Words & Photos By Robyn Rosenfeldt
A rise in interest in permaculture during the pandemic has highlighted the important role its practices play in building household and community resilience.
Faced with limited access to goods and services, many Australians turned to permaculture practices as a solution to the pressures associated with the coronavirus pandemic. From the early days when panic buying cleared supermarket shelves, to the recent higher-level lockdowns, more people are recognising the benefits a more sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle can have during a crisis.
The importance of growing your own food has been highlighted more than ever during the both the pandemic and bushfire crises. The interruption of large supply chains combined with panic buying left supermarket shelves empty and people began to question just how secure the industrial food system really is.
Growing food provides a sense of security in an otherwise volatile world. Knowing how to grow at least some food and having it available regardless of what’s happening elsewhere means you’ll always have something to feed you and your family. Add in a few chooks for eggs and your level of security increases; no longer are you so reliant on a removed food system.
If the sales of seeds and seedlings are anything to go by, the impacts of the pandemic encouraged people to grow more food. Mat Pember, author and founder of The Little Veggie Patch Co, has experienced a huge spike in sales and reveals many customers are ‘concerned about breakdowns in the supply chain and want to “get off grid” as quickly as possible,’ he says. ‘Others have been meaning to get their vegie patches up and running, but just haven’t got around to it. Now they have more time at home, and more of a reason to, they’re ready to go,’ Pember says.
Eight months after Australia first went into lockdown, people are experiencing the positives of growing their own food. If we can keep this up, we’ll be less reliant on big supermarkets and more on ourselves, our friends, our neighbours and our communities.
In The Home
Self-reliance isn’t limited to the garden, it includes making your own staples, too. The first lockdown saw a spike in the popularity of baking sourdough and flour was among the first items to disappear from shelves as people aimed towards becoming master bakers. With many jobs lost and the system we relied on for so long screeching to a halt, people were forced to take action, empowering themselves by sharing food, skills and produce.
This self-reliance extends to all aspects of life. From making your own clothing, skincare and cleaning products through to ferments and cured meats. Having these skills and knowing you can meet the needs of yourself and your loved ones gives you back control of what vulnerable supply chains can so quickly take away.
Since the start of the pandemic, people have been overwhelmingly eager to share skills and knowledge online. Webinars, workshops, talks and lectures are being made increasingly available and, more often than not, offered for free. Never before has there been such great access to so many wise and wonderful people willing to share their knowledge and it’s a great opportunity to learn from experts from all over the world.
And as the interest in permaculture rises, uptake of courses has grown exponentially. From online courses, requests for permaculture design work and people implementing what they’re learning at home, the growth is beyond what any of the providers have seen before. According to permaculture designer and educator Fionn Quinlan, it represents a community-wide shift.
‘We’ve been getting calls out of the blue way outside of our usual circle of influence,’ he says. ‘We’ve never been busier with design and implementation work and our Permaculture Design Courses – although limited in numbers – are for the first time completely full. They are selling out way ahead of any [courses] conducted in the years prior to the pandemic.’
It proves people are ready to become more resilient in an uncertain world and no longer want to rely on large external systems.
Barter, Forage, Share
It’s really important we become more self-reliant as a community and, as Permacoach’s Meg McGowen says, ‘collectively we each only need to do a little.’ You don’t have to have a green thumb to access locally grown food. You can buy from local farmers and growers, you can barter with neighbours, you can forage food from your community (see our feature on page 44) or get involved in a community food swap.
Many towns and neighbourhoods have created a communal place to share food and other necessities. As the pandemic pulled the gate shut on the way farmers’ markets were run, producers and consumers are finding innovative ways to trade directly.
Small-scale food systems that rely on local producers are far more likely to survive a pandemic when international and interstate travel is restricted. Brisbane food hub Food Connect has experienced a quadrupling of sales since the pandemic began, as customers reacted to the uncertainty of supply. Driven by more than just reliable supply, customers now want to know where their food comes from and they’re supporting the local farmers who feed them.
Spending time in nature, specifically in the garden growing food, is a great opportunity for those people stuck at home to take a break from their busy households. Between working from home and remote learning, the multiple demands placed on parents during this time is pushing some to breaking point. But spending time in the garden, even for five minutes, is a great way to relieve stress and take a breather.
According to Sustain’s Pandemic Gardening survey, ‘over 70 percent of the survey respondents said growing food had significantly or greatly improved their mental health, while over 80 percent said gardening during the COVID-19 period had been very important to them.’
The simple act of placing your hands in the soil puts you in touch with beneficial microbes that can not only increase your health but also your happiness. A well-balanced microbiome is proven to improve overall wellbeing and happiness.
The permaculture practices of self-reliance and increased community connection are what is needed in a pandemic. If you have the knowledge and skills to make your own, grow your own, fix, repair and create, you are not going to get stuck when the large-scale systems shut down. We need to build up these skills not just within our own households but within our communities. Because together we are stronger.