Ingo and Genny’s farm sits on the south-facing side of a mountain in the heart of Ecuador’s cloud forest. It occupies six levels, from the upper slope of the mountain to the river below. These six levels are used for diverse purposes to create what the family hopes will be a self-sustainable permaculture system.

Ingo and Genny's farmhouse

Ingo and Genny’s farmhouse

The main level holds the farmhouse, a large, two-story structure built of local wood harvested from the forest. Its walls are thin, one inch thick with space between the planks ranging from a sixteenth of an inch to an inch. There is very little material or hardware that Ingo brought in – most doors don’t have handles, and windows have neither glass nor shutters. The roof is corrugated metal, with the occasional plastic panel to let in light. The roof also supports a solar energy system that runs the lights and allows the family and volunteers to charge the occasional electronic device.

Inside the house, most of the spaces are for sleep or storage. The house contains five bedrooms, in which three to four people apiece can sleep. A pantry stores food below the stairs, and a few shelves, chests, and tables hold books, games, and extra clothes in the main room downstairs. The room looks as if it was designed as a family living space, but it is never used for that. Instead, most of us spend our free time in the spacious outdoor cooking and eating area, gathered around the table or lounging in hammocks around the edges of the house.

At the corner of the outdoor living area is a large kitchen with a propane-powered oven and stove. There is no refrigerator, so fresh fruits and vegetables are stored in a hammock over the counter. A shelf of spices and dry goods hangs suspended from the ceiling, and open cupboards are built into the brick and mortar counters. Onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables are piled high in baskets made of wicker, kept under the counter by the deep kitchen sink. Two more sinks back onto the kitchen, used for washing plates and laundry. This side of the house has hundreds of meters of clothesline, suspended from trees to dry washing in the sun, and more from the building’s rafters to protect the damp laundry from the daily afternoon rainstorms.

Beside the laundry and kitchen is a storage area for wood and pet food, which leads to the shower and composting toilet. These are built of large bricks, with a tin roof from which a cat peers down to watch you sitting on the toilet. The composting toilet is surprisingly comfortable, consisting of a seat and platform over a bucket full of wood shavings. You use the bucket, top it with shavings from a bag next to you, and carry the bucket to the compost bin if you’ve left anything solid in it. At the compost bin, the waste is buried in leaves and the bucket rinsed and returned.

Composting toilet - height of luxury, I tell you!

Composting toilet – height of luxury, I tell you!

The shower is in the next room to the toilet, with a water heater built into the plastic showerhead. Showering can be a little unnerving, as the walls are only five feet high and give you a view of the fields behind the house as you shower. It’s worth it, though, as this is the only truly hot shower I’ve had in Latin America.

Behind the bathing area is a bamboo path through the fields to a greenhouse and the compost area. Both of these are impressive structures, the greenhouse 10m long and half as wide, and the composting system consisting of five compartments, including one for leaves. Even so, more building projects are underway; since we’ve been here, we’ve built a second greenhouse across from the first one, meant to be for tomatoes but currently serving as a nursery for chicks and baby goats.

If you leave the house by the boot rack rather than past the shower, even more outbuildings and projects catch your eye. A toolshed, attached to the house, supports a large woodpile beside it. Just beyond, a wood and bamboo frame has been erected since Ellen and I arrived, which serves as a carport. Past that, another bamboo path leads toward my favourite of Ingo’s projects, the hot tub. For this, a roughly square pool with a keyhole-shaped addition sticking out of one corner was dug by hand and lined with cement mortar. A tap diverts spring water from the mountain into the pool, and a drain returns it to the pipe leading it down the hill. The entire mass of water is heated by a fire in a steel oil drum, which has four vents to let in air and release smoke. A hot wood fire burning for six hours will heat the pool to a comfortable temperature, with adjustments being possible by turning on the cold water tap or stoking the fire with more wood. Across from the hot tub is a patch of cleared earth, destined to be a barbecue area with a pizza oven.

