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Quinta das Abelhas, Portugal

  • Definition
    Devising project idea, defining the aim and main components
  • Design
    Specifying details such as time-frame, budget, target indicators, project partners and relevant steps to reach the project objectives
  • Open to Financing
    Searching and securing funding and investment, setting up relevant financing partnerships, and discussing payment modalities
  • Implementation
    Execution of feasibility studies, context analysis, plot design, planting and setting up facilities and starting with potential capacity-building
  • Maintenance
    Operational phase (monitoring and evaluation, impact assessments and adjustments, execution of educational programmes and long-term capacity building)
  • Scaling Up
    Scaling up phase is when the project it has already shown success by obtaining impact as well as economic results and it's ready to become replicable.

Quinta das Abelhas (‘A farm for the Bees’) is a learning and research project to develop, test, and study complex Agroforestry systems in the Portuguese Alentejo, with the focus on techniques taught by renegade farmer Ernst Götsch (Syntropic Farming). This project has been started and implemented in December 2019 out of the initiative of Marc Leiber / GrowBack, student of Götsch for more than three years.

The project is supported by Agenda Götsch through consultancy on Design & Implementation of the syntropic farming system. The project site sits within the agricultural estate ‘Herdade do Freixo do Meio’. The 600 ha estate could be the perfect incubation chamber for scaling of lessons learnt.

The project has three interconnected goals:

  1. Adapting the techniques of Syntropic Agroforestry to the context of the Portuguese Alentejo, becoming a Syntropic Agroforestry reference sight, focused on the research and spread of the model at scale
  2. Create an oasis for the continued proliferation of pollinating insects
  3. Demonstrate how the Mediterranean agro-ecosystem could be regenerated by creating climate resilient agroforests in areas of high risk of desertification, re-establishing the water cycle and micro-climate of the site

Through achievement of these goals, it is envisioned that agriculture is reinvented as a financially interesting activity for both the older farmers in the regions as well as younger generations that could be drawn back to the countryside.

Degrading lands & rural exodus

In the Alentejo region, long, hot, and dry summers, unpredictable and decreasing winter rains, combined with compacted and degraded soils resulting from overgrazing, make farming an increasingly non-viable livelihood strategy. 

Lands with traditional extensive silvopastoral systems combining cork and holm oak and pasture have become strongly degraded; the ecosystem is in crisis as many native species are no longer present and have no conditions to newly establish. For instance, many oak trees are in decline without sufficient young trees to take their place, whilst in parallel, pollinator abundance is declining.

A future in agriculture is a meagre one, and young generations moving to the cities have left the countryside nearly empty. So far, attempts to turn the tide, such as many reforestation projects in the area, are failing (with success rates of initial planting material as low as 1%), or are creating incomplete forest systems, which take a long time to establish, and only offer very low productivity.

The traditional silvopastoral systems of the Alentejo have turned into degraded lands under consistent overgrazing and climate change (Source: Marc Leiber).

Transforming degraded lands

Applying the principles of Syntropic farming, under coordination from renowned Syntropic Agriculture expert Ernst Götsch, this project will search for, apply, and test strategies to cope with and then reverse the increasingly extreme farming conditions. 

Many small-scale agrarians in the region could greatly benefit from the knowledge created, especially in terms of increasing water availability to plants and potentially decreasing high summer temperatures. The created knowledge could even revive agriculture as an attractive economic option, drawing in young people to return to the countryside. 

Marc Leiber, a young farmer himself, has been a student from renowned farmer Ernst Götsch for over three years. Marc is dedicated to inspire both older and younger farmers in the region how farming can be done differently (Source: Marc Leiber).

Increasing diversity with a model farm

The Model Farm will initially focus on establishing 1 hectare of typical commodity crops in the region as well as the integration of novel cash crops into existing systems in a way that benefits the farmers and the environment. The one hectare will be divided into four sectors, inside each of which a highly organised plantation of a select combination of some of the cash crops will be established.

The planned crops are: peach, table grape, kaki, pomegranate, apricot, olive, citrus, fig, mulberry, blackberry, walnut, pecan, and aromatics. The result will be four unique plantation types on 0.25 hectares (for instance, type 1 combines Pecan, Peach, Mulberry, Grape, and Aromatic herbs). 

The fruit and nut crop produce will be marketed as fresh or dry produce. The plantations will also always be interplanted with a large variety of forestry species, to fulfil a number of ecological functions, as well as vegetable crops in the first years, to generate initial income for farmers, before fruit and nut trees become productive.

Vegetable crops are being grown the first year to ensure economic income for the farmer, while creating a favorable environment for the trees to grow in (Source: Marc Leiber).

Initial project impact

Despite the recent initiation of the project, it has become very obvious that this project has a huge potential to inspire a large number of farmers. Since the first open day in July 2020, around 100 people have already visited the first test field, established last winter, and the interest of local projects asking for consultancy is already very high.

The test field involves a 0.25 hectare plantation (focused on three varieties of citrus, olives, grapes, figs, blackberries and walnuts). Results from the first test field already show that these techniques work here, and have a highly positive impact on productivity, while drastically reducing the amount of irrigation and (organic) fertiliser required. For instance, the water use on this plot is estimated to be around 20% of what organic fruit orchards in the region typically irrigate.

 A high diversity of tree crops will be planted amongst the traditional oak pastures, in search of a model that is able to deal with the challenges of the Alentejo region. The lessons learnt could be applicable for farmers throughout the increasingly challenging Meditteranean climate. This image was taken on the first test field on the Quinta das Abelhas in August 2020 (Source: Marc Leiber).

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