Balancing farmland preservation and development
The 15 year-old Crystal Waters Permaculture Village near Brisbane, Australia, is forging a model for the 'sustainable suburb' by nurturing diverse, small-scale agricultural enterprises in the midst of residential areas

By Kyle Holzhueter

June 11, 2004: Throughout the world, suburbs have been spreading, eating up valuable agricultural land and making it harder and harder to farm close to population centers. One of the most difficult problems facing regional and town planners is how to allow development without sacrificing valuable agricultural land. In Australia, the UN Habitat Award-winning Crystal Waters Permaculture Village offers one set of answers to that complex problem.

Located 100 km (62 mi) northeast of Brisbane, Crystal Waters Permaculture Village is a community of 83 separate households united in their desire to live a more environmentally friendly life. Some residents work the land, others work off the property in nearby towns, and still others are self-employed providing goods and services to Crystal Waters and the surrounding region. Now in its sixteenth year, the community is slowly evolving into a model ecovillage.

Map of Crystal Waters.
For larger image click here
An ecovillage is a human-scale, full-featured settlement which integrates human activities harmlessly into the natural environment, supports healthy human development, and can be continued into the indefinite future. Toward this end, Crystal Waters was one of the world’s first villages designed according to the principles of permaculture. The word permaculture, coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, is a contraction of two words, permanent and agriculture. But it involves more than just organic farming: it is a design system for creating sustainable human environments by harmoniously integrating landscapes and people to provide food, energy, shelter, and other needs.

More than 230 people reside on Crystal Waters’ 259 hectares (640 ac). About 14 percent of the total land area is divided into 83, 0.4-ha (1-ac) private lots. These lots can be bought and sold on the open market. An additional 6 percent of the land belongs to the Crystal Waters Community Co-operative and is commercially zoned; this area includes the village center and visitors' accommodation. The remaining 80 percent—over 500 acres—is owned in common by all lot holders and is available for sustainable agriculture, forestry, recreation, and habitat. The common land represents Crystal Waters’ primary approach to preserving valuable agricultural resources.

Crystal Waters was designed and developed by Max Lindegger, Robert Tap, Geoff Young, and Berry Goodman beginning in 1985. During the design process, the most valuable agricultural land was identified and reserved for the commons—no private lots were sited in these areas. As Lindegger explains, “the aim of Crystal Waters was to establish a sustainable village by design. We wanted a place where agricultural land and environmental assets could be preserved, a place that would provide affordable freehold land and space to grow some food."

"Some of the best soils on the east coast of Australia exist near the city of Brisbane," Lindegger continues. "We should be growing food on this land, but instead we are growing ‘mushrooming’ suburbs, causing food production to be pushed out further and further.”

Approval to use the common land is granted by the Crystal Waters Body Corporate Committee, which manages the 'land use licenses'. The committee consists of seven people elected by the lot holders each year. The best agricultural land is licensed to lot holders for farming operations. The Village Farm raises biodynamic dairy cattle, pigs, and chickens on common land for exclusive community consumption; common land is also licensed for commercial agriculture. Other enterprises operating on the Crystal Waters commons include community orchards, aquaculture, and forestry.

Crystal Waters has an official ‘organic policy’. This means that how land is used, both common and private, must adhere to organic standards as defined by the current Australian National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce.

Much of the agricultural activity at Crystal Waters takes place on private lots in residents' back and front yards. Many residents are fruit and vegetable self-sufficient and some keep micro-livestock on their private lots as well. What follows are brief descriptions of a few of the commercial agricultural enterprises marketing to Crystal Waters and other nearby residents. These enterprises operate on common land and/or add value to products raised on common land.

Caring for the earth

Earth Care Enterprises is a Crystal Waters-based partnership active in permaculture design, consultancy, and education. Among their specialties is the exploration, research, and development of exotic plant and animal species with economic potential.

Since 1989, Earth Care Enterprises has leased 2 ha (5 ac) of common land, called Earth Care Farm, for the cultivation of bamboo, aquatic plants, and other crops. Species currently propagated include bamboos, Chinese water chestnuts, lotus, taro (Colocasia esculenta), tannia (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), yam, cassava, arrowroot, Asian species of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae), and miscellaneous fruits, herbs, and spices. Many are sold as plants and some are supplied as fresh foods to restaurants and retailers. (Their website, www.earthcare.com.au, provides color photos of most species.)

