Like many of us I saw the Life in Syntropy video a few years ago and was immediately intrigued. Syntropic farming looked like the type of agroforestry that I envisioned in my personal and professional work. I dug around for more information, but was slowed by the Portuguese language barrier and lack of distinct resources unique to this style of agriculture. To overcome these challenges I decided to organize a workshop here in Costa Rica on Syntropic Farming.
This post is a summary of that workshop from my perspective, that of a permaculture educator and professional designer with ten years of experience in tropical agroforestry. This article is an attempt to summarize what I believe syntropic farming is and how it fits into the permaculture design framework. It is specifically written to provide constructive feedback. This blog post is not written to convince anyone to adopt or turn away from any specific practice.
There are pieces I love about syntropic farming and other parts that still leave me with more questions than answers. In the below pages, I will attempt to be clear when I am offering my opinion versus when I am stating something directly from the instructors. My opinion should be taken with the understanding that I have only taken a single course and have never visited a syntropic farming system in action.
The six day workshop was hosted at Rancho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center, where I worked as the farm manager for nearly a decade. The course was instructed by Thiago Barbosa, from Brazil, who farms primarily in Byron Bay, Australia; and Fernando Repello, also from Brazil, who runs CEPEAS (Centro de Pesquisa em Agricultura Sintropic). CEPEAS is the primary syntropic farming research center in Brazil. It is in the centrally located state of Goiás, in a subtropical savannah ecosystem. The course was the first of its kind in Central America and featured 33 students from ten different countries.
It is important to note that neither instructor speaks English as a first language, and for Fernando this course was his first time teaching exclusively in English without professional translation.
The class left all of the participants, myself included, completely energized and inspired by the work the instructors and other syntropic practitioners are engaged in. To date our course WhatsApp group is buzzing with photos of everyone starting their own small plantings in their respective locations around the world. In this regard alone the class was a complete success; people are getting involved and practicing on all scales already.
What is Syntropic Farming?
The Life in Syntropy website provides an excellent overview of syntropic farming. The word syntropy, as contrasted to entropy, paints a powerful picture of a system that accumulates matter and energy, become more complex over time, all in order to create abundance. It is a form of process based agriculture, as opposed to input based agriculture, typical to industrial systems.
The instructors offered the following definition of syntropic agriculture:
Syntropic Farming is an innovative approach to regenerative agriculture which allows us to create dynamic, successional, and economically viable ecosystems that restore degraded soil biodiversity. By understanding and respecting nature's complex system, Syntropic Farming imitates the natural regeneration of forests and provides a harmonious integration of our food production systems.
In my opinion this definition is not particularly helpful, as most forms of process based, perennial crop focused, organic agriculture (Holzer-agroecology, carbon farming, restoration agriculture, and many more) meet this definition. Any of these other forms of farming could be substitutes for syntropic farming by this definition alone. The above characteristics do not feel unique to syntropic farming. The following are a few ways I would attempt to describe and contextualize syntropic farming after taking the workshop.
Context: The primary goal of syntropic farming is to reforest the planet. It is a form of agriculture designed to incentivize the planting of trees with the overwhelming end goal of creating productive forests. Syntropic farming should be taken from the context of Brazil, a country that has experienced extreme deforestation and desperately needs to encourage both wealthy land owners and peasant farmers to reforest. Syntropic agriculture accomplishes this by providing short, medium, and long term yields while these forests are maturing.
So what is syntropic farming exactly? Syntropic farming is an intensive form of agroforestry that imitates market gardening and slash and mulch agroforestry, in order to provide yields at all stages of succession, generate its own fertility, and with the end goal of creating a productive forest that imitates the structure and function of the native forests.
