By: Gabriel Rodríguez Rojas
Children’s story books and old tales tell us about happy farms where all sorts of plants and animals used to live together. The sheep used to roam the fields with their guardian dogs, while the farmer is gathering fruit among the trees. The next day, the farmer would gather roots from the garden or make a tea with home grown weeds. Pies and jams would be different every time according to the harvest. But the reality of the agricultural industry tells a different story.
Today’s agricultural industry relies mostly on monoculture. Large acres are purchased and prepared to breed the biggest apples, the sweetest mangoes, the longer lasting bananas, or the juiciest oranges. Farmers are relying on big machinery to pick up the year’s harvest. They’re dependent on a single plant to make the farm enough money so it can survive the next planting cycle. The terrain is stripped of all its natural properties and pumped with nutrients that will be beneficial for a specific type of crop. The land is essentially made new with the capabilities of upholding the desired, large scale, nature defying, pest resistant strain of plant. But this type of agricultural practice has severe effects on the soil.
The monoculture practice, after planting the same thing on the same spot every year, depletes the soil of its nutrients and renders it less productive over time. In simple words of example, soil has a finite amount of nitrogen. When the plant is growing it will use nitrogen for its development. Once the plant is harvested, nitrogen is no longer available in the soil, or at least not in the same quantities. The next year, the soil is re-pumped with nitrogen so the plant can grow again. But the soil composition will never be as optimal as it once was because there is a disruption on the natural makeup of the soil. Therefore, a gradual depletion of the soil quality is seen every time the same crop is planted. After a few cycles of this, the soil reduces its organic matter, and can later render the patch unusable for planting and becomes a significant source of erosion. To avoid this, many farmers are having to plant the soil with other crops that do not exhaust nitrogen every time. This technique is called crop rotation and it is not something new.
The practice of alternating crops in the same patch of land allows the soil to regain its nutrients in a natural way. For example, after harvesting a crop that uses nitrogen, the same patch of land is planted with a crop that favors magnesium. After that is harvested, another crop that favors potassium, and so on. This constant rotation leads to the natural creation of soil and its nutrients. It uses the plant’s ability to produce a certain nutrient so that the cycle can continue and allow for other plants to retake that spot and use what was produced. This practice is one of the many used in permaculture, where it’s principles of management and design emulate those observed in natural ecosystems. It creates a framework of having a variety of crops all close together. Once the crop is harvested, the patch of land is then utilized by another plant.
Another technique in permaculture is the passive harvesting of water. Instead of digging a massive well, emptying the aquifers, and transporting the water for long distances to other dry areas, an area must be analyzed for its natural water catchment capabilities. Whether that be rain catchment, pond irrigation, or simply using crops that are tolerant for the scarcity of water. Its principle relies on studying the land’s availability and use it for the site’s planting. Using the same principles by observing nature, we can also imitate crop fertilizers and lawn mowing. In nature, that comes from animal poop and grazing. Some examples of integrating natural fertilizers are that sheep are sent off into the fields with the guard dogs to eat pasture and fertilize (poop) on the soil. This can then be followed by rotating chickens and cows in those pastures to provide different fertilizer input on the soil. By integrating all the parts in a project, we can actually spend less time working since nature is doing all the work for us.
If we work with nature and its natural processes we can actually focus on our survival. The different permaculture techniques are based on the previously mentioned principle, making nature our ally. And it goes far beyond agricultural techniques, permaculture principles actually apply for society, economy, home design, and much more. As I see it, permaculture is really about adopting certain principles to create a way of life in which we coexist with our surroundings, rather than manipulating them into our favor. Maybe, just maybe, if we adopted the permaculture principles, we can go back to making preserves and lemonade. Pies and jams would be made according to the years and seasonal harvest and not the everlasting resistant fruit. All this, very similar to what we perceive in the children’s books and old tales… Maybe we need to recapture and emulate this old way of thinking. Maybe we need to revisit our ancient practices of agriculture to create and emulate an ecosystem that works together. An ecosystem that uses the same plants and animals to regenerate the soil properties instead of using alternate chemical sources. Maybe we need to dust off old history books and look for techniques of capturing water, rotating crops, and fertilizing the field with what we have available in our natural environment. Maybe we need to think about our future by thinking about our past so that we can educate our children.
Gabriel Rodriguez Rojas supports the company with an interdisciplinary role. Some of his key roles include the permaculture design, geographical analysis and visualization, drone aerial documentation, assisting in environmental studies, writing technical documents and articles, and translation support. He has a Master’s degree in GIS & Remote Sensing and has been working in the environmental Sector since 2014.