Ecosystems Matter (How to Eat: Part 1)

There seems to be an emerging consensus that the choices we make around food, and thus agriculture, are important. That the individual decisions we make about food have planetary significance. These dietary beliefs are coalescing into words like conventional, organic, vegetarian, vegan, locavore and paleo. Each of these represents a different view of our collective situation and suggests how we might act if we wish to be of benefit to our world.

I’d like to begin with what I hope is an uncontroversial starting point, and then explore a little from there.

If humans want to continue to exist (in anything approximating our current population) we must provide for ourselves from within healthy ecosystems.

Okay, so what’s an ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a community of organisms living in a specific place. Ecosystems are dynamic and constantly changing. Species disappear and new ones arrive. Sometimes ecosystems “die” and sometimes ecosystems are “born”. Ecosystems can look like almost anything: a coral reef, a desert, or a forest.

Okay, so how do I know if an ecosystem is healthy?

The amount of life that an ecosystem can support indefinitely is called its carrying capacity. The maximum carrying capacity is determined by the resources and constraints of the place the ecosystem occupies (eg. sunlight, water, temperature, minerals, shelter, pollution, wind etc).

Exponential growth of population size over time.
Exponential growth of population size over time.

Ecosystems are healthy when the amount of life they contain matches the maximum carrying capacity of the place they inhabit. If the amount of life within an ecosystem is below the maximum carrying capacity and steadily decreasing — we can think of that as a “sick” ecosystem. If the amount of life is below the maximum carrying capacity and steadily increasing — we can think of that as a “healing” ecosystem.

Life within ecosystems is organised in complex food webs. As ecosystems heal not only will the quantity of life increase, but new species will arrive and new interactions between species will occur. As the complexity increases so does the quantity and availability of food. In turn, this will increase the carrying capacity until it eventually reaches the underlying limits of the place it occupies (eg. space, pollution, minerals, sunlight etc). This allows us to use complexity as an indicator of ecosystem health.

As ecosystems heal they increase in complexity.
As ecosystems sicken they decrease in complexity.

To assess ecosystem health you need to have some idea of its carrying capacity. Imagine an exposed, rocky hilltop compared to a sheltered, warm river valley. At full health, each might have a dramatically different carrying capacity and complexity. This can be confusing because a healthy desert ecosystem might be less complex than a sickly woodland.

Okay, so why are healthy ecosystems important?

As ecosystems degrade, the amount of life they can support decreases. If there are more humans than the ecosystems of the planet can support, then eventually humans will die back to a population that the ecosystems can support. Since human population is projected to continue growing (at least for a few more decades), it would be sensible for us to focus on increasing ecosystem health. We are especially vulnerable because many of our industrial practices create pollution which further damages the ecosystems we rely on.

The focus of this article is about food, but humans require more than food from ecosystems. In addition to our needs for fuel and fibre, healthy ecosystems also regulate temperature, create rain, mitigate flooding, reduce pollution, pollinate crops, etc. These are sometimes referred to as ecosystem services.

In a broader context, anthropogenic ecosystem degradation is not a new phenomenon. Humans have been damaging ecosystems for millennia. Perhaps the first major shock began about 50,000 years ago as we started hunting most of the world’s megafauna into extinction. Then about 10,000 years ago, our early attempts at agriculture began turning some of our planets most abundant ecosystems into deserts.

One of the unfortunate realities of long-term ecosystem degradation is that every generation sees their degraded experience as normal. It’s hard to comprehend what was lost before we were born, let alone what was lost before our grandparents were born. For most of us, the loss over the last 50,000 years is unimaginable.

Despite this long history of destruction, there is also a long history of humans working skilfully within ecosystems. All indigenous people developed rules and culture which enabled them to partner with the ecosystems on which they depended.

Okay, so what does any of this have to do with farming and food?

At this point I hope that we can agree on two things:

  • that healthy ecosystems are essential to a future of healthy humans, and
  • looking at the complexity of an ecosystem is a way to evaluate ecosystem health.