The following guiding principles were laid out by our instructors:
Keep the soil covered
My understanding of them is as follows:
Keep the Soil Covered is done in syntropic farming by growing large amounts of biomass on site, which is regularly pruned or cut to be applied to the soil. Syntropic farming seeks to Maximize Photosynthesis by laying out trees rows from North to South. This is the primary design layout strategy, as opposed to managing for water through exclusively using contour planting. In addition this is achieved by an extremely high density of planting; 20-40 plants/seeds/cutting per square meter. These plants are arranged in space based on the principle of Stratification, which refers to where a plant grows in its optimal habitat. The four stratas typically used are emergent, high, medium, and low, and they mostly refer to the light requirements of the species, but also to species form/habit and leaf structure. Natural Succession is how these plants are arranged over time, from placenta stage to secondary stage and finally to climax, which are the stages of succession through which a forest matures . The entire system should be constantly filled with plants of different strata even as the system moves through a managed succession.
Synchronization refers to the act of removing plant biomass, through harvesting and pruning, in order to obtain a yield, open up space for the next succession of species, and to encourage new growth through the release of different root hormones that occur after pruning. Management implies that this is an intensively managed system.
One of the main reasons I organized this course was to attempt to understand what made syntropic farming unique, how it was different than the muti-story agroforestry systems that I already worked with. After the class I felt there were a number of obvious characteristics that syntropic farming either held completely unique to my experience or emphasized in a way that I felt was unique.
North to south rows: There is a clear preference to planting tree rows north to south in order to maximize photosynthesis. In conjunction with this there was a strong disposition away from planting trees on contour, as it was actually recommended to plant tree rows up and down the slope.
Direct seeding: Syntropic practitioners prefer direct seeding to transplanting when possible for trees. This is viewed both as a cost saving measure and as a means to plant huge quantities of species.
An intensive organization of biomass: While I have always organized biomass in particular ways, across slope as dead barriers, in half moons under trees, etc; the amount of energy (human and fossil fuel) syntropic farming dedicates to processing biomass in specific ways was huge. In particular this involves splitting banana trunks in half and bucking and splitting logs into firewood size pieces that are then used as the path lining material. It does not always have to be done this way, but it appears to be a common practice in syntropic farming
Replace weeding with pruning: One of the distinct goals of the management of these systems is to replace all weeding with pruning and the organization of biomass.
Plant everything at once: Ideally every plant in the system is put in the ground at the exact same time. This of course works only with a high intensity of management through harvest and pruning.
High density planting: These systems require a density of planting that I had never previously considered. In our 80 square meter plot we planted over 1100 trees/seeds/cuttings. The instructors felt this easily could have been doubled. Their recommendation of 20 to 40 plants per square meter is extreme by nearly any farming standard. I will add that after reviewing additional literature on syntropic farming, others do not always recommend quite as intense a density of planting, especially at larger scales.
Heavy logistical operation: The two above characteristics have made me realize that implementing a system this way requires an intensive logistical operation. Sourcing seeds and plants, storing them until you are ready to plant, all in quite large quantities, requires very unique skill sets and resources.
High input and high output system: The primary input is knowledge, plant material and labor. These are systems that ask a farmer to manage many different species at once through complex spatial and temporal patterns. In return for this intensive labor, the system provides outputs as early as 30 days (radish) all the way to 30 years (timber).
Challenging pruning: These systems typically involve limbing up tall timber trees or topping them at five meters. This is done either with chainsaws while off of the ground or with specialized machinery. This type of pruning, with chainsaws in trees, is technical and dangerous. It requires a specific skill set and risk aversion. Anyone can develop these skills; a chainsaw is a tool like any other. Being comfortable with the tools required to make this system work is critical.
The Design Process
I find the design process used to determine spatial and temporal layouts in syntropic systems to be very useful. It involves selecting species to fill in the below table, so that all of the ecological niches in the system are filled Below is an example of a chart one could use to organize planting patterns.
On the Y axis are the Strata layer, which primarily refer to a plant’s light requirements and relationship amongst to each other, as well as their physical structure and the structure of their leaves. Each plant, from tomatoes to pineapple to teak will fit somewhere in this structure; strata refers to the light requirements and the relationship between one plant and another. The X axis refers to the time it will take a plant to occupy its strata, at maturity, and its physical space. Considerations for placing species along this timeline would be time until it reaches mature size, time until harvest/removal/pruning/flowering/fruiting, seasonal weather patterns and management of the plant.
