By Graham Towerton
I was born in rural New South Wales in Australia, in an area dedicated to growing grapes, citrus, olives, vegetables, wheat, rice, and barley. My grandparents were farming grains and my parents lived on the corner of a property owned by Italian farmers who grew grapes, olives, citrus, and pomegranates. My parents always had some form of a vegetable garden and also were fruit and vegetable growers on a farm in Queensland. So, for my entire life, I’ve had the experience of growing food, and my memories of gardening date all the way back to my pre-school years.
For the most part, my parents gardened and farmed without the use of chemicals; they were not completely organic, but they understood the harm and the need to minimize their use. When we had our farm we also had chickens and ducks. Excess produce was sold or converted into pies, cakes, and pickles for sale at local farmers’ markets or bartered for other goods. All of these experiences helped me to understand that it was possible to live off the land. From that point forward, that became my goal. Wherever I lived after I left university, I had some form of a garden for herbs, vegetables, and salad greens. Then the incorporation of fruit trees depended on whether I owned the property and whether it was large enough to accommodate their size.
In Australia, we had several “Back to the Land” magazines including Grass Roots and Earth Garden. Within the pages of these, I started to read about permaculture as developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Widely regarded initially as a “hippie agriculture movement”, it was not given the credibility it now has earned and was not widely adopted except through the efforts of the founding teachers and practitioners and their permaculture design students. At that time I never thought permaculture could be a career opportunity as it was just a handful of people doing consulting work, or educating others, but no cohesive business activity or structure. I thought that permaculture would simply be something that landowners would learn about and apply themselves to their own properties. So I went to the University of Queensland in Brisbane and obtained a chemical engineering degree after which I started work with Shell as their environmental engineer for their refinery in Sydney.
I’ve moved a lot during my work career as an engineer and from time to time I bump into people who have learned, understood, and applied permaculture principles, typically in areas where the climate is harsh and dry and where permaculture comes to the forefront as a method to modify soils, moisture, and landscapes to allow planting of desired fruit and vegetables in landscapes that would not ordinarily accommodate their growth. Places like Toodyay and Port Hedland in Western Australia, and Dumas north of Amarillo in Texas. Locations where growers can easily wear themselves out trying to grow anything if they don’t adopt a different way of growing.
When I first watched Geoff Lawton’s “Greening The Desert” I had instant admiration for the ability to use permaculture as a means to grow plants and produce food in the very harshest of climates. I recognized that if he could grow 10 acres of a food forest in an area adjacent to the Dead Sea, what excuses could I use for not being able to grow in climates not near as bad? This is one aspect of permaculture that is important to me and was one of the first aspects I learned – being able to grow food anywhere even in harsh climates, adapting to the climate, and modifying its impacts where possible.
Because of all of the moves I have made with my career, I have rarely had the opportunity to plant fruit trees and stay long enough to harvest the fruit. But that has not stopped me from planting, recognizing that the next person or family to occupy my property would have a head start on their own fruit and perhaps would encourage them to plant more of their own. The very act of planting also inspired other people to do the same. Neighbors and friends would visit and ask why I bothered, doubting that anything would grow. Others would say “If he can, then I can” and sometimes this led to a small group of crazy guys deciding to buy 300 olive trees to plant on three properties in rural Western Australia; or another guy being inspired to buy a vineyard and start planting other fruits and vegetables (who has since gone on to start one of the largest truffle farms in Australia). Helping a neighbor plant, grow, and harvest the makings for homemade pizza in a homemade pizza oven. Another aspect I’ve learned through these experiences about permaculture is the aspect of the community – perhaps the most important aspect. Two of the three ethics of permaculture are “Care for People” and “Share the Surplus”. Both of these imply active participation and encouragement and support of others within a community.
So after 30+ years of practicing permaculture in small and large ways, I decided I would get my formal qualifications as a Permaculture Design Consultant. That was a goal I had set for myself even before I left Australia to come to the US, but it was only just realized in 2021. I had always wanted to do my PDC being taught by Geoff Lawton, but the journey back to Australia was too much in time and cost to really afford. Coinciding with COVID, the ability to do an online course, self-paced over six months without leaving my home, enabled me to obtain those formal qualifications. The vast majority of my coursework was done while stuck in hotels during COVID and deciding not to watch the junk on TV that passes for entertainment these days. In October of 2021, I obtained my PDC and completed a major “bucket list” item.
While doing the course, the theory of permaculture as a design science became far more apparent. Things that I had been doing in the past as natural progressions of my own learning were explained in detail. Things I had been doing incorrectly became more apparent and also necessary to correct. But I learned that there is indeed a “method to the madness” within permaculture and many of those theories had already been proven through my own experiences.
In January 2022, I joined Food Forest Abundance as a designer. Immediately it became apparent that a permaculture career was now possible. While continuing my work as an engineer and still traveling, I spent my evenings and weekends completing design work moving toward the inevitable goal of making permaculture a full-time opportunity. It didn’t take long. Frustrated with all the travel that took me away from home (often for weeks) and almost unable to work in my own gardens at all, in June of 2022 I concluded my 34-year career as a chemical engineer except for a little consulting work that helps pay the bills. Since starting with Food Forest Abundance, I’ve completed over 30 designs and collaborated with other designers on many others – including one in my home country of Australia.
I’ve now firmly started the new journey of helping others to design their properties with permaculture principles and methods applied in detailed designs. I’m also enjoying being an installer and seeing the joy of families that have never gardened before being able to improve their self-sufficiency and reap a harvest in their own backyards. As I now have more time at home, I’m also developing my own property to embody all of the principles and practices of permaculture, towards becoming a demonstration and education center in the future.
Hopefully, another 30+ years of permaculture design and practice is before me, and the opportunity to work with many people in many communities. All are aimed at helping people produce more of their own fruits and vegetables in a sustainable and lasting way.