Agriculture was developed on the floodplains of the world. The regular floods brought nutrient-rich sediment which makes floodplains some of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet. Most agricultural crops require ecosystems as fertile as the floodplains we originally cultivated them on. While carrying capacity and complexity can vary dramatically between ecosystems, when talking about agricultural ecosystems we can assume a degree of uniformity because the crops have similar requirements. By comparing the complexity of different agricultural production systems, we can get a sense of the ecological health they engender.

Below are some photos typical of conventional production. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?

Now let’s look at some photos of alternative production systems. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?

In both sets of photos it’s hard to see the climate, pollution, soil type, microbes, insects and the details of plant species. Even without those details, you can get some sense of their health and how close they might be to their potential.

All conventionally produced crops use a mixture of monoculture, tillage, irrigation, fertiliser, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Combined, these techniques kill soil microbes, cause soil erosion & compaction, cause drought & flooding, kill vast amounts of wildlife and poison our water. Sadly most organic food production is also destructive as it also uses monoculture, tillage, irrigation, fertiliser, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides (though the fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are less toxic to humans).

When you buy food at a supermarket you are buying conventionally produced food. The amount of care and skill that conventional (and organic) food is produced varies tremendously from farm to farm.

While the amount of damage varies from farm to farm, the reality is that conventional production damages ecosystems no matter how much care and skill is applied.

That all sounds terrible, what’s the alternative?

The good news is that people have been figuring out how to produce food within healthy ecosystems for decades. The current catchphrase for farming systems which can also heal ecosystems is Regenerative Agriculture. However many farming systems have been developed with this intention. Agroecology, Permaculture, Forest Gardening, Natural Farming, Syntropic Agroforestry, Holistic Management, Analogue Forestry, and Biodynamics are some of the farming systems which attempt to produce food, fibre or fuel while healing ecosystems.

While there is a steady increase in numbers of acres under regenerative management, overall there are very few farms using these systems. In Western countries, adoption has been particularly slow. In part, because the increased complexity of these regenerative farms makes mechanical harvesting difficult (and the low cost of food and the high cost of labour means manual harvesting isn’t financially viable).

The good news is that we know everything we need to know to farm regeneratively. We aren’t waiting for a technological breakthrough, we aren’t waiting for scientists to figure something out. There are regenerative farms producing high quality, nutrient-dense food. And they’ve and making a good living doing it for decades.

What we are currently lacking is the political and social will to regenerate ecosystems on a massive scale. This is something that everyone can help with. Find your local regenerative farmers and buy as much as you can from them. Talk to your friends, coworkers and family about the importance of ecosystem health. Talk to community leaders and local politicians. After all, history shows that only 3.5% of the population is required to catalyse massive shifts in public perception and policy.

Part 2: Drawing Lines (coming soon).

Originally posted at adam.nz.

Firestick

Tink has been following the fires in Australia quite closely. I have a harder time, I reach emotional saturation and want to turn away from it. This morning I was jolted awake by the picture to the right. All I could think about is what it must have sounded like on that abandoned street.

Fires raging behind a suburban street.
The Daily Mail (possibly fake).

My way of processing the horror of what’s happening in Australia is to try and tell the story of these modern fires from a historical perspective of land management. I mean no disrespect to my sisters and brothers currently struggling with the reality of these fires. If we can understand the root causes I see the possibility of individual agency and collective action.

The beginning is a bit slow, I hope you’ll bear with me for a few paragraphs.

One way to divide the world is between brittle and humid climates.

Humid climates, like much of New Zealand and Europe, have rainfall throughout the year. There is a wetter season and a drier season, but there is enough moisture for plants and microbes to stay active for most of the year. Without human intervention, these climates generally end up as woodlands.

Brittle climates, like much of Australia, North America and Africa, have distinct wet and dry seasons. A short, intense rainy season and a long dry season. During the dry season plants and microbes go dormant due to the lack of moisture. Without human intervention, these climates generally end up as grasslands.