Earth Care cultivates over 30 species of bamboo, but the two species primarily grown are Phyllostachys heterocycla, the most widely cultivated bamboo in China and Japan (the Japanese name is 'moso'), and Phyllostachys bambusoides ('madake' in Japanese). Both species have edible shoots and are also used in building. Earth Care sells fresh bamboo shoots and water chestnuts to restaurants and retailers in Sydney’s Chinatown. “In the future, we’d like to market Thai soup packs including all of the essential fresh ingredients to fruit shops and local supermarkets,” says Earth Care's Berry O’Connell.

A small-scale silvopasture system

Max Lindegger, one of Crystal Waters' original designers, received Australia’s Centenary Medal for his work in developing sustainable communities. Today, in addition to a busy schedule of teaching and consulting, he runs a certified organic farm on common land at Crystal Waters. The farm consists of two, cell-grazing silvopasture systems, one combining Lowline Angus beef cattle (a miniature breed) with pecan and kaffir lime trees; the other combining sheep with citrus. Silvopasture is a type of agroforestry mixing tree crops with forages and livestock.

For more information on Crystal Waters and its farming systems

Crystal Waters Permaculture Village
The Crystal Waters homepage, featuring loads of info for prospective visitors, WWOOFers, and home buyers

Australian New Crops
From the University of Queensland, an extensive site with info about new and unusual crop plants worldwide.

Bamboo Society of Australia
Includes links to many other such groups worldwide.

Agroforestry.net
A Hawaii-based, non-profit site devoted to traditional tree crops and cutting-edge agroforestry systems of the Pacific Islands

Better Pastures for the Tropics and Subtropics
Detailed agronomic info on dozens of grass and legume species.

Lindegger believes that this system makes optimum use of the land. On 2 ha (5 ac), he grows 120 pecan trees on a 10-meter grid, 80 kaffir limes in rows, and grazes about 10 cattle and a couple of calves. The pecans and kaffir limes were planted in 1996; the Lowline Angus have been part of the system since 1999.

The 2 ha block is divided into 17 to 27 cells, depending on herd size and pasture quality. The cattle graze each cell for two to four days; individual cells rest from 40 to 90 days before being grazed again. Some of the surrounding steep land is fenced off and used to attract beneficial, pest-controlling insects.

In a silvopasture system the cattle, trees, and pasture exist in a symbiotic relationship. The trees provide shade for the cattle, reducing heat stress, compaction, and over fertilizing. In this subtropical climate, Lindegger believes that the pasture also grows better in partial shade.

Lindegger argues that cell or rotational grazing has numerous advantages over continuous grazing. Compaction around gates and watering points is reduced, manure is more evenly spread, and tick and worm populations are kept in check by being periodically denied access to their grazing hosts. Most important, cell grazing fosters a more productive pasture of desirable forage legumes and grasses, since livestock are forced to eat all the available herbage and then move on, allowing the plants to regrow, rather than selectively returning to their favorite species again and again.

The dominant native grass in this area is kangaroo grass. Before Lindegger took over these paddocks, the subtropical pasture grasses kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum), paspalum (Paspalum dilatatum), Rhodes grass (Chloris gayana), and setaria (Setaria sphacelata) were seeded, and Lindegger has sought to improve the pasture further with rye and Japanese millet. As for legumes, he has seeded a mix of perennial species, including white clover, alfalfa, lotononis (Lotononis bainesii), shaw creeping vigna (Vigna parkeri), and cardillo centro (a cultivar of Centrosema pubescens).

In the spring, Lindegger overseeds with Japanese millet and cowpeas; in the autumn, with annual rye and lupines. He uses the grazing animals to help with the pasture renovation: while the cattle are grazing a cell, he broadcasts the seed and the cattle trample it into the ground. The plants are then given four to six weeks to establish. To see if a re-seeded cell is ready for grazing, Lindegger tries to pull up a rye plant: if he can pull out the entire plant, it’s too early. When reintroducing the cattle, he doesn’t allow them to graze too hard their first time back. He ensures that plenty of stubble is left behind and irrigates if there is no rain.

Lindegger has had his soil tested every year since he started farming this block. Following the recommendations, he’s applied liquid lime, ground lime, and rock phosphate. He’s also applied some biodynamic preparations. The results are evident: whereas Lindegger initially had acidic soils with a 4 percent organic matter content, he now has a balanced soil with an organic matter content of almost 10 percent, which is quite high for this region. As Lindegger says, “the proof is in the pudding. The cattle have come through the drought really well and in 2003 we harvested a good crop of nuts.”

