Food forests take root in Australia, helping growers save water

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Food forests take root in Australia, helping growers save water


Move over biodynamic and organic farming — there is a new farming technique on the block, in which fruit and vegetable crops are grown in conjunction with trees.

Known as syntropic farming, it is a regenerative agricultural cropping method developed in Brazil that aims to mimic the way forest plants work symbiotically to grow in abundance.

Jane Hawes and her husband Neil are among about 20 syntropic growers in Australia.

They used to run a flower farm on their property at Tolga on Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands, but gave it away when their crops were wiped out by successive tropical cyclones Larry and Yasi.

“We had lost quite a few million dollars and I was just gutted and I just went ‘I gotta do something better than this’,” Ms Hawes said.

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The horticulturalist stumbled on syntropic farming when she began researching to figure out what to do next.

However, she said she initially scoffed at a suggestion to plant eucalyptus trees alongside fruit trees.

“My brain just went into conniptions. It went ‘Eucalypts, no way. They’re hungry, they’re thirsty, they’re mongrel things’.

“I had to tell my brain to shut up.”

Ms Hawes ended up taking the advice and has not regretted the decision.

“As we’re using them [eucalypts] in the system, they actually act like a water nutrient pump,” she said.

“They’re able to access nutrition and minerals that are right deep down in the soil and bring them up, and through pruning it then releases it into the sub-soil.”

Using forest concepts in food production

Intensive pruning of large tree species is among the key principles of the syntropic farming system.

It is the brainchild of Swiss farmer Ernst Gotsch, who purchased 480 hectares of degraded farming land in Brazil in 1984.

Mr Gotsch spent some time observing his natural rainforest surroundings and learning from the native indigenous people, before using his newfound knowledge to grow his own crops.

Byron Bay farmer Thiago Barbosa has worked with Mr Gotsch on successive syntropic farming projects in Brazil and is a forerunner of the technique in Australia.

Other methodologies taken from the forest include the maximisation of photosynthesis through controlled access to sunlight, natural ground covers and natural succession.

“One plant’s always nurturing the new generation to come so there are always young plants under big trees and these big trees are always nurturing the forests of the future,” he said.

The garden that Jane grew

On the Atherton Tablelands, Ms Hawes is growing avocados, citrus, bananas, paw paws and leafy greens in the same plot.

Custard apples, coconuts, mangoes, zucchinis, ginger and turmeric have also been part of the trials.

Before learning about syntropic farming, Ms Hawes had never considered taking the light-control methods of hydroponics outdoors.

“The plants are really happy because they’re not being exposed to heavy light when they shouldn’t be, so we can grow a wide variety of plants,” she said.

Other benefits she has noted include natural mulches that are created within the system, the reduction of water use by 80 per cent, and natural control of nasty bugs.

“I planted fresh greens underneath these eucalyptus rows and when the bugs hit they actually attacked the eucalypts and left my fresh greens,” Ms Hawes said.

Long-term benefits outweigh high start-up costs

The fewer inputs required when the system is established is considered the major benefit.

However, Ms Hawes said starting out took some money and planning.

“Beyond that point there’s very little cost.”

Ms Hawes believes the system also makes harvesting easier.

“The workers are out working in the shade rather than the hot sun,” she said.

“And rather than bringing in harvesters just for a short period of time for seasonal produce, you can actually keep good workers on the ground all the time because you’ve got such a diversity of crops.”

Tropical climate not a prerequisite

Due to her location, Ms Hawes has used tropical rainforest techniques to grow her crops, but the system is in use across Australia’s eastern seaboard.

She said the principles of syntropic farming could be used in any climate, even the desert.

“In the desert they’re using eucalyptus but they’re also using things that can regenerate the soil, like cacti that grow in those environments,” she said.

“Now they’re becoming lush growing areas.”

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