Beyond Organic Agriculture: An Introduction to Dynamic, Symbiotic & Successional Agroecosystems (also called Syntropic Agroecosystems) which are offering a solution towards more balanced human nature relationships and integrated food production landscapes
A possible pathway towards living in an dynamic and symbiotic Equilibrium with our Surrounding Environment : Dynamic, Symbiotic & Successional Agroecosystems are the way forward in a time of out of control soil erosion,water pollution and shortages,farmer suicides,global climate weirding and powerful chemical companies trying to take over our food supply. These Agroecosystems are a powerful positive and solution based pathway out of the trap of dependency and constant degradation of our food Production Landscapes. Following simple ecological principles and time tested land management strategies these systems offer high yields without outside inputs,without dependency on carcinogenic left over war chemicals or lobbied, brainwashed Agriculture advisers. They offer a simple but profound solution: A harmonious integration of our food Production systems into a dynamic evolutionary process which is one of the driving forces of nature: Succession !
Every piece of land will over time move through it's successional evolution towards a more complex and diverse system. By using this natural force and symbiotically integrating our food production systems into this process is a new refreshing perspective for Agriculture. After 10 000 years of unsuccessful trail and error with vast stretches of land that have become deserts over time due to our many bad agriculture practices of for example constant ploughing. Its time to reconsider and honestly recognize that we messed it up even though we invested billions of dollars of tax money into university research and new promising technologies. We are creating ever better and complexer technologies but are unaware of the damaging impact our daily lives are having on the very planetary life support system. We are developing unbelievably powerful nuclear weapons,spaceships and flatscreen TVs but are not capable until now to manage our land in a non harmful way! At this stage of ultimate urgency its time to put our ego aside,be humble and look for viable solutions leaving the paradigm of nature disconnection,control,greed,short term benefit and exploitation behind. In the days of the new organic Agriculture boom and more and more people getting into the lucrative business of organic food Production but unfortunately still bringing their old techniques and mindsets of land exploitation,controlling nature and poor land management decisions with them.
Organic Monoculture Cropping System managed by fossil fuel intensive machinery cant be a viable solution for the future!
Organic Agriculture in the way it is mostly practiced at the moment by most certified organic farms is in no way sustainable into the future. Many of the current practices have been taken over straight from the conventional practices only difference is that now so called organic sprays are used instead of left over carcinogenic war chemicals. Please everyone be aware of the need of outside inputs, the high amounts of monocultures, the ploughing and the constant work of keeping such systems at a low successional stage to be able to grow mainly annual crops. With this current organic agriculture approach we are far away from a sustainable system! We can just consider this our first baby steps towards a better future….
Can there be an approach of organic food production harmoniously integrated into and in symbiosis with nature ? A approach were our production landscapes are evolving together with us through time and space on a constant path of more complexity, stability and diversity? A system that grows over it's lifetime together with you same as you yourself are being transformed and positively influenced by your conscious interaction with this complex living system. Imagine growing a diverse forest while growing your food and possibly also your fibre, fuelwood and medicine!! Imagine the impact and ripple effect such a food Production landscape will have on it's local ecosystem,its surroundings and yourself!
This very system that you managing is evolving together with you on its successional pathway changing over time its structure,functions and compositions and also changing the person managing and interacting with it as Fukuoka Sensei already pointed out long time ago:
‘The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.
Besides of offering Synergistic Evolutionary Possibilities, a pathway for human consciousness evolution together with its surrounding environment Dynamic, Symbiotic & Successional (or Syntropic) Agroecosystems are also one of the most viable planting techniques from the environmental, social and economic point of view. They bring returns from the very beginning of their establishment as annuals crops are integrated into the perennial Fruit and Nut growing system which will give income in a very short time. Soils are covered by deep mulch which prevents weeds,evaporation and fosters soil microbiology.The organic material used for fertilization is produce right within the system making outside inputs unnecessary once the system is established, pest and disease outbreaks are rare and held in balance by the overall diversity of the system which eradicates the need for fossil fuel intensive and ecologically harmful pesticides and herbicides. The planting is done synchronously with agricultural species (vegetables,fruit and nuts ) and forest species for timber,biomass and ecological restoration. This planting strategy is very much inspired by ecological principles and the way the forests develop under natural conditions,its based on years of study and observation of natural systems and their capacity to recover after damage without outside inputs.
