The Peasants of Pleasantville

Words by
Jo Hoban
Images by
Alan Hoban
| September 12, 2014

Michel and Jude Fanton are some of the seediest folk I’ve ever met, in the best possible way. They call themselves ‘the peasants of pleasantville’, a title reflected in their contented and humble conduct as they show my family and I through their rich garden on an acre in Byron Bay. The couple created the garden based on Permaculture principles, using seeds that they’ve either saved themselves, or swapped with others through the Seed Savers’ Network that they established in 1986. No money has changed hands, and yet the bounty’s been plentiful.

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As early pioneers of the Permaculture movement, the Fantons’ quest has always been to gently educate others about the benefits of saving seeds through home and community gardening. Michel settled in Northern NSW in the late 70s, and set to work creating a diverse garden. He was deeply influenced by his peasant-like upbringing in a French village, and relays memories in his charming blend of Franglais:

“My grandmother, my aunty, my godmother…they all grew food. A lot of vegetables we’d use as medicinal plants, especially when they were closer to the original varieties. I remember my mother’s sister (who’s now 90) saying things like ‘oh looks like you got something with your stomach and your posture,’ then she’d make a carrot soup with a very strong flavour, because they’d be white carrots. My gosh, they were so huge! They were the kind planted in shallow soils with the tops poking out. People aren’t so keen on that now. The majority prefer mild, sweet flavours, and plant breeders gear crops toward that market…You don’t find much that’s going to rattle your tastebuds.”

Michel had his first garden underway when he met Bill Mollison (who co-founded Permaculture with David Holmgren). The two bonded, realising that Michel’s approach aligned with Permaculture, and Michel helped distribute Bill’s classic texts, Permaculture One and Permaculture Two. In the meantime, he met and fell for the lovely Jude, an experienced Social Sciences teacher and passionate gardener from South Australia. The pair soon started the national Seed Savers’ Network, and went on to teach Permaculture courses alongside Bill (who moved to Northern NSW in the early 80s) for around 15 years.

The Seed Savers’ Network was created as a registered charity to facilitate free access to locally-adapted seeds; the development of a seed bank for non-hybrid, open-pollinated (naturally occurring) plant varieties; and educational programs about preserving non-hybrid seeds and plant diversity. It started at a time when large seed companies around the globe had made significant inroads patenting many seed varieties—something they continue to do and which poses challenges to the world’s longer-term food security.

Seed-patenting leads to limited varieties, often genetic modifications, and ultimately, a lack of biodiversity. It’s concerning in a world that needs resilience to deal with climate change and other environmental challenges. There’s more about this on the Seed Savers’ website.

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I ask Michel to elaborate on the benefit of locally-grown seeds:

“If you’ve saved the seeds for a number of years in one location, you can fairly assume that they’ll survive without any chemicals. If they’re bare seeds, and if you’ve selected them (in other words if you’ve looked at what you’ve grown and shaken the seeds off the specimens that you like better), or if they’ve selected themselves (self-seeded), you end up having strong, locally-adapted seeds. And nutrient-rich food that tastes better!

‘Essentially, we’re curious people, and we’re always interested to meet people that want to find and save the diversity in their crops—it’s the peasant farmers, home gardeners, and urban farmers who tend toward this. The more big seed companies you have, the less local adaptation and resilience you have…Traditional crops are being lost to homogenous, imported seeds.’

Jude seems in her element as she shows me around the garden. There’s no need to arduously harvest facts—she’s a generous source of detail:

‘We hardly plant anything these days. It’s mostly self-sown, or perennials. Over here there’s a perennial capsicum—we’ve had this for 27 years. It’s from some Italians in Mareeba. It looks like a chilli but it’s actually a capsicum. This one’s only about 3cm long, but they can grow to 6cm in summer… And this cabbage is called ‘old women meet and gossip’. The seeds were from an African friend, and it’s a variety that grows to around 2 metres, so it’s perfect for old women to stand around and have a mad natter!’

After Jude points out the ‘rat security’—a resident carpet python nestling in one bed of the vegie patch (my kids are just a little bit EXCITED)—we move from the vegetable garden over to the food forest. Jude describes the garden’s design, based on Permaculture principles:

We have bees, chooks, a large vegetable patch area and a food forest, among other things. We’re set up so that we have concentric circles around the house for the places that require the most tending and harvesting. So you put the herbs closest to the kitchen door, for example. And the furthest away is the wilderness, which in our case is a disused rail-line on the east that runs all the way to Sydney, and is also a wildlife corridor.

The Fantons’ food forest is brimming with deliciousness. There’s a Japanese cumquat tree, a cinnamon tree, a Tahitian lime tree, davidson plum trees, and a few different mango trees, to name a few. It’s arranged like a botanic garden might be, with plants grouped according to their regions of origin: Central Asia, South-East Asia, Central and South America, the Pacific Islands, and the Mediterranean.  A DIY fence borders one side; it’s made of old mango tree branches, and is a great example of recycling materials from the garden to build other things.

At this stage, my kids dash over and gleefully announce that cake is ready, along with Jude’s herbal tea. Whilst wandering through the garden with us, Jude has collected a handful of herbs she regularly uses to blend her own teas. There’s chocolate mint, spearmint, peppermint, menthol mint (or tulsi/sacred basil), yarrow, pineapple sage, rosemary, thyme, winter savory, and lemon verbena—an impressive green loot, resulting in a delicious tea blend.

Perennial capsicum - original seed sourced from an Italian family in Mareeba 27 years ago.
Perennial capsicum - original seed sourced from an Italian family in Mareeba 27 years ago.
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In the past, the Fantons’ garden has been an important hub for the Seed Savers’ network, and has hosted many seed-exchange gatherings, open gardens, and even a conference of around 300 people. At one stage, Jude and Michel even employed staff to help the student interns and volunteers with the garden’s upkeep. Things have slowed now, and the well-established garden largely self-seeds, requiring less work. The Fantons occasionally still host students, and on the day I visit, an aspiring young Japanese chef and gardener is staying for a few days, assisting in the garden and soaking up Jude and Michel’s valuable hints and tips.

Over the course of the Seed Savers’ project, Michel and Jude have published three books, made two documentaries, and produced around 1500 YouTube clips that have achieved close to 1.5 million views. Yes, like their bees they’ve been busy. These days, Jude and Michel travel widely, often by invitation, to consult on agricultural policy and assist global communities with the conservation of their traditional crops, or the rehabilitation of their heritage seed varieties; they refer to these trips as their ‘Seed Solidarity Tours’. They also have 5 kids between them and a flock of grandchildren, all spread far and wide, who they’re keen to spend more time with. Around 14 years ago, they started decentralising the Seed Savers’ network; passing the responsibility, control and direction to the local seed networks. The Fantons felt this was the best approach for continued, locally-focused progress.

Michel and Jude have always had a modest income, being peasant farmers themselves. But recently, to help fund some of their Seed Solidarity Tours, they’ve listed a cosy two-bedroom apartment located on their property on AirBnB.  It’s called the Organic Seed Gardens Apartment and there’s a link on their website. And if they happen to be there when people come to stay, they’ll happily give you a tour of their garden. You can join them for a little harvesting and perhaps make some herbal tea. The ‘peasants of pleasantville’ strike me as generous souls—I’m sure they’ll pass a few seeds of wisdom your way.

For more info or to register as a Seed Saver for free, go to http://seedsavers.net – this will assist you to join a local seed network in your area or start a new one. 

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