Farming in a manner that will increase production yield while simultaneously improving soil quality is a challenge, but one that can be met by ‘Syntropic Farming’, according to local horticulturalist and agriculturalist Peter Wilkins. Yes, this system could revolutionise your farming practices and actually result in a long term reduction in the need for fertiliser inputs and overall costs. And even better, the system can be adapted to fit any plot, regardless of size, from small domestic gardens, to the 5 acre rural holding and up to larger agroforestry systems, with healthier soils and an abundance of fresh food resulting.
According to Peter, Bellingen Shire’s subtropical climate makes this region ripe for the benefits of Syntropic Farming, with luscious ‘food forests’ being the end result. Peter’s ultimate dream is to develop a system of ‘community supported agriculture’, where locals can purchase a reasonably priced share, which could support Peter’s work and result in ongoing fresh produce for shareholders. We wanted to know more and decided who better to interview for the launch of our ‘Season of Food’ .
What exactly is ‘Syntropic Farming’? Can you explain its origins?
Syntropic Farming was developed in Brazil by Ernst Gotsch (Swiss botanist) in response to the devastation of deforestation and the failure of mono culture farming on this cleared land. The word ‘Syntropy’ in an agroforestry context refers to “increasing complexity” and therefore bio-diversity within the system.
It all began when Ernst observed what occurred in the Brazilian rainforest after a natural clearing event, i.e when a large tree falls. Firstly, the forest canopy is opened. The fallen tree begins the process of decomposition and seeds will germinate with the increased light, with saplings racing to restore the canopy. In other words ‘an explosion of growth’.
Within this mix of seeds are the colonisers that quickly cover the bare surface and reach maturity quickly. An example locally would be the acacias. This layer is then replaced as the upper canopy by slower taller growing plants that eventually occupy a different higher strata than the lower growing colonisers. So the forest naturally moves towards a vertical stacking, a natural succession of 3 levels within the forest of low, middle and high stratas of plants. Within the strata are also plants of varying life cycles, from fast growing annuals of 30-45 days to trees over 100 years old and everything in between.
The forest is self supporting with the fast growing plants laying down their carbon for slower growing plants and the mycorrhizal networks providing an underground network of nutritional support for growing plants. Plants with deeper tap roots bring minerals from deeper in the soil profile back up to the surface. Nothing is wasted! Leaching and erosion is minimal due to binding of tree roots in the soil and the laying down of large quantities of organic matter.
Ernst set about systemising this natural succession of the rainforest re-growth after clearance. He could see that this idea could be used to create food forests, while reinvigorating the soils. This same system could be used here in the Bellingen Shire to boost food production, while revitalising our soils. Bare, under-utilised backyard plots or paddocks could literally be turned into food forests, using this same system. Just think of all the mowing time that could be saved in the process!!
So how would we set out using ‘syntropic farming’ to create a market garden or food forest here in the Bellingen Shire?
There is a layout of one tree row with three horticultural rows in between. Beds are set out like most market gardens with 400mm wide paths and 800mm growing beds.
The difference being in the Syntropic system logs are laid down on the paths to avoid compaction and provide a slow release fertiliser that develops into rich dark humus over time.
The tree rows may consist of banana, acacia, blue gum, avocado, papaya, citrus, coffee and cabinet timbers. The banana, acacia and blue gum would be regularly pruned so that off-cuts can be chopped up or mulched to provide carbon/organic matter for the system.
In the horticultural rows consortiums of plants (a wide mixture) are planted at the same time. These consortiums are designed to occupy different height stratas and different life cycles.
For example, radish are fast and low growing and leave the system after approx 30 days, dwarf beans after 40 -45 days, corn or eggplant 90-120 days. Faster growing taller plants can provide protection to the lower strata plants. The better the design the more productivity can be gained by utilising this vertical stacking and different life cycles.
Can syntropic farming be used in smaller areas?
Absolutely, an area of 10 x 10 meter square could still have a tree row and three horticulture rows. Despite the area, the farmer can manage the amount of canopy cover by pruning and lopping, with the off-cuts providing the mulching material, building the nutrient content of the soil. In larger areas, the lifecycle of the entire area my be 20 to 30 years at which point the cycle may start again by harvesting the timber and opening the canopy.
Are you available for consultation?
Sure am. We ran a ‘syntropic farming’ workshop here in Bellingen late last year and are planning more workshops during 2018.
I am also available for private consultation on PH: 0435 892 898 or email firstname.lastname@example.org