By mapping out the system this way you can visually see how each plant fits into the system over space and time on paper prior to planting. A well planned system will organize patters so that when a heavy pruning or a harvesting occurs, the next phase of plants is already growing, ready to fill its niche. There are no gaps (no bare soil principle!). Remember as well that all of these plants would be planted at the same time.
Below is a proposed map of a Porvenir Design project near Parrita.
Once this table is created, then the next step is sketching out the exact location of each plant in the garden space. The below image shows what we created at Rancho Mastatal in our small demonstration plot. Notice the density of planting. There were approximately 15 plants per square meter. During the course we installed an 80 square meter system within the existing agroforestry systems of Rancho Mastatal.
With these two maps in place it is possible to 1) completely assure that all ecological niches will be filled in the system over time, 2) determine the number of plants that will be required to install the system.
Here are a few additional notes on how syntropic farming works:
Syntropic farmers will use soil amendments and irrigation as required and as they have available, but they have a clear goal of having all fertility and biomass grown directly within the system.
The timing and management of harvest and pruning is key. This is determined by the plants senescence which refers to the end of the plant’s growth or life cycle. This is typically when plants begin flowering, which for annuals is the start of death and for perennials triggers different growth patterns. Pruning in conjunction with this pattern is key, as the goal is to prevent the system from going into senescence, as this triggers a general slowing down of the system. This managed pruning, and the chemical communication it causes in the soil food web is a key to accelerating the succession of a system. After pruning, tree roots release Gibberellic acid, a growth hormone. This release triggers neighboring plants to grow. Hence the advantage of intensive pruning. For me there remain a number of questions about this process and the language the instructors used to explain it. The following are areas where I am seeking more information:
The instructors stated multiple times that tree roots don’t shed off after pruning, that instead roots actually grow much larger and strong after aggressive pruning. This is counter to my research. Upon reflection, I believe both are likely true, as there are many types of roots, with different functions, and they likely respond differently to pruning.
The pruning in conjunction with the senescence process makes intuitive sense, but it is not very clear exactly what type of chemical reactions and root-fungi-bacteria communication is occurring that either encourages slowing down or the acceleration of plant community growth. This is nothing more than a reminder that we know very little about the soil-food-web and its interactions with plants, nutrients, water, etc.
The system is typically designed to reset, or synchronize, after the long term crop, timber or otherwise, is harvested. After a 20 to 30 year cycle, the system can start again at the placenta stage. This imitates the natural forest process of succession that occur as trees regularly fall and open up space for new niches. This could be appropriate if done in blocks where the site is remaining mostly in forest or emerging forest cover of the secondary and climax phases.
What I Like
As I continue researching syntropic farming there are a number of aspects to the methodology that I feel are worth exploring in-depth from a practical, management perspective.
On properties that are relatively flat we will be adjusting tree rows to run north to south instead of always using contour plantings.
We are greatly increasing the density of our biomass plantings. This has been an ongoing pattern in our work and syntropic farming is pushing that to another level. My primary concern is the sheer costs of plant material if it is not already available on site.
We are mapping out the spatial and temporal layout of our planting schematics to make sure all strata are being filled over time. I believe this is a really useful and simple table to visual how a system will evolve over time.
We are striving to plant everything at one time. This process imitates the recovery of a forest after disturbance. All the plants and seeds are already in the ground and now it is up to us to manage them to achieve whatever goal we have stated.
I like the idea behind synchronization. Every time you go to harvest or prune a system you give everything in it some sort of pruning or disturbance. I will be exploring this idea further in a number of systems. This reset and its affects on the soil food web are fascinating to me as a management strategy.
Like all systems syntropic farming has strengths and weaknesses. As I reflected on the class and what we were taught, a number of aspects of the methodology left me with more questions than answers or left me confused. Below I offer constructive feedback on the parts of syntropic farming that I believe need more clarity or need to be better contextualized in the teaching.