One of the ways that microbes increase soil fertility is by breaking down plant material and returning nutrients to the soil. If microbes are dormant (or absent) nutrients are released into the atmosphere rather than returned to the soil. The more nutrients end up in the atmosphere the less fertile the soil becomes. As fertility declines so does the quantity and quality of life which the ecosystem can support.

Brittle climate grasslands co-evolved with grazing herbivores. The cooperation between grass and herbivores created some of the richest and deepest soils in the world. Grazing herbivores use the microbes and moisture in their digestive system to breakdown plant material. Grazing means that even during the dry season, nutrients can still be returned to the soil as manure rather than lost to the atmosphere.

One of the crucial distinctions between brittle and humid climates is the land’s response to rest.. Resting humid land increases soil fertility and ecological health. Resting brittle land decreases fertility and ecological health.

Our earliest ancestor, Homo erectus, appeared on the brittle African savanna. They spent two million years hunting and foraging the savannas of Africa and southern Asia. Roaming these grasslands were large herds of grazing megafauna. As humans began to spread across the world about 50,000 years ago, the extinction of megafauna followed. Only in Africa and southern Asia, where we co-evolved with them, does wild megafauna continue to exist.

Without megafauna, there was a shortage of grazing animals to consume plant material during the dry season. The fertility of the land began to decline. Indigenous cultures of the world recognised this and began to use fire to breakdown plant material. Fire is a poor substitute for grazing as many nutrients are lost to the atmosphere, but some nutrients return to the soil as ash. Over centuries the people who lived in brittle climates developed knowledge and practices of how to use fire to preserve the fertility of the land they relied on.

Why bush fires are good.

Five hundred years ago Europeans began to spread over the world. With them came the knowledge and practices of managing the humid environments of northern Europe. Their inexperience with brittle climates, and unwillingness to listen to indigenous knowledge, has caused widespread ecological degradation. In particular, the assumption that rest was a way of restoring fertility meant that they didn’t understand how indigenous fire practices were being used to create ecological health.

Facing Fire: Building Resiliency to Wildfire

For centuries indigenous practices of fire have been suppressed. Without grazing animals or the skilled use of fire, these landscapes have been steadily accumulating fuel loads. The higher the fuel load, the bigger and hotter the fires. Hotter fires mean greater destruction of habitat for microbes, plants, animals, and humans. This is what we’re now watching unfold in California and Australia.

The bad news is that these fires are explicitly the result of poor human management.

The good news is that human management is the one thing we can directly control. We have to get over our prejudice against fire and grazing animals. We have to step back into our traditional role as stewards of the land. We have to remember how to act in a way that benefits all life.

Once upon a time, every human culture knew how to do this. We can learn to do it again.

PS. I’ve tried to write this without using any jargon or assuming any pre-knowledge. The risk of trying to keep things simple is over-generalising. If I’ve made a mistake or something is doesn’t make sense please let me know and I’ll fix it.

Originally posted at adam.nz.

Getting Started with Permaculture in New Zealand

There is an overwhelming abundance of information online about permaculture, but relatively little of it is specifically about New Zealand. This page is an effort to highlight New Zealander specific resources.

You might also be interested in: Syntropic Agroforestry Resources (in English).

What is Permaculture?

The strength (and weakness) of permaculture is that it is many things to many people. Ask any two people “what is permaculture?” and I can almost guarantee that you’ll get two different answers. At its heart permaculture is design language based on an evolving set of ethics and principles which help us work in harmony with the natural systems of our world.

My favourite way to think of permaculture goes like this: if being indigenous means to be “of a place”, then permaculture is a toolkit which helps the non-indigenous begin to relearn what it means to be “of a place”.

Things to be added:
https://www.facebook.com/TheForestGardeners/

Official

  • Permaculture in New Zealand – PiNZ is the primary permaculture organisation in New Zealand. They organise the yearly hui, certify designers and manage a website which lists events
  • PiNZ on Facebook – A very active community, lots of chat and some technical permaculture discussion.