Planting such a very high density of useful species and high diversity is only possible due to the use of short, medium and long life cycle species which are occupying all forest layers (low, medium, high and emergent). We aim, to occupy all the ecological niches within the system through stacking a diversity of species in time and space therefore creating an abundancy system over time that caters for all our human needs and that of other lifeforms. Its following natures patterns rather the forcing our intellectually human created patterns onto nature which has over 6.5 billion years of experience in managing natural resources. Its a sign of pure ignorance to think we understand nature and can produce more through technology or GM crops which in the end just digs us deeper and deeper into the cave of the intellect as we are trying to fix one mis-functional symptom of our intellectually created solutions after the other..
The drawing by Fukuoka Sensei explained:On the right, people are enjoying themselves in nature. On the left they toil in the “cave of the intellect.” The contrast is intentional and striking!
By following the above mentioned principles we optimize the use of sunlight, water resources and have more productivity then a comparable sized monoculture without the need for outside inputs or dependency on loans or lobbied agriculture advisors which are trying to sell us the newest technologies or post war carcinogenic chemical products to control nature rather then to work with her.
To quote the founder of Syntropic Agroforestry Ernst Goetsch: This concept considers that all species are part of a macroorganism that works under the logic of cooperation and unconditional love of life. “Human beings are part of this system,” he says. “Instead of exploiters, we can be creators of resources.”
Just start to imagine the garden of Eden we can recreate if we are to change our current paradigm and all work together as one with the power of ecological systems supported by our collective human actions. Working and designing together AS nature. It is an attempt at harmonizing our agricultural activities with natural processes of life in order to" produce an optimum of diversity and quantity of high quality fruits, seeds and of other organic materials, without utilizing imported fertilizers, pesticides and heavy machinery , as Ernst stated in his article in 1994 called Break Through in Agriculture.I consider this as a possible pathway towards living in an dynamic and symbiotic equilibrium with our surrounding environment while catering for all the needs of all living beings.
Developed and tested mainly in the Tropical regions of our Planet I personally feel it's time to also gain deeper understanding of how such successional Agroecosystems can be applied and made use of on a larger scale in our temperate climate regions. Therefore we had invited Ernst Goetsch to Spain in 2016 to create a model system for this climate region.Here is a short timeline:
April 2016 - Establishment during 2 workshops with 60 people from all around the world who learned directly from the founder Ernst Goetsch how to establish such systems in a Temeprate Climate.
April 19th- finishing up the planting and MORE organic matter
May 3rd. Potatoes are sprouting well, maize is coming up also, beans, ate the first strawberry and trees looking all very well and happy!! We had some days of rain and some good sunshine too!
May 13. 10 days after establishment....
All the plants are looking great!! There has been a lot of rain, followed by sun, rain, sun :) The plants seem to have recovered from the burn they had. Willows looking good. The peach trees that had the bacteria/virus strange red bubbles on their leaves are still looking strange- but I am thinking of treating them with collodial silver water?! hmmm....
June: Abundance!!! Courgettes/Zuchinis are THRIVING!! The carrots are very strange- I think they should have been harvested earlier- as they are bitter and fibrous on the outside-they also grew into really strange alien shapes! Separating out.
