Kuranda Man’s mission to cultivate an off-grid edible forest using syntropy and permaculture techniques

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One man’s mission to grow his own edible forest has transformed an abandoned stretch of former pastureland into an exotic fruit paradise in Far North Queensland.

Mike Gailer arrived from Austria 15 years ago with the dream of joining a self-sufficient municipality, but the reality of needing a stable job to obtain a permanent visa soon put that vision on hold.

Life took a detour but that haunting voice never left.

“There was this thought in my head: ‘Wait a second, why did I come to Australia in the first place?’

“There was still this missing part in my life that I was still not growing my own food, and then three years ago I decided, after much research, to buy a piece of land.

“I only bought a vacant block, so I started from scratch… and there was really nothing more than a paddock.”

Mike Gailer also has a full-time job as an environmental supervisor with Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.(Provided)

Find a blank canvas

Mr Gailer, or Mike Gaia as he is also known among his growing online followers of ‘agroforestry’ followers, has secured a loan for a few acres of former pasture at Kuranda on the Atherton Tablelands .

The town has long had a reputation as a hippie haven since the 1960s, when a small group of long-haired patchouli types established the first arts and crafts markets amid an earthy haze of smoke.

An article in the Bananacoast Opinion newspaper in 1973 described a television program that looked at three of the then-operational townships in the area.

“Slowly, Kuranda woke up from its tropical slumber. But under the air of tolerance, there is still a gap of understanding between the people of Kuranda and the hippies.”

An aerial view of a farm surrounded by rainforest.
The agroforest takes shape facing the sunset of Kuranda.(Provided)

Kuranda has since become one of the Far North’s major tourism hotspots – but that’s only recent history.

Early European settlers established agricultural sites in the mid-1880s for the production of dairy products, timber and coffee, but for over 10,000 years before that, the rainforest around Kuranda was home to the Djabugay people.

It remains key habitat for some of the world’s most endangered species, from the southern cassowary and northern bettong to the Kuranda tree frog and spotted-tailed quoll.

Mr. Gailer’s small slice of land was largely blank slate, except for the growth of lantana and the natural creep of the surrounding rainforest, proof that if left untended, these ancient clearings of livestock would eventually be swallowed up in the jaws of nature.

It suited Mr. Gailer’s audacious plan perfectly.

“While there are delicious native bush tucker, I have a preference for exotic fruit trees and have chosen a wide variety…to establish this food forest.”

An aerial view of rows of planted fruit trees.
Mike Gailer has transformed a bare patch of former pasture into a budding fruit forest.(Provided)

A patchwork of ancient techniques

Mr. Gailer set about turning the sloping land into terraces that could be naturally irrigated by swales – essentially a series of trenches dug into a contour.

“The water comes down the hill, and then it hits that trench and then fills the trench, and only when that trench is full can the water go further.”

After gradually adding species to the ecosystem over the past three years, it has more than 50 exotic varieties in the ground – ranging from ice cream bean and longan to white sapote and guava.

They were chosen and located for how they will interact with nearby plants and for the delicious fruits and vegetables they will eventually produce.

A bearded man wearing a wide-brimmed hat stands in a garden of fruit plants.
Mike Gailer began his adventure in agroforestry after buying land three years ago.(Provided)

“These methods are not new and they have been used all over the world,” says Gailer.

“You could really say that systems like what we now call agroforestry or permaculture, or even syntropic agriculture, these systems have all developed historically.

“I picked a few ideas out of all these ideas and created my own little patchwork of different aspects.”

Thanks to their ability to fix nitrogen from the air, a wide selection of legumes saves Mr. Gailer from buying nitrogen fertilizer.

Rigorous genetic selection

A hand holds a large green-skinned fruit growing on a tree.
A rollinia fruit, also known as biriba or Brazilian cinnamon apple, is almost ready to harvest. (Provided)

Three years into his big experiment and Mr. Gailer is getting some of the fast-growing crops like cassava, sweet potato, peanut butter fruit and bananas back, but many of his trees are still a long way off. to bear fruit.

“It’s kind of like a collection of genetics, so like a botanical garden – it’s just that you can eat them all.

“In syntropy you could potentially also put Asian salads and greens in the system, but I have so many wildlife that I really have to be choosy about what I plant because they eat everything.”

Mr. Gailer is aware that his project could look like a madman’s business, especially since he still has to work a full-time job to pay off the mortgage.

But it’s a labor of love.

“We are talking about two acres of cultivation here, so it is a lot of work, especially in the first two years, but the workload is already decreasing.”

A man turns to the camera as he walks near fruit plants.
Even after just three years, the landscape has changed.(Provided)

Gaia’s Outreach Efforts

Mr. Gailer has racked up tens of thousands of views on his YouTube channel Gaia’s Garden in Kurandawhere he explains the evolution of his little corner of Eden.

He also runs intermittent workshops to teach people how they can use his techniques, “because I really want to inspire people to grow some of their own food.”

The COVID-19 lockdowns were the spark for many urban Australians to finally take the plunge and plant that vegetable garden they had always put off.

Sales of herbaceous plants and vegetables increased by 27% in 2020 and, more broadly, sales from production nurseries to retail garden centers increased by 10%, according to the Survey of Nursery Industry Statistics.

A bearded man is smiling while holding a purple vegetable.
Mike Gailer with some first fruits of his labor.(Provided)

Planting a fruit tree or a vegetable patch may seem like a token gesture, but the benefits go far beyond just putting food on a plate, he says.

One of her biggest missions is to convince more parents to plant a fruit tree that their children can watch grow.

“If you work one hour, with the amount of money you earn, you can buy as much food.

“It would be much more difficult, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing, to cultivate all of this yourself.

“But as a side effect, you get a connection to the land and an idea of ​​what it really takes to grow food.”

An aerial view of a farm's water channels.
The gullies fill with water after rain and distribute the water around the property.(Provided)

An ever-changing landscape

Mr. Gailer loves what he does, but does he ever plan to say enough is enough, sit down and focus on the harvest?

“No, because in nature it’s not like that either.

“I have yet to find which of these trees works better than the others.

“What’s going to happen in a few years is that I’m going to start cutting down less productive trees and then I’m going to replace them with other things.”

Two men wearing hats smile as they point to a solar panel on the roof.
The construction of a habitable shed and the installation of an off-grid solar system were cause for celebration.(Provided)

While he has started selling some products, more business endeavors are on the way.

“I have the idea to produce more of a high value product, as my volumes here are not enough for commercial sale, so I plan to eventually sell chocolate covered dried exotic fruits.”

Everything is going according to plan, even chocolate will be grown, processed and packaged in this living tropical utopia.

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