Associations

Community Groups

Teachers & Coaches

Holistic Management

Permaculture

Designers

Farm or Garden Tours

Seeds and Plants

Books

Books by New Zealanders or about New Zealand:

Because there are so few books specifically about New Zealand, below are the books I’ve read and recommend for beginners:

  • An Earth Users Guide to Permaculture – An Australian based book which walks you through the process of designing a property step by step. You can read through the entire book in an afternoon, though it will take longer if you do the exercises as intended.
  • At Home with Holistic Management – Holistic Management is the decision making framework that permaculture forgot to include. Originally designed to help farmers manage pastureland, this book focuses on how it can be used to help organise a family or run a small business.

Easy, inspiring reads:

  • Miraculous Abundance – Wonderful story of a French couple starting a permaculture farm. Easy and fun read but also lots of great ideas and practical thoughts on what it takes to make a commercial permaculture farm work.
  • Paradise Lot – An inspiring story of two American friends creating a permaculture paradise on a tenth of an acre.

Books I haven’t read, but others often recommend for beginners:

  • Permaculture Design by Aranya – Focused on the design side of things, it’s not going to teach you how to garden.
  • Gaia’s Garden – Focuses primarily on teaching permaculture patterns and techniques using the garden as an example.
  • Permaculture: A Designers Manual – The canonical reference manual with more ideas than will ever fit in your brain. Totally worth browsing but get it from the library, it’s expensive and dated.

Podcasts

There are only a couple permaculture podcasts by New Zealanders:

There is a growing collection of interviews with NZ practitioners on overseas podcasts:

Videos

New Zealand based videos …

Originally posted at adam.nz.

Syntropic Agroforestry Resources (in English)

Most of the information available on Syntropic Agroforestry is in Portuguese. In late-2018 English language content slowly became more widely available. I’m attempting to collect all of the English language resources in one easy to access location.

Multi-strata agroforestry, agrofloresta and successional agroforestry are terms often used interchangeably with Syntropic Agroforestry. However Syntropic Agroforestry is being used to specifically refer to the philosophy and practices developed by Ernst Götsch in Brazil.

Please let me know if I’ve missed any useful resources and I’ll add them here.

You might also be interested in: Getting Started with Permaculture in New Zealand

Official Resources

Practice Manuals

Academic Papers

Articles

Videos

Individual videos are collected in my YouTube playlist. If you are having trouble understanding, the closed captioning can help (click the [cc] button in the video toolbar). Below are other playlists and a handful of the best resources I’ve found.

Internet Forums

Syntropic Farms

Teachers

With gratitude to …

  • … all the farmers, teachers, students and translators who have developed this knowledge and shared it so generously with the world.
  • Ursula Arztmann for contributing the wonderful Mediterranean infographics.
  • Roger Gietzen for pointers to helpful resources.
  • … Andrew Cavanagh for sharing many links.

Images

Originally posted at adam.nz.

Syntropic Agriculture Workshop at Gabalah Farm

October 2018 about thirty people convened on Scott Hall’s Gabalah Farm for a workshop on Syntropic Agriculture (Agrofloresta). The workshop was led by Namastê Messerschmidt.

Below are my notes in case they are useful to anyone else. I wasn’t trying to record everything, this is just anything which caught my attention in the moment. Some is quite mundane, some very specific and lacking context, and some of it greatly helped my understanding of Syntropic methods and principals.

It’s quite likely that I’ve understood things incompletely and may have worded them poorly.


Entrance to Gabalah Farm
Welcome to Gabalah Farm

When doing high apical cut on Eucalypts sometimes they resprout from the bottom. They’ve found that if you leave about 5 branches at the top that is enough to stop it resprouting at the base.

In arid/temperate climates you can use cactus or agave as alternative to banana (for chop and drop with lots of internal moisture).