September: after a very dry and hot summer here many of the vegetables and trees still are looking very good without any irrigation. Some of the cherry trees seem to struggle a little bit. The onions,corn and carrots werent a great success but there was a good harvest of zuchini,tomato,chili,eggplant and potatoes.
a short clip shows Ernst describing the system:
some impressions from the system we all established together:
The simple map of the established Syntropic Agroforestry System which was made by Roman Eisenkoelbl
Another Lesson learned! The importance of considering all the factor of a design not just the Environment:
Unfortunatley because of several social issues we had to finish our collaboration with the site where the Syntropic Agroforestry System got established at the end of 2016. Since we finally found our own piece of land in the area and started to design and implement another Syntropic Agroforestry System at our new site in the Alta Garrotxa in late 2017, early 2018.With the important lessons learned from Ernst Goetsch himself and having already to done the system once this will be a much easier process! We thank everyone from deep in our hearts who helped establish this first system and feel very grateful for having had the chance to share this experience together. We will keep you updated about the new Syntropic Agroforestry site, its evolution and progress via this website.
Demystification of Syntropic Agroforestry:
Our living breathing planet actively seeks to optimize life-forming processes all around us but we blindly work against this natural force rather then being in symbiosis with it. Each one of us and the thousands of species on this planet have an important and unique function within the larger system. This natural life support systems all around us constantly strive to evolve from simple to more complex forms which is what drives the evolution of our natural systems since many billions of years. Ernst Goetsch calls this Syntropic processes and his way of farming is based on these insights. Ernst’s point is that even when Nature displays what it might seem to us like a competitive behavior, there is a wisdom behind fighting entropy and optimizing life to build syntropy. Nature works through unconditional love! To keep ecosystems balanced.
To come back to my point,the reason why I like to call it Agroecosystems and not just Agroforesty is that I feel its necessary to look at the production landscape as a whole and not just onto one technique like Agroforestry. After having been involved in Permaculture for some years I definitely can see its weak links but also really can see a big value in its holistic (for me holistic is taking into consideration the social,economic and environmental factors of any given place) design process and aim of creating perennially edible landscapes that are harmoniously integrated into the surrounding ecosystem through creating beneficial relationships with all the elements involved. In my view we have to design Syntropic Agroecosystems that take into consideration the whole farm,its resource inputs and outputs,its placement in relationship to outside influences like wind,sun and water, a energy efficient placement of all its infrastructure and other farm related elements, a economic return for our energy input,integration of animals etc etc.
Ernst Gotsch, the father of Syntropic Farming emphasises in his teachings that the human being is not the most intelligent animal on the planet. According to him we are only one of the species that compose an intelligent system and we need to learn how to play our role accordingly.
The first criteria to guide our design and future actions in agroforestry systems must be that these activities need to favour the enhancement of life and the successional processes especially via photosynthesis (Gotsch, 1997).
What is Syntropic Agroforestry:
In a Syntropic system, different trees (e.g. pioneer, medium strata, nitrogen-fixing, windbreak, biomass, timber, and climax trees) are planted with a subsistence of market garden (with ground covers, vegetables, tubers and annuals) so that the farmer can start offsetting the costs of implementation as soon as possible.
This strategy, together with (specific strata and life cycle-related) pruning and mulching, allows us to speed up the natural processes of ecological succession, producing quality food, fibres, timber and fuels while also regenerating degraded lands. by Holosdesign.com.au
According to Ernst Göstch (1995) the implementation of Syntropic forestry systems must be optimised following some steps so that a positive energetic balance can be guaranteed:
- First it is necessary to identify the adequate species, the species consortiums and the natural succession of these consortiums with a specific region, soil or similar climate;
- Second, it is also necessary to identify the most appropriate moment to begin each cycle. In other words, the time of implementation (or management of an already established plot) must be chosen so that each species find the best conditions to establish themselves and thrive;
- After gathering this information it is necessary to design and plan the implementation as to achieve the maximum possible biodiversity in the system. The design and planning of the system must also fulfill every strata and life-cycle niche to optimise vital process in the whole system (including soil life);
- Forth, pruning and sacrificing of selected plants is used to speed up the system’s growth and natural succession.
