals from all over the world. In a forest you have the conditions soil microbes need to thrive and therefore you maximize the transformation of nutrients into plant available foods.”  The couple now produce food with forgotten flavours and medicinal qualities because the soil biology is coming back.
Stewart and Bee make their  living solely from farming ,selling from the produce of their permaculture of over 100 species of rare fruit and nut trees, at the Margaret River Farmers  market most Saturdays, and delivering to loyal Perth customers once a month.  They enjoy the contact with "their families" watching kids they help to nourish grow. Bee says kids have the best palate and often send their mums back to get Merri Bee eggs, pork , lamb or kale. Yes, kale!  Their mums appreciate  produce with long keeping properties and marvelous aromas.
Their other  passion  is creating space for wilderness and seeing wildlife returning.

  The food forest also not only supports wildlife but the farm livestock: chooks, pigs, ducks, geese, sheep, alpacas and jersey cows as well . Acorns are popular with the sheep, pigs and cows, as is sheoak, poplar, willow and coprosma. Says Stewart “ What we’ve discovered is that cows like to browse trees, not just grass, and unlike grass, many trees are green all year round. Its the  trees and perennial pasture plants with deep roots that bring up minerals from the subsoil which keeps our animals healthy. They are also photosynthesizing year round, therefore  pumping carbon  from the air, and injecting it deep into the soil  all year round.

 Bee and Stew grow cereal grains on areas previously “ploughed” by the pigs ... broadcasting wheat and mulching over the seeds by hand. They don’t like to rely on fossil fuel and heavy machines, preferring to use animal “tractors” which fertilise, weed and turn a profit or food. They are constantly refining low energy methods of growing.
Says Bee “Neither chemicals nor artificial fertilizers have been used here for the past 20 years.  Trace element lick blocks, seaweed, biodynamic grain  and woodchips from Western Power line clearing are the farms only inputs. We compost green waste of neighbours and make compost tea as well”
 The BD grain for supplementing the free range chooks and pigs diet is the expensive input, costing $500 a ton, with freight also $500. Bee said “We think it’s worth the cost to have no chemical residues in their feed"

. There are an estimated 50 million types of soil bacteria and 50 million types of soil fungi which do amazing ecological services. They  are capable of reversing climate change, but they are sensitive to agrichemicals and ultraviolet light.Climate change in this South West corner of W.A. is very obvious to anyone who has had their hands in the soil in the same district for a few decades. It is crippling and I think this issue has got to be tackled full on”
 Bee thinks the role farmers and gardeners can play in literally saving the planet, is huge.

 “Clearing and cultivation of land has reduced average soil carbon levels from around 8% to 0.7%, and obviously that carbon has entered the atmosphere. We are into reversing that , regenerating soil with CO2 through plants.  Sustainable soil management strategies such as cell grazing can rebuild soil carbon levels,  turning agriculture from a greenhouse gas liability into a carbon and methane sink."
Bee says  that anyone who makes compost is meaningfully offsetting GHG emissions and breeding menthantrophic bacteria which "eat" methane.

 Stew added “What has been destroyed can be repaired. We now know the importance of vegetation to rainfall and know how to repair ecosystems .... we just have to get cracking on it on a massive scale.“
 Both Stew and Bee are involved in permaculture teaching and consultancy, with
Stew specialising in placement of access roads and water harvesting earthworks such as swales. Bee conducts regular farm tours and composting workshops and particularly welcomes youth and conventional farmers to come see what strategies inspired by permaculture 's founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren  have achieved here.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


