For a while now in the sunny state of New South Wales there’s been a duo who’s name has been synonymous with permaculture. Milkwood, comprised of partners in business and in life, Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar, have made it their life’s work to educate and build community.
Running courses, workshops and events year-round on everything from bee keeping and veggie growing to natural building, Nick and Kirsten appear by all accounts to strike that desirable balance between living the good life they preach and building their work around that lifestyle. Blog writing is balanced with bush wandering, their young son Ashar leading the way, meetings offset with a dose of preserving and teaching taken on with a side of veggie patch planting.
We caught the productive pair in their new home in Kiama on the south coast on their Sunday off, filled with planting, cosy home cooked dhal and river wanders.
Tell us about Milkwood, who works there and what you do?
“Milkwood is a small for-purpose enterprise that offers courses and workshops in life skills and organic agriculture. We do courses in everything from fermented foods, to backyard growing, to beekeeping, to market gardening, to permaculture design. At this stage, most of our courses are held in Sydney, with a few up in Byron Bay at The Farm, and some in southern NSW on farms – it depends what each course requires to get the knowledge across.
“At the moment Milkwood is made up of Nick and I, as well as our admin/logistics team Trevor and Heather. We all work remotely, so Trev runs the student services from Tasmania, Heather’s based in Sydney, and Nick and I are near Kiama, two hours south of Sydney. On top of that, we have a crew of amazing teachers that we work with from all over Australia, and a super team of course hosts who make things happen. There’s lots to co-ordinate but its worthwhile, to get good knowledge out there to so many.”
What are your backgrounds, and what led to the start of Milkwood?
“My background is in video and installation art, and Nick’s is a combo of engineering, coding, festival organisation and video art. We came together at an illegal dance party in Sydney where I was VJ-ing. Nick helped me pack up the projectors and video gear when the police closed the party down, so I took him home and kept him. Ha!
“We had similar childhoods defined by time in nature, and also a common drive for social and environmental causes. Together we made video art for festivals, bands, theatre and activism for a few years in Europe, Sydney and Melbourne, and then decided to move to Nick’s parents farm near Mudgee, to build a tinyhouse, grow food and live simply.
“At this point, we did some training in permaculture design and got totally hooked on how we could help affect positivistic change for our community, through growing good food, helping farmers to transition to organic practices and so on. So we started Milkwood to provide training in the skills we thought were most needed, asking in experts to lead the classes. Slowly that evolved into a small permaculture demonstration farm with market garden and food forests, as well as courses and training in Sydney. Since Nick’s folks have recently sold the Mudgee farm, we’ve relocated Milkwood to be mostly Sydney based, with training at various farms throughout NSW. It’s a very full life, but a good one.”
What does a typical week involve?
“It depends on the week! I sometimes wish there was a bit more routine actually, but we’re all doing things everywhere, so each week is different. Generally a week for me involves a fair bit of office time in our home office, writing for the blog and various other places, dealing with marketing and graphic design to help get the word out about this course or that one. I spend a fair bit of time on the phone with our crew and various teachers discussing course needs, or if I’m lucky it will be just to talk farming, beekeeping or fermenting. We go back and forth between Sydney and Minnamurra where we live a fair bit on the train (gosh i love that train) – Nick for teaching and meetings, me for meetings and blogposts and to run events. When we’re not in work-mode we behave pretty much like we did at the farm – cooking, preserving, making and weeding veggie beds, having campfires or rambling over the hills and headlands with our six-year-old son. And puzzles. We do a lot of puzzles.”
What does permaculture mean to you as a concept and a practice?
“Permaculture is a design framework to enable whole systems thinking – as a concept, to me that means coming at things from a holistic perspective – considering deeply the context and goals before diving into the ‘how’ – whether that’s for designing a veggie patch, or a energy efficient house, or a new business, or making a big life decision.
“Since our personal central goals include a livable future for everyone, and a happy, healthy and abundant future for our family, that informs our everyday practice a lot – everything from what we eat, what we buy, what we don’t buy, how we chose to make a livelihood, and how we chose to live as a family. As a practice for us this manifests as growing some of our food, making things from scratch, avoiding packaging, choosing public transport, advocating for local food systems, sharing resources and helping regenerate skillsets… the list is pretty endless. It’s a fun way to live, too, and it’s far more interesting that the alternative, I think.”
What is the importance of permaculture skills in our current lifestyles and society – and what tips do you have for learning to incorporate them?
“Skills make people more human, and also more happy. Knowing how to do things for yourself is vitally empowering, especially at this point in history, when we have lost so much of what we used to know. A community full of folks who know how to grow food, make bread, keep bees, mend things, build things, a community that understands the importance of mutual support, of helping each other, of pooling resources, of sharing harvests…. who doesn’t want to live in a community like that? I sure do. And that’s permaculture for you. Thinking of the whole, and acting in a way that makes things better.
“Tips-wise, I truly think its a matter of ‘start where you are, use what you have, do what you can’ – that might be starting a windowsill garden with a cutoff milk carton full of microgreens, or it might be learning to make marmalade, and give a bottle to each of your neighbours. It’s not about being perfect and righteous, its about doing what you can, being kind to yourself, learning, growing, planning, doing more, thinking, and more doing. We learn by doing, and we connect by doing. It’s important to remember that. Get off your screen and go get your hands dirty.”
What do you love about permaculture, education and what you do?
“I love the idea that we the people can manifest the future we require – both for this life of ours now, and for the generations after us to be healthy and happy, through thoughtful design and action that benefits us all. We can create beautiful, resilient, inter-sufficient communities where life is good, and the future is bright. Education is a huge part of that, and that’s what we’re personally involved in. I deeply believe in the power of humans when they put their minds to something. Our job is to help that to happen.”
What are some of the things that inspire you in the work you do?
“Our teachers, and our students – no really. Our teachers are this incredible cross-section of people walking the walk – rather than taking the easy road, the corporate job, or using conventional chemical agriculture, our teachers are these incredible people who have each chose to spend their lives doing things the ethical, organic or authentic way, even if it’s not as easy as the alternative.
“And our students are the same – so many have stretched themselves to come along and learn something new, to take the plunge at a new skill, or new way of thinking, because they’re curious about what sort of small changes they could make in their world. It’s beautiful to watch, and to be able to help folks go home confident and ready to manifest good things, whether its an aquaponics system, or a strawbale cottage.”
What’s next for Milkwood?
“As a family, we’re looking for future stability – maybe this will be a long-term land lease contract to farm on, or maybe something else. We’re open to anything. We’re also looking to widen our course offerings to things like natural dyeing, natural remedies and other such goodness. Basically we want to keep doing what we do, and doing it well.”
To find out more about Milkwood and their courses, visit www.milkwood.net
Words and photos: Emma Bowen