words by Renata Seigmann
I recently opened myself for learning new things. I literally threw away old stuff (including my hair) and started chasing new ideas. One of these ideas was Permaculture which led me to an experience in an amazing farm in the Gold Coast, AUS. But it happens that when you’re really open you give the chance for any type of learning to just run through the door. I ended up bumping into a regenerative type of agriculture and that just blew my mind. I guess I really had to be in the other side of the globe to learn about a practice developed back home (Brazil) and hear a foreign guy speaking my language fluently and not only that, giving tips about places I couldn’t miss in Brazil. Funny as it is, I just fell in love with this way of growing food called Syntropic Agriculture.
I ended up visiting a few Syntropic farms in the region and even took a course with Thiago Barbosa who taught me loads and deserves all the credits from this article. This made so much sense to me that I really wanted to share about it as much as I could. After all, we don ́t have much time to lose, right? This way of farming was developed by Ernst Götsch, a Swiss farmer that have been living in Brazil for a few decades. He certainly used inspiration from already established systems, but his bigger inspiration comes from the most intelligent technology available: Nature. To understand a bit more, let’s transport ourselves to a thick rainforest. We can see a system of abundance, highly connected, diverse, with high production, self-managed, full of life, healthy soil and plants. There’s nobody in the forest adding compost or fertilizer, watering or taking weeds out and still this can be considered the most successful system in existence. Nature shows us repeatedly how to perpetuate life. All we must do is to integrate ourselves in the system. And we are not doing this. In a monoculture system (organic or not) we only take (nutrients, microorganisms, life, food…) without giving back or only giving back by introducing additives like synthetic fertilizers or organic matter from somewhere else, demanding extra energy to be produced and transported. What happens if we keep taking though? The system can’t be sustained.
So,we need a sustainable way of doing it. Right?
No, Sustainable is boring!
If someone ask how’s your relationship doing, and you say sustainable it suggests something is wrong. We need a regenerative way of doing it. Syntropy is the opposite of Entropy. It basically means moving from something simple to something more complex. For example, when a human or bacteria dies it disintegrates becoming less complex which means entropy is acting. So, if you think about it, life is Syntropic. It goes from the basic elements into something complex. Syntropic farming is a nature-based technology that moves us from scarcity to abundance. It’s all about mimicking nature, creating food forests with a great diversity of species. Humans are integrated in the system designing the forest, managing it and using pruning and other techniques to accelerate the natural process. Again, we don’t have time to waste, so we can’t wait hundreds or even thousands of years to grow our food as forests do. For me the most amazing thing in Syntropic agriculture is that you leave the place better than you found it. The more you grow, the better the soil.
One of the Syntropic systems we visited was part of a religious community and our guide that day, at some point confessed, “I am glad to know that if in some point we move on and abandon this place, we will be leaving behind a food forest for the next generations to come”. There was also another big revelation to me. There is no need to prepare compost separately or complex water systems like dams, swales and irrigation, and that means cutting a lot of labour input and using energy wisely.You plant your water; you plant your nutrients. It’s all made by the system for the functioning of the system itself. Many trees in the system will be used as biomass, which means they will be chopped and dropped and that will become food for the food. The tree trunks and leaves many times are considered water tanks. Actually, the first time I cut down a Banana Tree I was amazed with the amount of water literally splashing out of it. A single Banana tree can hold up to 100 litres of water! Water also comes from condensation. With different layers of trees in the system, they will create their own water by breathing in and out, mixing warm temperature from day time and cold from nighttime. The more plants you have the more plants you’ll have working and contributing to the system.
That high density planting also means high production and diversity of income. That means that as a farmer you’ll have a variety of products and bigger share of the market. In a video I watched about Ernst and his neighbour followers, the farmer explains that he used to produce beans and pray for the price of beans being high in the market so he could sell enough to buy food for himself. But after adopting Syntropic farming he didn’t worry too much with the price of beans anymore, since he would have a diverse diet from his own production anyway, needing not much money to sustain his lifestyle.
Seriously, if there is a way to grow food in abundance and in the same time regenerate the planet. That’s reason enough for me to go in that direction. Walking through a Syntropic farm you will see a variety of lines (most of the time facing North/South–even in hilly fields) with a variety of trees, vegetables, grass, herbs with different heights and maturity. They are all communicating and supporting each other.They all have a purpose or a job, if you prefer. The eucalyptus is pumping water for all the other plants around and shading the banana tree that is growing. The Banana tree, on the other hand, is creating a protection to the pineapples that loves a part shade environment. The cassava is aerating the soil with its big roots and soon it will be cut down providing biomass, moisture and nutrients for the system. The dance keeps on going.
To understand it a bit better there is 5 main guiding principles:
- Ground cover – that means no bare soil! You shouldn’t suppose to even see the ground because of high density of plants. The plants canopies create shade and organic matter is never too much on the ground, keeping nutrients and moisture where it needs to be.
- Maximise Photosynthesis – the more plants you have, the more “green solar panels”are working to bring energy to your system. Energy is nature’s currency and therefore solar energy is gold.
- Natural Succession – it’s simply the timing/cycle of each plant. They are all planted at the same time. Hundreds of seeds at the same time. But they will show up in different timings and that’s where the magic is. Because you will design your system in a way that this timing will work for you. One plant will shade the other, protect the other until that plant is mature, prepare the soil and so on, just like in nature. The plants will communicate with each other: Hey man, I’m getting a bit old, I’ll be going soon, do you have it cover? Yeah sure, no worries I got your back. I’ll succeed you and take over when you’re gone. So, you need to make sure your system is covered with enough plants for all different life cycles. When your system reaches climax, after around 30 years you will end up with a mature forest or you can start all over again. The thing is, in your next cycle the soil will be much more fertile with an abundance of microorganisms and nutrients that weren’t there before (in other words it would be more complex). Did I hear Syntopy?
- Stratification – regarded as the amount of sun each type of plants requires. It is also directly related to the second principle “Maximise Photosynthesis” because the idea here is to form a big green wall with plants occupying all layers and receiving their optimal sunlight requirement. Some need space to get full sun and thrive on its best and others need shade so they will be under other plants. This is a very important issue when designing a successful system.
- Management – last but not least, management it’s a major part. They say Syntropic is about 5% planting and 95% management. That includes knowing the life cycle of each plant, when it’s time for pruning and to be able to read your system to know what your plants are asking for.
My aim here is not to teach about Syntropic agriculture because I am learning this complex art myself. But it’s more about presenting the bigger picture or to introduce the concept for possible enthusiasts. The title of this blog piece can be a bit ambitious, but you know what? Maybe that’s exactly what we need right now. I would definitely add Syntropic
farming in the tool shed needed to transform this place in the more beautiful world we know is possible. Are you in?
- Talk from Elaine Ingham, a soil scientist, about building healthy soil
- Thiago Barbosas website
- OCA – a Café opening soon in Byron Bay that grows part of the ingredients in a Syntropic agriculture system
- The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible by Charles Eisenstein.
- The Hidden life of Trees by Peter Wohllben – a book that talks about the relationship of trees.
- Life in Syntropy – a must watch video about Syntropic Farming