In the clearing between the hot tub and the greenhouse, Ingo and volunteers have planted dozens of fruit trees of all varieties. They are scattered throughout the long grass, peeking out at random intervals. If you look closely, you can also make out the backs of three pigs staked on ropes around the clearing, turning up the soil in places where Ingo plans to plant next. The fourth and largest of the pigs, Momma, is in a wire and bamboo pen which is moved every few days. Theoretically, her seven babies are with her, but more often the multicoloured piglets are rooting up Genny’s garden or raiding the dog food in the kitchen.

If you continue up the path, past the pigs and the trees, you come to a steep muddy trail up the mountain. A short scramble leads you to a wide clearing where banana trees and climbing plants grow undisturbed by the livestock. A few days ago, I planted mountain peanuts and unidentified climbing plants here (Ingo and Genny bought them and promptly forgot what they were). Several days later, we also planted the native species of blackberry vines, which were soon after crushed by a few trees falling on them, necessitating emergency repairs of the clearing. All of these planting areas are hard-won from the jungle, cleared by volunteers armed with machetes.

Past the banana field, about three times further up the trail, you will eventually reach another clearing in the dense jungle. This one is Ingo’s site for harvesting wood for building. Here in Ecuador, a land owner can cut as much wood as he can reasonably use for construction projects. This rule only applies to trees wider than a person’s thigh – smaller trees can be felled as needed. In this clearing in the past week, we cut, stacked, and hauled about 30 smaller trees, as well as planks and beams milled by chainsaw from three larger trees. This makes only a dent in the biomass of trees on the property, and Ingo assured the nature-lovers among us that even this will be replaced by the coffee and cacao he plans to plant in the clearing. Ingo’s land continues several hundred meters further up the mountain, but he hasn’t explored that far. Instead, he focuses his efforts on the lower elevations of the property.

The lower levels of Ingo’s land are separated from the farmhouse by a cheerful red wooden gate. Pass through the small pedestrian door on the left, and you reach the driveway, at the top of a huge sandy cliff. As you descend, you are surrounded by chickens, guinea hens, and sometimes geese, eagerly anticipating food. Should you approach the bin of corn at the base of the hill, they immediately form a cyclone at your feet – always counterclockwise; we’re south of the equator, after all. On your left is a gate in a barbed wire fence, leading to a chicken house: tall, warm, and dry, with roosts on the ceiling and nesting boxes along the walls. You will never find it occupied by a hen, although the llamas, sheep, and donkey occasionally use it for shelter from the rain.

Llamas!

Llamas!

A deep, muddy yard nearby holds a goat shed, also rarely occupied by the five Nubian goats, who would much rather be out exploring. They have broken through the fences so many times that Ingo doesn’t try to keep them contained anymore. They return every evening by sunset from the neighbour’s field, so they are left to roam in peace. The horses, sheep, and cows stay closer to home, wandering the ample fenced field and occasionally venturing across the road to a slightly greener pasture at the neighbour’s places. Inside their enclosure, a variety of projects are underway. There’s a corral for training the young foal and donkey, a tiny shed to hold the thirteen sheep, and concrete troughs for water and feeding. A pond in the middle of the field is full of water and was just seeded with two thousand baby tilapia, while another is being plastered with mortar and will serve as an overflow fish pond.

A steep path leads from the animals’ field to the next level down, which is mostly swampy ground. From here, Ingo harvests logs to grow mushrooms, and the goats and cow occasionally graze the lush grasses. Stumble through the brush to the next level (Carefully! A horse lost its life here two weeks ago when it got too close to a cliff!) and you’ll reach what Ingo calls the beach, the bank of the river. So far, there are no projects here, and Ingo discourages walking here lest the goats discover it and escape in its direction.

This huge property contains so many animals, plants, and people, full of potential and ideas for projects. Ingo wants to build a snail farm for escargot, a second house for his family, and a pool for swimming lengths. For another man, I would call those pipe dreams. Here, seeing what he’s done with volunteer labour and mostly hand tools, it sounds like a plan to me!

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