It’s hard to describe the beauty and the magic of permaculture. In a way it is really nothing more than the concept of embracing and using the natural cycles around us to create food while eliminating waste. I’ve been pondering those cycles a lot in this place. The thing about cycles is that it’s hard to figure out the right place to start when describing them. Since they seem to be the most prominent feature in this place, let’s start with the mountains.

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All the land on the farm is steep like this.

This place is nothing but mountains. We’re planting food on ground that is around 45 degrees from horizontal, so the water cycle is of utmost importance. The mountains themselves provide the fuel for this cycle, with hot sunny mornings that bring in cooling rain in the afternoons. To control this onslaught of water, virtually every part of this farm is held together by terraces. We spend the mornings digging ditches that are between one and three feet deep, depending on the plants they support.

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One of the trenches growing yucca

Although it is a far cry from easy, there is a certain elegance in the simplicity of digging a trench and using the soil to build a soft fresh pile beside the trench, which then becomes the perfect place to plant yucca and sweet potato. When you harvest the sweet potato, or comote, you pull up the vine-like leaves and stems and follow them to the likely position of the tubers hiding beneath the rich red soil. The roots are harvested using a shovel or a pitchfork, loosening the earth while you go, and the vines are used to replant the mound, after redigging the ditch and adding a bit of mulch or compost to put much-needed nutrients back in the soil, along with protection from the searing sun and thundering rain. Yucca is much the same, except you have to jiggle it out of the ground with your hands, making sure not to pull before you’ve loosened the soil enough to ensure a clean yank. (I hope there are a few of you who are enjoying the rather phallic imagery in this description.) Once you’ve got it out of the ground, you hack off the tough root with a machete and then shove the remaining tree-like stalk back in the soil. How much simpler could it get? The ditch collects water, which feeds the plants which feed us. Which naturally brings us from the water cycle to the intimately connected cycle of nutrients on the farm. You can take any plant as an example, but why not use yucca since we’ve already gone through the harvest and planting procedure, which is of course yet another cycle. With its tough skin, there is a lot of peeling involved in yucca preparation, but this is perfect for feeding the compost pile, while any of the centre that remains too tough to chew after boiling can be fed to the pig. The compost is a mix of kitchen scraps, manure from the cows, chickens, and pig, and dead leaves collected from the many trees around the property. The cows spend the days grazing in the fields, which are dotted with citrus, avocado, banana, and plantain trees along with other trees that are used as wood for building and to attract local species like macaws and monkeys. The cows come into the barn for a snack of freshly cut sugar cane, and leave their nutrient-rich manure as their contribution to the cycle.

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Pepe the pig is eager to do his share of the eating.

Pepe the pig does his part to eat kitchen scraps and contribute to the compost pile. And the chickens of course provide the dual benefits of eggs and manure. They will all likely be a source of meat as well, but for now the meals we eat are mostly vegetarian as they’ve run out of the meat from any previous slaughters. After being turned and tended for two months, the compost is ready to be used for feeding the next generation of plants, and since harvesting and planting are continuous here, the cycle is unbroken. Even the food we eat will eventually add to the fertility of the land, since we use composting toilets here. Again, this relies on a simple design and a moderate amount of labour. All you need is sawdust, space, and time to completely eliminate waste water and chemicals from the process of dealing with human waste. Sawdust is collected from wood that was grown here on the land and then used to build furniture and other structures around the farm. Here they have two bathrooms with two interchangeable chambers. Once one chamber is getting full, you switch the toilet seat over to the second chamber and leave the first to compost over the course of a few weeks or months. Once the second is full, the first should be ready to be emptied, the contents mixed with the other compost and left to finish the decomposition process for another month or two. I haven’t really figured out all the timings for the composting here, so this may be a much faster process than I’ve described. The best thing about this process is that it turns a nasty problem of human waste into an important energy source. Since termites and rot regularly destroy wooden structures on the farm, growing the trees (which have the benefit of attracting toucans) and using the saw to repair and replace those wooden structures is a necessary part of the whole process, so the sawdust used for the toilets is another useful byproduct of this farming method. I could go on and on and on for ages about each aspect of the system, especially the grey-water system, which is one of the most interesting and important aspects of permaculture for me, or the simple insect repellants they make and use from the trees and hot pepper plants… but that`s the beauty of cycles. They just keep going and going and going.

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