The eye of the soil

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Juergen and I were introduced to an empowering method of soil testing during a Biofertiliser workshop at Milkwood Farm presented by Eugenio Gras from Mexico. A long time advocate of Permaculture and organic farming, Eugenio is involved in Mas Humus (More Humus), an organisation that works with Mexican farmers to build soil fertility. Among other pioneering work, he and his colleagues at Mas Humus have introduced thousands of farmers to soil chromatography which is a cheap (about 3 USD per test), easy, and effective way to access and monitor soil improvement at any time, and as frequently as needed without having to depend on expensive laboratory tests.

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soil chroma

So, how does soil chromatography work? What you’re looking at is the end product of a chromatography soil test. It is a chroma profile of a soil specimen. A soil chroma is a visual translation of how well organic matter, minerals and soil organisms are integrated into the process of building soil. Very much like the iris of our eyes, soil chromas that are vibrant, and radiating, tell us that the soil is dynamic and alive. If it is flat and pale, it tells us that the soil is pretty much dead. One could say that soil chromas are windows to the soil’s soul.

chromatography lab

Basic needs for a Chromatography Lab

Translated from its Greek roots chroma and graphein, Chromatography literally means ‘to write with colours’. Through a simple laboratory process that involves breaking down soil specimen in Caustic Soda, and impregnating it into filter paper coated with Silver Nitrate, a radial burst of colours and patterns slowly emerges through capillary and photographic action, telling the story of the presence or the lack of presence of soil building blocks such as Nitrogen & Oxygen, minerals, soil life (macro & micro organisms), humus, and organic matter. Through further interpretation, we are also able to tell if all these building blocks are interacting and effectively functioning  via indicators of enzymatic activity. When compared to standard quantitative soil tests which indicate WHAT minerals and chemicals are present in a soil specimen, chromas are more qualitative in nature, giving insights to HOW the soil is functioning. Both of these tests combined provide a more holistic understanding of a soil specimen.

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Eugenio demonstrating the simple laboratory procedures  involved

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Australian farmers learning how things are done in Mexico  

It was indeed mind blowing to see a photographic capture of soil life enfolding through the filter paper in my grasp as I gazed into the eye of the soil, for the first time in my life. I am not surprised to hear that some artists in Mexico are captivated by soil chromas, and have created wall size illustrations of these sun’s on earth.   

Eugenio's presentation

Many thanks to Eugenio for the invaluable tool and insights, funny Mexican jokes by the campfire and wonderful company. I have a feeling we shall meet again …

To read more about Eugenio’s workshop check out Milkwood’s article at http://milkwood.net/2011/11/06/soil-chromatography-with-eugenio-gras/

Eugenio Gras

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Juergen and I attended a 3 day Biofertliser workshop conducted by Eugenio Gras at Milkwood Farm from 21 – 23 October 2011. A sustainable agriculture consultant, researcher, teacher, farmer, advocate; Eugenio specialises in Key Line Design and Biofertility, working intensively in the training of farmers, producers, academics and professors throughout Latin America.

In the grassroots work that he does in Mas Humus (More Humus), Eugenio works with a team of Mexican colleagues to introduce pioneering solutions to enable farmers to grow healthy food, celebrate community and live a simple life in abundance. Going beyond the the words of organic, regenerative agriculture or Permaculture, he puts up a convincing argument of why chemical farmers should be the ones with labels, and certifications, not the farms operated by genuine farmers which work in connection and partnership with the land, nurturing family and community. Looking back at the 10,000 years of agriculture that we have behind us, isn’t it an irony that modern chemical agriculture which has only been around for the past 50 – 100 years has been conveniently termed ‘conventional’?

Very much a Mexican at heart, Eugenio has bundles of enthusiasm and radiating positivism, that can take any chemically worn down farm and turn it into a biologically thriving system, given the patience, commitment and perseverance it requires. He is passionate about helping rural communities and farmers of all scales (from small acreage family farmers up to farmers which own thousands of acres), liberating them from the vicious cycle of immense chemical input and often resulting debt, therefore increasing not just their income, but their quality of life.

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eugenio gras

Eugenio has spoken worldwide on innovative techniques for creating organic, natural fertiliser from whatever is at hand on a given farm, and is part of the Regen Ag group, where he spends some time in a year spreading the innovations of Soil Chromatography and Bio Fertilisers beyond Latin America.