"It just seems that they have declared war on the planet."  Pete Lane 

DePAw lit up a large forest block ( Kearney block, about 64 sq km) on April 20th and must take responsibility for the health impacts this is, and will have, on hundreds of  residents. Kearney block is about 2 km southwest of Nannup. Unfortunately many such blocks of similar size, set aside by all govts since 1920 as high conservation value, were logged in 2012. Should these all be burnt this autumn there will be implications for human health (1) and climate change will accelerate. Burning forests produce more hazardous smoke than burning coal.(2)
 It turns out that the very weather conditions which favor safe burning conditions in terms of homes and property damage,  maximizes  human health effects.  Virtually no wind and dew every evening has  ensured the residents sat in carcinogenic smoke every night for more than a week and counting. Health impacts of exposures to these gases and some of the other wood smoke constituents (e.g., benzene) are well characterized in thousands of publications. The Polycyclic aromatics released  in particular are not only  irritants,  but mutagenic,  carcinogenic, and neurotoxic. 
As a nearby resident I was not warned of this controlled burn. Were people with  pre-existing heart or lung conditions warned? Data suggests there was an increase in out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in Melbourne during the 2006-2007 bushfire season in Victoria, many hundreds of kms away from where the forest was burning in the Victorian Alps. (3)
The conventional thinking has been that controlled burns are needed to reduce debris under the forested areas to reduce the intensity of a fire. Recent fires have showed controlled burning has little to no effect in slowing, reducing and stopping forest fires. Recent Northcliffe fires are a case in point. A lightening strike in a prescribe burnt area started the fire. The fire quickly spread .Fire Chiefs were expecting  that when  the fire  reached a certain area that had been prescribe burnt 5 years earlier, it would slow down and  be containable. It did not slow down. 
Controlled burns don't stop wildfires but they do cause human and native health and crop damage. So why are we burning again ? There is little reason to continue putting the health and welfare of local residents, animals and agricultural systems (grapes etc) at risk with annual controlled burns. With residents ill, crops damaged, health damaged, lifestyle damaged, the sentiment that wood smoke ,(being a natural substance)  must be benign  is still sometimes heard. It is now well established, however, that wood-burning stoves and fireplaces as well as wild land and agricultural fires emit significant quantities of known health-damaging pollutants, including several carcinogenic compounds (e.g., polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, aldehydes, respirable particulate matter, carbon monoxide [CO], nitrogen oxides [NOx], and other free radicals) (4)The range of potentially toxic gases and other substances of concern include atmospheric mercury, ozone precursors and volatile organic compounds. 
When I rang the hospital to enquire about a respirator. the nurse said I should go for a drive to some fresh air. I rang the department DePAw duty offficer and asked him “where is there some fresh air? “ He was a nice young man who said he couldn’t help me. He said there were fires everywhere and not just  his department's fires burning, but farmers and householders. Everyone is keen to “reduce fire risk” to their property....what about risks to something more important , our health? 

Does the government have the right or legal freedom to cause us harm

 Could we not plant fire retardant trees shrubs and ground covers as fire breaks? Growing these shelter belts would ameliorate climate change which leads to increase in wild fire intensity and frequency. South Hampton homestead owner Jeff Pow told me some of his animals sheltered behind a Robinia hedge to survive.  Oaks also provided shelter for fire fighters in the blaze, while other tree species exploded.
Eucalyptus forest burns. Our native forests have been artificially created by human intervention (fire) in recent history. We humans should not live in the forest, or we should protect our homes with fire retardant plants and intelligent design rather than controlled burns. 
 Land developers have an obligation here to develop already cleared land , not settle people amongst the  trees.
Solution!  We can reduce  property loss  from bushfire and other catastrophic results of global climate change by planting buffer zones of flame retardant  vegetation. 
In other words, we fight  fire not with fire but with plants. Logged forest areas should  be  left  un-burnt  to decompose  into humus ( it doesn’t burn, and facilitates the growth of plants which in turn create lush conditions )
 We can make soak up carbon from the air by making compost, and again by  planting  the many flame retardant species available (5)  (eg Robinia, succulents) to shelter our homes and livestock from  fires.
References supplied below.
Thanks, Bee Winfield   Thomas Rd Nannup 