Stratification is not height or longevity based, there are high strata short plants (eg. kale). If the plant is from a system with less resources (arid, cold, poor soil etc) than the entire system might be shorter.

Stratification is based on light requirements when the plant is mature (eg. a high strata plant will be tolerate additional shade for the first part of its life).

Corn and okra are emergent. Tomatoes and kale are high.

If they need full sun they are emergent. If they get sunburned they aren’t.

Broad, dark green leaves are an indication of lower layers.

The best way to know a plant is to live with it. Just like our mother, she can cut her hair or change clothes and we still know her.

From an ecological point of view you could have all four strata in a single organism. However to provide enough space for each layer, the high and emergent layers end up very tall and hard/dangerous to work with. In general they have found it is better to mix emergent and medium (or high and low) cropping species in a single row so your crops stay closer to the ground. You can have non-crop biomass emergent species mixed in as well.

You need 1-1.5m between the top of one strata and the bottom of the next. So if you have low strata to 2m then the bottom of your high strata can’t begin until 3.5m.

 A stack of firewood to be used as mulch during the workshop.
A handsome mulch pile.

With these height requirements you can’t have high/emergent tree rows at 5m because you create too much shade. They’ve found it works well to alternate high/low rows with emergent/medium rows. That way there are 10m between your big trees.

When pruning you must respect strata and relationships between species. For example, if you prune a high species lower than a medium species it won’t thrive.

For simplicity of management it is best to have only one species of each strata in a single row.

Planning:

  1. What is going to make organic matter in short to long term?
  2. What to harvest when?
  3. Respect stratification and lifecycle
  4. Management considerations per species.
  5. How to sell harvests
  6. Plant sizes and spacing
  7. Type of organic matter (eg. tilth, what can germinate)
  8. Water
  9. Slope, sun & row orientation
  10. Machine or human labour resources
  11. Respect the vocation of the land/climate/season (grow what will thrive)
  12. Protection from animals
The teacher, Namastê up a tree with a chainsaw.
Namastê in his happy place.

Start planning from the species which will remain in the system the longest (not counting biomass species) and work down through species that will be shorter lived.

Start planting from the biggest to the smallest, with seeds coming after seedlings and grafted plants. Idea is to make the most mess early so as few species as possible are disturbed by later planting.

Put grafting wound facing away from sun.

When planting trees cut off half of every leaf (in their experience this works better than cutting off every other leaf). Cut off all fruit/flowers for first two years to give tree a chance to establish. Grafted trees think they are older than they actually are and so you need to hold them back as producing even a few fruit takes a lot of effort for a young tree.

When planting root crops (cassava, taro, ginger etc) larger roots will produce larger crops because they have more stored energy to get started with.

Young, or sun sensitive plants, are more easily damaged by the afternoon sun. You can angle cuttings towards the west so less surface area is exposed to afternoon sun.

Don’t cut ginger for planting, break it with your fingers. Let the wound heal for about 5 days. Keeps it safer from infection. Not critical.

Grasses have all the same strata considerations (emergent, high, medium low).

Preparing the seedbed for planting with logs and mulch.
Starting to come together

Rule of thumb is that it takes 3m of grass to feed 1m of bed.

A consortium is an organism. If you introduce a new species mid-cycle their observation is that it won’t thrive. In order to introduce new species you either harvest the entire organism or create a “pulse” by heavily pruning everything in the row.

The boundaries between organisms aren’t distinct. A row is an organism, the inter-rows form an organism, the inter-rows plus the adjacent tree rows for an organism.

General recommendation was to treat the inter-rows as an organism and the tree rows as an organism.

When learning start small, 1sqm is great. Working first with short lived plants gives you lots of iterations to learn fairly quickly.

Plants will influence other plants in a radius equal to their height. So if you have a row senescent trees that are 10m tall, they will be slowing down the growth of other plants within a 10m radius.