Some of the cool things that we learnt from him at the Biofertiliser workshop at Milkwood Farm is how to make and use:

Fosfito – A soluble form of Phosphorus that is suitable for plant intake,  made from bone ash.

Biofert – A microbial brew made from locally sourced materials, that energises plants with a full range of biologically active minerals.

Lime Sulphur – A plant and soil friendly application for preventing fungal infections.

Soil Chromatography – A cheap and easy way to make a qualitative assessment of your soil.

A shot of permaculture espresso to last a long way

Juergen and I are on a Permaculture Tour, travelling around Australia to connect and learn from amazing people and projects on the ground that promote a way of sustaining and enriching life in a regenerative and socially empowering way. Back in Malaysia, we had a small permaculture education & demonstration site, where we ran the first PDC in Malaysia. We organised 2 other courses the following year in 2010, and interest in permaculture has been growing steadily since! However, we do have a long way to go. When I look at how permaculture has taken off around the world and compare it to Malaysia, we are but a tiny sprout finding its roots. The time is right, but the soil is in need of some ecological, and perhaps even some geographical intervention Winking smile

Considering the fact that Malaysia and Australia are close neighbours, I have often wondered why hardly any of its worldwide permaculture action ever found its way into my teeny little country, less than one twentieth the size of Australia.We may be blessed with one of the world’s oldest rainforests, and recognised as one of the 12 mega biodiversity countries in the world, but it’s fast disappearing! According to the most recent report by Wetlands International, forest destruction in Malaysia is three times faster than all of Asia combined! During the last five years alone, we’ve lost 10% of our forests, and one third (872,263 acres) of our carbon sequestering peatlands to mass palm oil cultivation.

Needless to say, most Malaysians have no idea as to what they’re loosing, and could benefit from a strong shot of FAIR SHARE permaculture ESPRESSO! We Malaysians have much catching up to do, and I’m here to make some of it it happen. By the time I finish my six, hopefully nine months of permaculture travels in Australia, I hope to establish a strong network with folks here, and look at how we can build a permaculture bridge from Australia all the way to Malaysia. Already, we have established connections with several Malaysian NGOs, government bodies and universities that are very interested in incorporating permaculture in one way or another, and I am keen to see how some of these needs can be addressed through a collaborative effort.

Education and awareness building, as well as having working models on the ground is crucial to the success of mass permaculture infiltration. Importing teachers to conduct our PDCs has been both enriching and inspiring. To grow deep and far reaching roots, we will need to build local resilience and have locally grown permaculture teachers and doers. I’m working towards becoming a teacher myself, and intend to start working on my permaculture teachers diploma during our trip; looking at different models and approaches to permaculture education, and how it is taught to a diverse cross section of learners with varying needs, and learning outcomes. I recently did a Teachers Training with Rosemarry Morrow, a wonderful source of inspiration that led me to believe that there’s nothing more exiting and fulfilling as empowering people to realise the wisdom within themselves… which in a nut shell, is exactly what permaculture is all about.

So, here I am at Milkwood, NSW, stop no.1 on our permaculture tour, feeling very at home despite the occasional 0 to -5 degrees chills. It feels like I’m at the right place at the right time, with a great bunch of people, and ample opportunities to be, to learn and to share. Thanks Nick and Kirsten for choosing us for this much sought after internship spot.

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food forest

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Thomas Remiarz

thomas remiarz

Traveling permaculture teacher and activist, Thomas is from East Germany, but now  is based in  England where he found out about permacultre, and taking it up seriously, became a permaculture teacher and subsequently a mentor for the Permaculture Association Diploma.

A nomadic, cross pollinator of permaculture projects, environmental activism, Transition Towns and other awesome activism, Thomas draws strength from working on meaningful projects with a abroad range of people, wherever his services may be needed forging valuable links across the European permaculture network.

CRASH- A Post Capitalist A-Z is one of the cool projects he’s worked on, linking Art, Activism and Permaculture.Chalk board CRASH

Juergen and I met Thomas at our Permaculture Teacher Training in Austria, where he served as English–German translator. He was a cool, down to earth dude with many permaculture songs up his sleeve. I got to know Thomas a little bit more when Juergen and I shared a flat with him at a mutual friend’s house in Tirol. He was very supportive of our work in Malaysia and offered to mentor us if Juergen or I opted to do the ‘Independent Learning Routes Permaculture Diploma in UK. It would be something to consider if Juergen decides to go back to Europe.