Some Basic Considerations while working with Syntropic Farming Systems:
- Mimic Structure and Functions of Natural Forest Ecosystems - High Diversity - High Density - Stratification or Forest Layers - Pruning – Strategic Timed Interventions - Plant Consortiums or Plant Communities - Working with Successional Processes - Biomass - Hydroscopic Planting Pattern
Diversity in Dynamic agroforestry:
The diversity of dynamic agroforestry is one of its most important principles. The high variety of plants promotes growth as the plants are able to support each other.
They provide shade and protect each other from wind, furthermore the surrounding roots benefit from microorganisms.
High plant density:
- Nature leaves no room unused, either horizontally or vertically. The dynamic Agroforestry is therefore densely planted in order to make the best use of the space.
Of course, not all plants like to grow together, but in most cases a high density promotes growth dynamics and plant health. Some examples:
- Roots: The roots of different species interfere and promote each other, mycorrhizae are eliminated. Since different plants need different nutrients, they do not interfere.
- Defenses of diseases: Local plants have developed certain substances in order to expel typical crimes. They thus protect crops.
- Windbreak: If the plants stand tight, the flowers are not blown off in strong winds and the young trees are not uprooted.
- Heat: At higher densities, the parcel warms faster, the plants grow faster;
- Biomass: More plants, more biomasses, more cutting material and thus organic material for the soil.
- creates biomass for mulching and fertilizing the system from support plants grown in the production system therefore no outside inputs are needed
- Pruning increases the amount of light available to future generations of plant species.
-Pruning also serves as an instrument for speeding, intervening and directing the organic process of species succession by the possibility it offers to influence each plant individually in terms of access for light, space and leaf area.
- periodic rejuvenation by pruning prolongs the life time of short lived pioneer species, thereby enhancing their ability for soil improving.
-Harvesting or pruning at the right moment can overcome the point where the development of a species is negatively affected by the maturity of another.
Some PRUNING TECHNIQUES:
Pruning for synchronisation: Synchronisation becomes necessary when two plants grow at different speeds and one plant begins to steal the other's air and light. Then the faster-growing plant is cut to the same or an even lower height than the slower-growing plant. This takes advantage of the plants' competitiveness for space, light and air. When the faster-growing plant begins to sprout out once more, the somewhat slower-growing plant will attempt to keep pace and can often outgrow its usual size
Pruning for biomass: A further key element of dynamic agroforestry is the targeted build-up of biomass within the system. This is achieved on the one hand through cutting, since many plants grow back stronger when they have been pruned. On the other, almost all the clippings remain in the system, cut into small pieces and distributed.
Pruning for air and light: Plants not only steal each other's space, but also their light and air.This has to be managed to optimize yields and plant growth.
Pruning for space: Some plants do not go well together and attempt to outcompete one another by growing toward the light. Then one plant has light and the other grows stunted. This can be counteracted by pruning for space so that both plants can grow
Pruning for rejuvenation: An important element of dynamic agroforestry is to keep the cultivated plant system in a youthful state, as plants also grow fastest when they are younger. Many plants can easily be rejuvenated by pruning.
When planting, eg. corn with papaya and cocoa, initially the corn will grow fast for its growth curve is steep. The growth dynamic of the corn positively influences the growth of the papaya and the cocoa. When the corn reaches the flowering stage, its growth slows down and so does its dynamic
When it matures, the plant begins to wither and its cycle ends. Until it ends, this maturing and "re-absorption" process (its organic matter is reintegrated into the system) affects the development of the papaya and the cocoa tree. Afterwards, the papaya continues its growth, developing with renewed strength until it too reaches its maturity.
Plant Consortium Design: Ecological succession creates the ideal conditions for the establishment of biodiversity. Biodiversity, in turn, creates the biomass, soil cover, and sufficient nutrients so that the system can become more complex as it evolves.
Choose plants according to the different phases/stages of the system.
