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Quinta das Abelhas – report of the 2020 Planting Event

November 2020 brought a series of ever-welcome rains to the Portugese Alentejo region where reNature is supporting Quinta das Abelhas. Perfect conditions to plant some trees! Quinta das Abelhas project is executed and run by Marc Leiber / GrowBack, according to the advice and consultancy of Ernst Götsch / Agenda Götsch, who created the plantation design of Syntropic farming adapted to the Mediterranean climate used on this test farm. With a highly diverse and dense planting system, Marc’s goal is to achieve using little to no irrigation (!) for reforestation purposes.

reNature team members Alexander Daniel and Waas Thissen visited the November 2020 planting event to participate and learn in the planting event, as well as to observe the evolution of the project into progressing maturity. This update will give some insights into one week of working, learning, and connecting.

The planting event at Quinta das Abelhas was characterized by a week full of working, learning, and connecting (Source: Joana Horta | picture includes Ruben from @plantafloresta).

High density, high diversity: a concentration of life

Unique about the Quinta das Abelhas project is the application of the principles of Syntropic farming to the Mediterranean region. By testing different constellations of plant species, Marc is searching for the best combinations of plants to rapidly and efficiently revive degraded soils in his farm.

Each of Marc’s plantings serves as one of several experimental plots to find suitable combinations of species common to the Mediterranean (Source: Waas Thissen / reNature).

Amongst many other characteristics of Syntropic farming – forgive me for simplifying here and please note I’m not pretending to be complete  – the application of Syntropic farming principles in Marc’s plantation translate into a high density and high diversity of species planted together. During the planting event, a degraded Montado pasture was transformed by soil preparation and planting of a series of perennials and annuals together.

Before intervening in the landscape, Marc’s fields all looked like this: degraded Montado from years of overgrazing. Though this field is not the location of the newly planted plantation it gives the proper impression of the baseline situation (Source: Marc Leiber / GrowBack).

Ground preparation, using a special machine developed from the ideas of Ernst Götsch, was used to prepare the pasture for the planting of trees. Loosening the soil deeply, without turning it, breaking up clumps that appeared at the soil surface minimises disturbance of soil life and structure whilst ensuring aeration. This creates space for roots to grow and becomes a suitable seed bed.

Ground preparation, using a special machine developed from the ideas of Ernst Götsch, was used to prepare the pasture for the planting of trees, whilst ensuring minimal disturbance to soil structure and soil life (Source: Waas Thissen / reNature).

In one row of plants, we can find a staggering diversity of 60-80 species. In the created plantation, created to demonstrate possibilities for a non irrigated agriculture in the mediterranean context, that leads to a reforestation of the place of intervention and is productive from day one, we can find planted closely together perennials such as seedlings of wild-olive (Olea oleaster), mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), tagasaste (Cytisus proliferus), seeds of holm oak (Quercus Ilex), cork oak (Quercus suber), as well as herbaceous plants as cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) and garlic (Allium sativum).

A high variety of species common to the Mediterranean was planted at great density under the philosophy of Syntropic farming. We see seedlings of wild olive, mastic and tagasaste whilst seeds of oak are being planted. Planting in one line has several advantages, including benefits that ease the management and care of plants. (Source: Waas Thissen / reNature).

Using little to no irrigation

One of the bigger goals of this particular plantation is to test whether it is possible to kickstart regeneration of degraded land by using (forestry) species common to the Mediterranean without the use of irrigation. Going against the expectation of many farmers in the region, Marc’s water use in his previously established plantations is incredibly low in comparison to theirs.

As a precautionary measure, the main pipes of an irrigation system have been put in place – but not the actual drip irrigation tubes – to be able to move quickly to save the trees in case of an emergency. Thus far, such an emergency hasn’t occurred, and the trees have fared well under the relatively good winter rains. The idea is to omit having to use irrigation at all in the lifetime of this particular plantation.

Rejuvenating standing trees

Another important component of the planting week was the maintenance on the standing oak trees. Not having been properly taken care of in decades, many trees are suffering the effects of not-so-considerate pruning followed by neglect.