Rosemary Morrow

Rosemary Morrow

An inspirational person, teacher, and citizen of the world, Rosemary is a much adored teacher of permaculture teachers, in Australia and around the world. She has worked extensively with farmers and villagers in Africa, Central and South East Asia and Eastern Europe for almost 40 years. Especially dedicated to non-violence and improving the lives of people in war-torn nations, Rosemary has been very much involved in environmental and social regenerative missions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

In July 2011, Juergen and I were privileged to attend a 6 day Permaculture Teacher Training with her in Austria. It changed the way we perceived our roles as teachers, and introduced us to a whole new approach of facilitating creative, dynamic and inclusive, experiential learning processes where everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student.

Supportive of the work that we are doing to introduce permaculture in Malaysia,  Rosemary was willing to mentor us on our mission to become full fledged permaculture teachers. We look forward to meeting her again in Australia, for a dose of down to earth, all round goodness and wisdom.   

Viva Row!

Here are links to two of her projects in Afghanistan and Vietnam:

Documentary trailer – A garden at the end of the world: Rosemary Morrow in Afghanistan

ABC Radio interview  – Rosemary’s Garden: Rosemary’s involvement in Cambodia

 

Rosemary is also the author of the Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture and a Teacher’s Manual.

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Permaculture Teachers Training, Austria

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Juergen was long overdue for a visit back to Austria after being away for 3 years. I tagged along to meet his family, friends, and Rosemarry Morrow! A very much sought after permaculture teacher from Australia, Rosemarry was scheduled to do a Training of Permaculture Teachers in Austria, from 19 – 25 July 2011. We synchronised our trip with the Teacher Training and managed to get the last spots available in the course.

Organised by PIA (Permaculture Academy in the Alpine Regions), the course was taught at the foothills of the Alps, under a giant walnut tree whenever weather permitted.

outdoor classroom

We were a very diverse group with participants coming from all over Europe: Austria, Italy, France, Slovenia, Slovakia, Germany, Finland, Portugal, Check Republic, UK and Netherlands. Even in Europe, permaculture was developed in some countries, and less developed in others. Being the only one from Asia, I was asked to do a presentation along with 2 other participants, Helder Valente from Portugal and Mari Korhonen from Finland about emerging permaculture education initiatives in our respective countries.

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Coming from different cultures and contexts, everyone had something unique and valuable to share which contributed to our collective and integral learning process. Rosemary reminded us that every adult learner brings a trove of experience with them, and learn more from each other than they do from a teacher. Rosemary was an expert at facilitating this process, hardly speaking for more than 15 mins in any given session. Through a participatory and learner centered approach, she drew out the teacher and learner within each of us, with the two roles gracefully switching back and fourth so naturally and effortlessly. At the end of the day, we would break into groups for our individual teaching practical’s. Each day, our confidence grew as we experimented with various learning styles and teaching methods, that took the weight of being an ‘expert’ from our shoulders, and empowered our learners to draw from their own wisdom and understanding through the structure and facilitation provided by us.

learning styles

Needless to say, this approach to teaching does not undermine the role or responsibility of a teacher in any way. A good permaculture teacher cultivates a strong grasp of permaculture knowledge and skills, and is able to internalise the permaculture principles, design and systems thinking. This should come across to students in creating a learning outcome where the student adopts the permaculture ethics and leaves empowered to act, and become part of the solution to the world’s problems. Knowing what permaculture means, and understanding that it is a holistic system in which all elements are interconnected, students should be equipped with the personal and general permaculture design tools to begin working productively and regeneratively across climates and circumstances.

certificate giving ceremony

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOMEN ZUPAN

This was the general outline of our 6 day course.

  • Teaching cultures & structures
  • Approaches to teaching PDC’s
  • Who are your learners – What do they want?
  • Adult Learner Psychology
  • Principles of Adult Learning
  • Teaching methods
  • Teaching tools
  • What makes a good teacher?
  • Evaluation and monitoring of class & teacher
  • Microteaching by participants
  • What are our desired outcomes?
  • PDC course structure
  • Learners with special needs
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    The days passed by so quickly, I wish we had more time to spend with our new found friends and Rosemary Morrow. The good news is that a group of European teacher met at Sieben Linden, and proposed to create a ‘Learning Partnership’ that will support 6 meetings of permaculture teachers around Europe over two years. I hope they get the funding to make it happen, and maybe we will learn from their example and do something similar in Asia. Any takers?

    “Learning is finding out what we already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, and teachers.” — Richard Bach