Tooled up to teach agroforestry
Updated: Mar 1
Classical music in Oxford provides tools for farmers switching to regenerative agriculture
Back in May 2017, when agro-ecologists Daniel and Carol started cultivating food on a degraded pasture, their neighbour Zé thought they were crazy. For one thing it was near a sand quarry that had hit the water table, forming an unnatural 400 metre diameter lake that was creeping closer as it eroded the soil around it. Secondly, land degraded by cattle farming is virtually useless for producing crops - at least, that's the case for conventional farming.
Agroforestry is different, mimicking nature by planting many species together rather than just one species in a monoculture. Each plant adds something to the soil, which helps the land to recover. For example, a plot may begin with rocket, spinach, garlic, moringa trees and bananas.
Rocket spreads out quickly and dominates the space so other plants can't colonise it. In 40 days you'll have your first crop and you're in business. It's not rocket science!
Spinach grows over the rocket and shades it from the sun.
Garlic grows straight up, and keeps away the bugs away so you don't need pesticide. Agro-ecology uses natural biocontrol for stewarding nature without damaging it, planting species that repel insects and others that attract insect predators such as ladybirds.
Moringa helps filters water into the soil through its extensive root system.
Bananas make potassium available to the soil, while producing biomass and retaining plenty of water. After the cache is harvested, the plant can be cut up laid into rows to seal the moisture in the ground and break down into healthy new soil.
First they laugh at you
First Zé laughs at you, because to the untrained eye a SAF (agroforestry system, or sistema agroflorestal) might look like an untended garden with weeds everywhere. The neighbours laughed to see wild gerbera daisies invading from the surrounding scrub and settling among the maize. Our friends preferred to let them do their thing. With their scent and their brilliant orange colour, gerberas attract several excellent pollinators, including humming birds and a range of wasp species that pollinate papaya and passion fruit. They also grow quickly, and the organic material breaks down into rich soil.
The neighbours stopped laughing when they saw the yields our friends were generating by working in harmony with nature.
Then they eat your spinach
In two months Daniel and Carol produced their first a vegetable box containing rocket and lettuce. A month later it contained carrots, cabbage, okra, peppers and pumpkins as well. They deliver it to members of the CSA (Community that Sustains Agriculturalists) they formed, called Confraria da Horta.
In Brazil, organic food is usually a luxury only available to the rich, but the abundant production of agroforestry can challenge the economics of scarcity. For example, a conventionally produced lettuce is sold in a supermarket for R$2.50 (45p) per head, while an organic lettuce is R$6-8 (£1.10-1.45). Confraria da Horta's lettuce works out at about R$4 (73p). They also produce a huge variety of non-conventional crops rarely found on Brazillian plates - called PANCs (plantas alimentícias não convencionais). Daniel and Carol have planted around 50 species of plants and 20 tree species on their land, and that huge biodiversity of plants supports a wide biodiversity of animal and insect life.
Then they become agroforesters
Zé came full circle, and started following Daniel around his plot, helping with the work and learning agro-ecology to apply on his own farm. He was joined by Toninho, Cleber and other neighbours, helping our friends expand into more degraded land. They received non-GMO seeds and organic compost as well as new knowledge from our partners.
Confraria da Horta is part of a growing association of 42 small rural farmers. Few of them knew about agro-ecology, and no one was doing it until recently, but word got around and soon Daniel and Carol were asked to teach. They have debts and three small kids, and they couldn't afford to buy any tools, so they went ahead in October 2018 with two hoes and a battered old wheelbarrow.
For their next workshop things will be different because singer Julia Hollander got together with some friends to throw a fundraiser and raised £550 for RAIN. The tools this money provided will be used in early March when Daniel and Carol will welcome around twenty conventional farmers onto their land to learn the principles of Agroforestry.
The first module is about preparing the land, the second focuses on maintenance and the third is on pruning and soil management. Sessions will be run on different students' farms so the group can pool their labour to convert land together. Because of Julia's donation they now have a mini-tiller tractor to break up the compacted soil of degraded land, a chainsaw to speed up pruning and a chipper to help return the sticks and stems to the earth. The tools are communal resources available for all the members of the association to speed up the transition to regenerative agriculture.
Their son Mariano looks pleased to be tooled up.
In April, Daniel and Carol will teach schoolchildren, developing SAFs at six local schools. This will introduce agroforestry not only to students but also to parents picking up their children and watching the SAFs grow. Many of those parents are farmers, so the knock-on effect of this donation could be massive. Even the local council has taken notice, and has asked them to teach courses on food security to people growing food for their families on a small scale.