In three sisters you strip the corn of leaves once the cob is fully formed (but not dried). This stops it sending senescence messages to other plants.

General rule is don’t plant a seed deeper than 4x it’s size. Shallower is better than too deep. Corn is an exception and can be planted deep and makes it stronger. Also can plant three corns together in same hole (like onions) with wider spacing for 20% shade.

Cannot cover grass seed with any organic matter or won’t germinate.

Mulched rows after the Scott's invention of the Mulchatron 3000 was used.
Mulchatron 3000

Building bamboo is typically high strata so could build a consortium with an emergent.

Every plant has a growth curve (x axis is time, y axis is biomass production). You want to prune as soon as the rate of biomass production starts dropping off. See photo for how senescence works with this.

They have observed that when planting lots of seeds at once, plants thrive. Plants seem to cooperate to make sure that a few thrive. Ernst says plant 100 seeds if you want one tree.

Seeds adapt to their environment, seedlings can struggle to adapt to the change after transplanting.

Make a slurry and dip tree seedlings into it to help with establishment. Use rock dust, ash or clay or whatever you have and is appropriate for that plant.

Horticulture beds do best on east side, so develop system with new beds being added to the east of what’s established.(Wonder if that’s the same in cooler climates?)

Bird seed can be a way to get untreated seeds.

They’ve observed that putting pruned organic matter on top of grass weeds doesn’t kill them, it makes them stronger. By pruning you are making light and then feeding them.

Prune biggest trees first. If you damage the smaller trees you still have options for how you prune.

On living wood, always use machete to cut in an upward angle (in the direction the plant fibres have grown). This creates a much cleaner cut then cutting downwards.

On dead wood, if you are holding the base of a limb, you chop in a downwards motion with the machete (same principal as above). It’s less effort this ways.

Coppice on an angle, with cut surface facing south or east to minimise sun damage.

Diversity in organic material is important. More species is better.

They have observed that wood chip doesn’t create the same crumbly, black soil that diverse organic matter does. The finer “tilth” does make planting/sowing easier so sometimes is worth it.

When laying logs on soil it is important to cover them with organic matter or they seem to dry out and mummify rather the decompose.

When pruning citrus don’t prune a little off the tip of a branch, instead prune it back to just after a branch which can take over growth in the direction you want.

When creating a pulse any herbaceous plants which have completed their lifecycle (eg. flowering) can be cut because it won’t resprout. Then roots stay to nurture soil.

Producing some crops (seeds, fruit) will create a senescence effect. But it’s worth it if you want the crop.

You can’t compromise on organic matter. If you don’t have it you must grow it first.

Don’t sharpen the first third of your machete. Too easy to hurt yourself if your hand slips. Don’t use a machete two handed because if your blade side hand slips off you can cut yourself badly.

Trees don’t mind being pruned or even removed if it is in the best interests of the organism. Namaste said that we couldn’t think of trees like people (but I’m not sure that we are much different in this regard).

Once you have started a pulse you want to get everything planted fairly quickly so it can form an organism. Ideally you’d have it all done within a week.

Ernst says planting is 5% of the work, management is 95%.

Animals generally aren’t used within Syntropic systems. However some people were designing Syntropic systems specifically for chickens and egg production.

Questions:

  • Nut crops and clear ground for harvesting. Perhaps grass rows next to trees? What about other plants within the tree row? Could you have berries which produce at a time that you could mow them after fruiting to harvest nuts?
  • Trade offs on deciding which ways rows face? Lower latitudes? Colder climates? Wind? Slope?
  • Would love more information on Syntropic chicken designs?
  • How Ernst’s daughter felled the tree, with deep V cut?
  • No mention of windbreaks which is unusual in tree systems. Is that because the entire system works as a windbreak?
  • When pulsing a row to introduce a new species I’m unclear if coppicing the biomass species is sufficient to introduce new species? Or if you have to coppice “everything in the organism” (which wouldn’t work well with grafted trees).

Originally posted at adam.nz.