2)Burning forests are more dangerous than burning coal:
3) heart conditions worsened by smoke inhalation
   4)  Tuthill, 1984; Koenig & Pierson, 1991; Larson and Koenig, 1994; Leonard et al., 2000; Dubick et al., 2002; Smith, 1987; Traynor et al., 1987).
[ Smoke  travels]  and “ is known to irritate the  respiratory system, but evidence suggests it's the particles that damage people's health, says Dr Fay Johnston from Menzies Research Institute in Tasmania. Dr Dennekamp adds it's the very small particles – those with an aerodynamic diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometres – that are likely to cause the most significant concern”."And in particular the very small particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs," she says.“Symptoms caused by these particles can continue for days after they are inhaled.”
WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer(IARC) scientist Christopher Wild says"We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”
NSW Air Quality Monitoring agency says:"An air quality alert may be raised when pollutant concentrations reach levels which exceed national air quality standards for gaseous pollutants (ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide), fine particles …. During an air quality alert, people sensitive to the effects of air pollution are likely to feel its impacts (POOR and VERY POOR categories) or during extreme episodes of air pollution such as during prolonged bushfires (HAZARDOUS category) which can affect everyone's health" 

 5) a small sample of suitable flame retardant species : salt bush,Coprosma, elms, oaks, willow, guavas, tagasaste, paulownia, hydrangea, geranium, comfrey, sweet potatoe, alfalfa tree tomatoe  etc. For a list of native plants that will not burn in the face of continuing flame, see this website . People can test more plants by throwing a small branchlet into a fire and watching how it behaves.

 We may be exposed to the obvious hazards of a wild  fire occasionally in our lives  but  this has been a
(poorly) planned event . Many other folks will be similarly afflicted as the score of other same sized forest blocks in the shire and adjacent shires,  logged 2 years ago,  are burnt. Mowen and Helms recently logged will swell  the area beyond the 640 square km area already logged .   We  know that the logging operation runs at a financial loss, and cancer treatment was certainly not factored in .
This is all just so crazy, but we can revolutionize the thinking:
Fear of fire will lead to the felling of  what is left of  native vegetation since white settlement ( 5 %), and the repeated burning of anything that tries to grow. As society  clambers to protect property in the face of climate change and it’s resulting increase in the  frequency and intensity of bushfires, expect  guys with matches  to destabilize climate further and therefore increase the threat of wildfire with every prescribed burn. As Alan Savory warned us: burning bush is more toxic and polluting than burning coal, and far more so than cars.
Fear of fire could be addressed with green fire breaks. Says the Nannup Council, as it encourages landowners to burn roadside vegetation but to take precautions “Smoke over roads can create an extremely hazardous environment for road users”
but I have replied, what about  breathers and eaters?  Air quality and climate are more important considerations, actually.
  I am asking Main Roads  ( who have cut down a lot of Jarrah and Marri trees lately in the name of road safety ( but there- in is another issue: sadly a method of suicide around here is to aim your car at a big tree on the side of the road) ) to please encourage the  planting of flame retardant vegetation on all roadsides, which would create extremely good air quality and a safe climate.  Main Roads could encourage the planting of deciduous trees and succulents instead of mandating natives.  We have taken over the management of our road side verge at Karridale because otherwise it is sprayed annually with Round Up. Much bureaucracy later, we’ve STOPPED THE SPRAYING and been allowed  to  plant trees on this grassed verge, but only natives. Let us research species which are unburnable and unpalatable to kangaroos. With fear of fire addressed in this manner,  we can dispense with thousands of liters of carcinogenic  Round Up being used on roadsides . This obviously poisons  waterways. Succulents are drought tolerant and do not burn, climb over embankments, are easily propagated  and maybe even taste yuk to roos. With teams of young ones potting up pig face in organic soil, who may otherwise feel lonely and depressed ( remember good soil is an anti depressant) , climate change,  suicide, air quality and fire protection would all be addressed at once. If you like the plan, please agitate for it by contacting your council, fire chief,  MP, minister for health, the environment, forestry,  and the Premier.