I believe there is a lot less experience with these system in the humid tropics and on steeper slopes. Most of the systems that were referenced in the class are operating in subtropic, savanna or dry tropic ecosystems and on flatter ground, often on agricultural soils. It would be helpful for students to understand where the most successful systems are being operated.
The principles could be better refined. Principles are guides, that should be universally applicable to every system and should be easily understood. In the case of syntropic farming, the principles should be design guides for setting up and managing a system over time. For example, Management, isn’t a principle, it is an inherent characteristic of any farming system. Natural Succession is an ecological process. The principle could instead be called Accelerate Succession through Pruning. I believe some of the unique characteristics, such as growing all mulch/biomass on site, should be developed as specific principles.
Much as permaculture struggles with its relationship to Bill Mollison, syntropic farming has a distinct hero worship of its founder, Ernst Gotsch. I mostly chalk this up to it being a young methodology of agriculture, but at times during the course it felt like the questions could only be answered with “Ernst told us to do x or y.” This felt very anecdotal, relying on one person’s specific context and experience, however deep that may be.
During the course there was an emphasis that there is no competition amongst plants in these high density plantings. I felt this was a confusing language for students, as individual plants absolutely compete for light, nutrients and water. That doesn’t mean that they don’t also support one another or that the system as a whole is non-competitive, all moving along an eloquent path. This is an example of the precision of language that is important to develop when communicating these types of ideas, especially to inexperienced practitioners.
As the nuances of the pedagogy, the choice of words, language barriers, and general experience become clarified and strengthened, the ability of farmers in diverse climates and cultures to adopt syntropic principles will increase greatly. I would recommend a dedicated effort to accomplish this.
Not surprisingly, this is very similar to the feedback and constructive criticism that permaculture regularly receives. Syntropic teachers would be wise to learn from the stumbles permaculture has gone through as they promote this work around the globe.
Syntropic and Permaculture
I came into the workshop curious how syntropic farming fit into the existing permaculture design system. My primary conclusion is that is is not useful to compare syntropic farming and permaculture design, they are very different things. Syntropic farming is an agricultural methodology, permaculture is a design process related to creating human ecosystems. Syntropic is better compared to bio-dynamics, bio-intensive, market gardening, restoration agriculture and the myriad types of agroforestry methodologies that exist.
Syntropic Farming fits within permaculture as a way to grow food and reforest landscapes simultaneously. From the design perspective it is slightly awkward system as it features plants and management that are more common in BOTH high intensive Zone 1 and Zone 2 locations (short rotation vegetables and intensive pruning) AND productive forests that are classic Zone 3 or Zone 4 elements. In summary, the frequency of use, or the intensity of harvest/yield/attention, changes over time. This makes it challenging to site a syntropic system using the traditional zonation design methodology of permaculture. Or, simply stated, you want this farming system close to your kitchen when the veggies are producing but far from your kitchen when you are harvesting timber trees. This a unique challenge in particular to smaller scale sites, homesteads, etc.
Next Steps for Porvenir Design
As we at Porvenir Design reflect on the course, we are actively taking what we have learned and are applying it to a number of production farm projects.
We still have much to learn, in particular about the ongoing management of these systems and the soil-food-web interactions that they rely on. We are curious how they integrate with our visions for silvo-pastoral systems of a number of our ongoing projects. We will also incorporate the principles of syntropic farming in a number of greenhouse plantings that we are designing and implementing, although these will never become forests. We imagine that many of these systems will be excellent demonstration systems for students in the future.
We hope to continue educating ourselves in syntropic farming with the support of our teachers, Thiago and Fernando. We hope to continue offering workshops in Costa Rica on the topic and would like to one day become experienced enough to join the teaching team.
Keep an eye on our website for a class in 2020 and for a short introduction into the topic consider joining us for our upcoming Permaculture Design Course at the Brave Earth Community and Finca Luna Nueva in October 2019