- Placenta I (with plants living up to 6 months); - Placenta II (plants living up to 2 years); - Secundária (Secondary) I (with plants living up to 10 years); - Secundária II (plants living up to 25 years); - Secundária III (plants living up to 80 years); and - Climax (with plants living more than 80 years).
Colonisation System: The "colonizers" which can be found in soils that have been destroyed, cliffs and overexploited sites, take the first step. For example, the first to colonize barren rocks are bacteria that create the necessary conditions for the development of moss and lichens. In turn, when they have created the conditions that favour the development of other more demanding species, pioneer plants start to develop, initiating the next stage, the first Accumulation Systems.
Accumulation System: Accumulation Systems are characterized by including plant species with a wide carbon/nitrogen ratio. The lignin content of the organic matter is high and; consequently, the decomposition of organic matter such as leaves and ligneous parts is slow (accumulation of energy – organic matter) The fruits produced by trees found in the lignin system are not edible by men or large animals. They are home to insects noxious to human beings, small animals such as mice, poisonous snakes and small birds. As living conditions are improved through the dynamics of life itself (succession processes), other species that form part of the following Accumulation Systems begin to appear
Abundance Systems: Abundance Systems are found at the peak of the complexity chain. Normally, they are found in cilia and alluvial forests, in riverbeds and hydrographical basins. These systems are the habitat of large animals and its vegetation is characterized for the close Carbon/Nitrogen links.
The species found in the Abundance Systems are characterized for their large fruits, rich in carbohydrates, fat and protein that are able to support large animals. In order to survive, mankind, being a large animal, needs the conditions prevalent in abundance systems.
Transformation processes in these abundance systems are intensive and the flow of carbon is very high (greater activity of micro-organisms). Within each of the systems described before there is a sequence regarding the dominance of the different consortiums of species.
Understanding the principles of natural succession and the species associated to them in each stage and in each ecosystem is the key to achieving a successful management of dynamic and stratified agricultural and forest systems.
Some Examples from Alto Beni in Bolivia:
1. Pioneers (up to 6 month)
After eliminating the primary layer of vegetation (as a result of slash and burn practices, or when an emerging tree falls, leaving an empty space) many pioneer plants and other species corresponding to the next succession, begin to grow.
The majority of our short cycle crops belong to the pioneer group of the Abundance System: Corn, Rice, Sweet Potatoes, Soybean, Beans, Squashes, Tomatoes, Watermelon.
2. Secondary I (six month up to two years), II (two years up to 15 years) The secondary vegetation is born along with the pioneers, dominating the latter after one or two years. The secondary vegetation includes species with different life cycles (two, fifteen, eighty years, approximately).
The most renowned species of secondary species with a short life cycle (two to 15 years) in the Alto Beni Region of Bolivia are the following: Manioc, Pineapple, Sugar Cane, Banana, Cecropias, Balsa wood, Ingas ssp., Cardamomo, Passion Fruit, Morera, Curcucma, Toco (Schizolobium amazónicum), and others.
3. Secondary III with long life cycle (15 years up to 80 years) Some of the species that form part of forests in process of becoming primary forests are presented below - what we call a primary forest is also a system who is in transition and subject to change.
4. Primary (> 80 years) The primary consortium is composed by species of the "primary forest" that dominate the secondary III species. Eventually, they become the upper stratums and the trees emerging from the forest. The pioneers and the different secundary species are born along with the primary species. For the primaries to prosper they must be raised by the first.
Some examples of species found in a primary forest and of primary crops of the Abundance System in Alto Beni are the following: Cocoa, Copuazú (Theobroma grandiflora), Achachairú (Rheedia ssp.), Coffee, Cashew, Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), Ceiba (Ceiba ccp.), Ochóo (Hura crepitans), Ficus ssp., Rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa), Garlic tree (Gallesia integrifolia), etc.
