Permaculture in action: The Rasmussen farm

Written by fruit   // 08/02/2006   // 0 Comments

Soren and Yvonne Rasmussen have converted dry bushland at Julatten, inland from Mossman in Far North Queensland, into a productive farm which now yields excellent fruit and vegetables with a minimum of fuss and maintenance – through the technique called permaculture.

WORDS BY ALLAN SMALL. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE MACRAE. First published in the Mossman Branch Newsletter, June 2005.

Fifty visitors from the Mossman branch of the Rare Fruit Council gathered at Rasmussens in April 2005 and had some great lessons in permaculture. Ground cover mulch cuts evaporation and returns nitrogen to the ground. A variety of fruit trees support vanilla and passionfruit vines, while taro and lemongrass thrive nearby and chickens forage amongst fallen leaves. One of the key lessons was how contoured earth embankments and swales, can slow rainfall runoff, so that it soaks more effectively into the soil. 

In contrast to the magnificent water lily lagoon at the rear of the Rasmussens’ house, a dry, stony section is set aside for more drought resistant plants.

“We also use small scale intensive systems based on ‘stacking’ our crops, such as planting shade tolerant vegetables in gardens beneath papaya,” said Yvonne. “Herbs are planted close to the kitchen, so they can easily be collected fresh as required.

“As a result we have biodiversity rather than monoculture, which is better for the environment and for us. It’s been two years since our garden has had anything done to it, though I do pull out the occasional weed.”

Danish-born Soren met Englishwoman Yvonne in Cairns in 1961 while they were travelling. They later married in Denmark, where Soren was a furniture maker.

But they had fallen in love with Australia. With their two daughters the couple migrated to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland, where they developed a 100-acre property with a number of features of permaculture included in the design and management. Even then, they were ahead of their time.

Life on that farm came to a premature end when the property was resumed to make way for a dam. The pretty Obi Obi Creek that meandered past their home, and the home site itself, is now deep under water – but some of the fruit and native trees the Rasmussens planted on a ridge top have survived.

With perhaps unintended irony Yvonne said they wanted a new home with water views, and chose acreage adjoining their present Julatten property because of its lagoons and close proximity to Bushy Creek. Their choice required a liberal dash of pioneering spirit.

“We moved to our original 175 acre Julatten property in 1981,” Yvonne said. “In the early years, the Rex Range access road to Port Douglas and the coast was gravel and often impassable in the wet season due to landslides and the dangerously slippery surface. The road to our property was a rough bush track.

“It wasn’t an easy beginning, as Soren had a bout of tetanus just after we arrived.

“Ten years ago we hired a bulldozer and cleared scrub from our present home site, which occupies only a fraction of this 155 acre property, and to contour the sloping ground. We placed 100 bales of unwanted cardboard – collected from supermarkets – over this land, added sheep manure, then seeded it with pinto to create a useful living groundcover and to fix nitrogen in the soil. In the dry season, wallabies love the pinto.”

The pinto seed yielded miserable results, unlike the present lush cover. Citrus trees were planted next and the then very empty garden and orchard began to take shape, raided occasionally by the family’s flock of coloured sheep and some chickens. The free-range poultry quickly attracted the unwanted attention of a four metre python, who overstayed lunch and was relocated to an area well away. A resident goanna with a taste for fresh eggs was also removed. The area is also renowned for its abundance of Taipans.

The Rasmussens ran cattle for a while but now only have some horses – “we had quite a variety of animals; a bit of everything,” Yvonne said.

There’s plenty of plant diversity, in line with permaculture principles designed to make life difficult for bugs and botanical diseases. Tiny golden green bell frogs have taken up residence in one of the many coffee bushes, there’s an acerola cherry with its high level of vitamin-C playing host to a paper wasp colony, cassava with its starchy tubers, nutmeg, sugar bananas, pidgeon pea bushes which yield brown lentils suitable for drying and storage, abiu, jakfruit, comfrey and much more …

A 10,000 gallon rainwater tank supplies their home, but “greywater” from the kitchen and bathroom is recycled onto the garden. Good quality bore water is also available, if required. Solar energy provides all their lighting and power requirements.

Soren’s health hit a low point two years ago when he was diagnosed with a heart problem, and Yvonne was all but immobilised for five months with an injured foot. Work on the farm was virtually impossible.

“Due to recent health setbacks it’s been two years since our garden has had anything done to it, but it has survived because we have structured it on permaculture principles,” Yvonne said. “We could travel for a couple of months and it would continue to survive – but try doing that with a conventional farm.

“That’s what permaculture is all about – making gardening easy and fun while protecting our environment. As a bonus, we have an excellent supply of delicious fresh organic food.”

The author Allan is vice-president of the Mossman Branch of the Rare Fruit Council, and vice-president of the National Executive of the RFCA, and has an extensive background in journalism and crisis management. With Cynthia McCloughan, he operates a small tropical fruit orchard, Curlew Cottage, at Kewarra Beach, north of Cairns.

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