Trees with scars and heavy hanging branches were pruned in a way aimed to promote growth of new shoots and overall rejuvenation of the tree. Given that some parts of the plantation were already planted before pruning, preventing damage to the seedlings caused some pretty spectacular climbing and chainsawing action. Lesson learnt: next time first prune, then plant.

Marc Leiber pruning one of the Holm oaks (Quercus Ilex) on the newly planted field with the goal of rejuvenation. Previous efforts of ‘traditional pruning’ have left the tree in suboptimal condition. (Source: Joana Horta).

The woody material that came down in large quantities was shredded and brought back to the soil, a key idea in Syntropic farming. Shredding the material makes it more workable for soil life to cycle it more rapidly as well as allowing it as a material for ground cover that prevents the soil from strong radiation and can reduce evaporation.

Pruned material waiting to be shredded, with continued planting of cypresses  in the foreground (Source: Joana Horta | picture includes Ana from @projectodispersor).

Bringing together young green minds

Though Marc has started the plantation only one year ago, the planting event has attracted a large interest in the neighbourhood as well as from further across the Iberian Peninsula. The planting event attracted many young green minds averagely aged 25-30 keen to learn about nature-inclusive farming.

Working in nature and learning about farming brought together young green minds (Source: Joana Horta / GrowBack).

The physical presence of Ernst was valued greatly, and we listened keenly and closely to Ernst his words on nature and farming – wisdom acquired by careful observation and interaction with the natural world, decades of work on his farm in Brazil and other regions of the world.

Many of these young people were running projects themselves and came to help out, learn, and share knowledge on the principles and practices of Syntropic farming, agroforestry, and regenerative agriculture. Spending most of their time together for a week, many new relationships were built and saw a network of young innovators strengthened.

Those visiting Marc’s project for the planting week might well become the next generation of farmers aiming to a lush and thriving Mediterranean landscape (Source: Waas Thissen / reNature)

It is this next generation of farmers that feel strong responsibility for the fate of the Mediterranean under increasing pressure from the consequences of climate change and contemporary farming. It’s their mission to protect and restore those valuable natural landscapes in order to prevent and be resilient to – including but not limited to – forest fires, droughts, soil erosion, rural exodus, and loss of rural culture.

Researching the effects on-farm

The team at Quinta das Abelhas has expanded by one member that is assisting Marc to monitor his farm operations as well as to capture the impact of the farming system on a range of environmental key performance indicators (KPIs).

With her master thesis research, Vera Baier accompanies the implementation and development in Quinta das Abelhas during several months.

Vera, under the scope of her master thesis, emerging herself in her subject of study (Source: Joana Horta).

Meanwhile, reNature is in the process of finalising the strategy to measure soil moisture and temperature as well as these same parameters in the canopy with sensors from Farm21. Measuring these parameters could deliver important insights into the effects of the plantation species and planting layout composition on the micro-climate. 

Amongst other specs, the Farm21 sensor allows for measuring soil moisture at three different depths as well as air temperature and air humidity below the crop canopy (Source: Farm21).

Indeed, a big of the goal of Syntropic farming is that by following its techniques, the micro-climate will be greatly influenced to attract and concentrate moisture as well as locally lower the air temperature near soil level, both positively influencing the plant community.

The vision: Scaling the lessons learnt

The Portugese Alentejo is a beautiful region with a rich rural (agri)culture. However, it’s increasingly suffering under large scale neglect of land health under contemporary agricultural practices as well as climate change. There’s a need for sustainable land management, with projects like Quinta das Abelhas aiming to contribute to the know-how.

Already Marc’s and partners’ efforts are gaining interest from his neighbours. With Marc’s farm located on the 600 ha Herdade do Freixo do Meio estate – that could be called an incubation chamber for regenerative agriculture projects – there’s great potential of scaling what works best.

With agriculture as a dominant land-use and main economic activity in the region, Marc’s model might serve as inspiration for many other farmers in the region and provide the knowledge to start transforming their farms.

Typical Alentejo agriculture: will this landscape be full of trees again? (Source: Wikipedia).
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