The sourdough bread that keeps the community together


The Crystal Waters Sourdough Bakery grew out of Les Bartlett’s desire to build a community wood-fired oven. He thought that a communal oven could be used for communal meals, which in turn would strengthen the community. Little did he know that through working with the world famous oven builder Allen Scott and various other sourdough bakers, he would become the first Crystal Waters’ sourdough baker. The oven was built in June 2001 and now bakes eight kinds of hand mixed, long-fermented, organic sourdough bread weekly. The bakery is now the focal point of Crystal Waters' Saturday market.

All flours used by the bakery are organic, stone-ground, and purchased from local mills. Bartlett says that eventually he’d like to establish a stone mill at Crystal Waters and use grain grown on-site. The wood used to fire the oven comes from fallen trees on and around Crystal Waters and from sustainable forestry operations on common land.

Bartlett makes a point of only selling locally, and as much as possible directly to the consumer. In addition to the Crystal Waters’ market, he sells at three other nearby farmers' markets and to the Maleny Maple Street Co-op, which emphasizes local and organic products. Although there is an overwhelming demand for the 350 loaves of Crystal Waters’ bread baked weekly, Bartlett is not interested in expanding. Instead, he’d like to help other communities establish their own village bakeries.

Bartlett's primary goal is to produce good quality sourdough bread for Crystal Waters. He laments how the industrial system—which values speed and convenience—puts unhealthy, factory-baked bread on the tables of faceless customers. “Many of the additives in store bought bread are petrochemical-based, and that’s what we’re trying to get away from.”

The cheese factory that was

John and Christine Hegerty started Mary River Cheeses out of a desire to run a small, family business. They began researching cheese making in 1998, and then built a cheese factory to code in 2000. The facility was built in Crystal Waters' commercial zone, adjacent to common land used for pasture, and was licensed by the Queensland Dairy Authority for a little over two years. Using milk sourced from Crystal Waters’ Village Farm and other local dairies, they sold four kinds of cheeses, including a feta marinated in olive oil with garlic and herbs. They began by selling direct to customers at farmers' markets. Soon they met chefs searching for quality ingredients and began to sell to top restaurants as well. Although having their cheeses used by high-end chefs was gratifying, the Hegertys found that changing menus translated into inconsistent demand. As John explains, “we could go six months on selling to a restaurant, and then six months off.”

Mary River Cheeses won a silver National Dairy award and several gold medals at regional shows, but the Hegertys found they just couldn’t make money. “Making quality cheeses wasn’t difficult. Selling them was the hard part,” says John. They joined a group of small specialist cheese makers in Australia that entitled them to consult with Neal Willman, an expert cheese maker, teacher, and judge. He told them they needed a larger pasteurizer to decrease labor and increase efficiency, and also recommended they cut down on variety and focus on one, high-quality, unique cheese at a premium price.

In retrospect, the Hegertys see that to be successful, they would have needed more capital—three or four times what they had to invest—and more labor. Ultimately, time spent in the cheese factory took away from family time. But Christine looks on the bright side: “We lost money, but the important thing is that the family survived. There’s no use crying over it, because it was a great learning experience.”

Past lessons, future promise

Earth Care Enterprises and Max Lindegger’s organic farm demonstrate good use of common land set aside for agricultural purposes. The Crystal Waters Sourdough Bakery and the Cheese Factory suggest how products raised on common land can be processed and marketed locally.

More, certainly, could be done. Looking back on the evolution of the community, Lindegger says, “I think as designers, we left the common land at Crystal Waters a little bit hanging because we were afraid of putting our opinion too strongly onto the land. But these days I would establish a management plan, rather than just saying ‘let’s protect the agricultural land and people will come and use it.’ I think it would be much more productive and desirable and perhaps would attract people who want to come here and do serious agriculture." If he has a regret, it's that relatively "few people are taking the opportunity to use the agricultural land.”

Nonetheless, Crystal Waters is a working example of agricultural land preservation without excluding growth. Crystal Waters shows that with good design, development and agriculture can be integrated. In light of suburban sprawl, we may have no other choice.

Kyle Holzhueter has studied natural approaches to agriculture in Japan and environmental design in Australia. He plans to study sustainable systems in graduate school with hopes of developing a demonstration homestead and furthering the eco-village movement in North America. He is currently a garden apprentice at Sankanac Garden CSA of Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, Kimberton PA.