Within a succession, in order to achieve a primary forest, none of the stages of the natural succession can be left out. However, even if none of the stages can be skipped, a proper intervention can accelerate some of these processes.
In order to guarantee a successful and productive agroforestry system, all species that form part of the system - at a given place, at a given moment - should be planted.
Temperate Climate Example of Species Consortium:
An Example for a Tropical Climate System:
The understanding of ecological succession, of the structural layers, and of each species’ role within its life cycles is crucial to the farmer’s/designer’s success.
Natural succession of animal and plant species are life’s driving force or the vehicle in which life travels through space and time.
More Temperate Climate Examples:
Stratification / Layers: that are related to the amount of sunlight demanded by each species
- Low strata species. Plants which demand less light to grow and produce, and that occupy up to 80% of their niche;
- Medium strata species. Plants that may occupy up to 60% of their niche and, in the right percentage, can withstand shade from taller trees;
- High strata species. These trees may occupy up to 40% of their niche area. In this percentage the light permeates through them and hits medium and low strata species;
- Emergent species, in turn, occupy about 20% of their niche and can take full sun.
Each life cycle may contain all 4 strata. For example, within the Placenta 1 cycle we might have a consortium in which Nira garlic is low strata, rocket medium, lettuce high and corn is the emergent.
Within Placenta 2 we could plant sweet potato as low, taro as medium (depending on which variety), cassava as high strata, and okra as emergent. This way it is possible to design each strata within each cycle. And because this approach deals with varied spatial (strata) and temporal (life cycles) dimensions, it optimises the production up to 400%. Biomass & Mulch: The soil is always covered with a thick layer of woody biomass.The biomass is produced within the growing system and is not depended on external inputs!
One of the most important measures for the improvement and maintenance of soil fertility in dynamic agroforestry production systems is the continuous addition of woody (ligneous) organic material, of which large amounts become available every year as a result of pruning measures (Lemieux, G. 1996; Caron, C. et.al. 1996)
Hydroscopic Planting Pattern:
A Continuous harvest and yield: which enables also small subsistence farmers to get into establishing and managing syntropic systems
Rentability and income increases as the system evolves: the farmer may (if planned in the design) start harvesting greens and herbs within 30 to 45 days after establishment. These crops may be followed by others within 3 to 6 months,
The design of the rows:
Usually the Syntropic Farming plots will be developed with 5 to 7 rows or beds with the outer rows receiving a poly-culture of plants and taller trees and the middle rows the short cycle or annual crops.
The distance between the outer rows may vary from 5 to 8 meters, depending of the farmer’s goals.
If the goal is to work with fruits, value-added products and timber trees as soon as possible, the outer rows will be placed within 5 meters of each other. If the goal is to have a market garden functioning for longer so as to build an income from produce the outer rows can be placed within 8 metres of each other.
While in the former the canopy of the taller trees can start closing within 2.5 to 3 years, the latter will take about 4 to 5 years to close. In both situations, however, the farmer can bring more sunlight into the system by pruning or cutting out trees.
The rows might be laid on the landscape perpendicular to the sun’s arch as to maximise light exposure. If, for whatever reason, rows are placed along the sun’s arch, it is necessary to make sure that the outer row closest to the sun does not shade the others (another situation in which rows might be placed further from each other).
Syntropic Farming consultants all over Brazil would recommend a sunlight maximising design with rows running downhill as a system running on contour (roughly East to West in our case) might be too shady. The apparent conundrum is: should we optimise sunlight and run the risk of erosion? Or should we prevent erosion at the expense of production (which is sunlight-related)?
Credits: much of the information shared here came from my own research through reading articles,publications and websites.There are several sources i would like to mention here from which i took information and compiled it here for offering a complete picture to interested people who would like to practice and implement Syntropic Agroecosystems.Especially in the temperate climate regions of the world we need much more research to be done!! I feel a urgency and importance to make this powerful system spread more widely in this time of great environmental challenges.....