Permaculture is a systems approach. It has many branches that include, but are not limited to, ecological design, ecological engineering, environmental design, construction, and integrated water resources management that develop sustainable architecture, regenerative and self-maintained habitat, and agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems.
The term permaculture (as a systematic method) was first coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. The word permaculture originally referred to “permanent agriculture”, but was expanded to stand for “permanent culture,” as it was seen that social aspects were also integral to a truly sustainable system, as inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming philosophy.
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
— Bill Mollison
The farm demonstrates a combination of agroecology, permaculture, traditional moon cycles, alternative energy, recycling, and reuse.
The concept of permaculture
Permaculture is a design system based on optimum use of all components to create a closed system, as independent as possible from external inputs, whether pertaining to agricultural fertilizers, energy, or construction materials.
Examples of Permaculture at Río Muchacho include composting toilets, banana circles, water recycling, solar energy, chicken and pig tractors, and biogas systems, which generate liquid fertilizer and methane gas.
The concept of agro-ecology
Agro-ecology is a philosophy as well as a practice. At its basic level, crops are cultivated without the use of agricultural chemicals (similar to organic agriculture). The farm, using agro-ecology, develops a natural equilibrium such that optimally it DOES NOT REQUIRE the use of any form of biocides.
Two of the most important principles of agro-ecology are:
- To return all organic material to the soil, and never to burn. Organic matter is the most important part of organic agriculture.
- To feed the soil, not the plant. The tendency in chemical agriculture is to use quick release fertilizers that are readily available to the plant. In organic agriculture the soil is treated as the living organism it is, constantly breaking down organic material for long-term soil stability Through the interaction with microorganism breakdown, the nutrients from the organic material become available to the plants in a natural way, over a longer period. Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people.
Crops on the farm
Crop rotation and companion planting, in an extremely bio-diverse transitional zone, produces a wealth of crops. In addition to human consumption, we try to grow as much of the animal food as possible, so there are areas of sugar cane and forage species. Some crops are grown to sell e.g. turmeric, chilies, and basil. There are two distinct seasons here, the wet and the dry, and the crops change according to these climates. The dry season (June-November) is cooler and many cold climate vegetables can be grown (eg. broccoli, radish, carrots, chinese cabbage). During the wet, humid season (December-May) we grow beans, plantain, sweet potato, and yuca.
How do we fertilize the soil?
Río Muchacho is considered an agricultural recycling center; nothing is wasted, all animal, human, and plant “waste” is put to use. We never burn, and so with the rampant growth of weeds alone we have the base of good fertilizer, which when cut, is left to break down, put in our composting area, or fed to animals to be further “processed” into nutrient rich compost.
We use pig, cow, and horse manure to make compost and fertilizer, which are applied directly to the soil. We also make a liquid fertilizer – “biol” – out of a mixture of leguminous plants, manure, and microorganisms. Some leguminous plants are used for nitrogen fixing, especially in king grass.
We also have a worm farm, where we produce a lot of worm casts for use in planting and for sale to local farmers.
An insect problem is an imbalance in the system.
Ideally it is best not to use pesticides (even natural ones) so as to encourage a larger beneficial insect population and therefore natural control.
We avoid monocultures, which are a recipe for insect problems. We achieve healthy insect populations by facilitating biodiversity in an agricultural system; a wide variety of plants attract beneficial insects, which provides a mutually beneficial, pollinated, pest free garden.
In the rare event that a natural pesticide is necessary, we use a selective spray. For example, if the problem is with a caterpillar population, we use a spray that only affects caterpillars and doesn’t kill other insects.
Animals on the farm
There are horses, cows, pigs, guinea pigs, chickens, worms, dogs, cats, and lots of birds, including toucans!
Worm beds and guinea pigs
There are five worm beds, each about 15 m long. The worms are kept for the fertilizer that they produce. They are fed cow and horse manure, which are transformed into a nutrient rich fertilizer. In addition to cow and horse manure, we have movable guinea pig houses.
The guinea pigs are eat crop waste and grass and create fertile manure, which falls directly into the worm beds, being transformed as well.
One of the consequences of reforestation is that there is less pasture growth. By creating permaculture designs in forage areas, we are able to create large amounts of animal feed in a relatively small area. Several areas are planted with king and elephant grass and another is planted with a legume called yuca de ratón. This legume produces high protein leaf mass which is harvested to incorporate in the animal food. Also, we use living fences (hobo and caraca trees) which provide further foliage to be fed to animals. Living fences have the additional benefit of topsoil conservation.
Growing bananas in circles instead of lines produces very effective nutrient recycling. All “waste” organic material is placed in the center of each banana circle (i.e. weeds, old banana stalks, sticks, leftover pieces of bamboo). This system is even more effective when combined with animal effluent (e.g. the circle beside the pig pen.) All the manure is washed into the circle to aid the decomposition process and provide fertilizer for the plants. The pigs are “feeding” the bananas, and the bananas are feeding us.
Instead of depending on water and fertilizer, each individual plant draws from the benefits of the banana circle. Other shade-loving plants can be grown beneath the banana. In Río Muchacho we have coffee (Café Arabica – a shade grown, native species). Plants, such as citrus and cacao, can be grown between the circles and benefit from the nutrients provided by the system.
The circles are about 50 cm deep and the bananas are planted on the rim.
The Río Muchacho Valley has a history of deforestation. With a history of slash and burn agriculture for shade intolerant cash crops, and later cattle grazing, most farmers have trouble accepting the reasons for forest conservation. They are in some ways reluctant to reforest as they consider it an achievement to have cleared their land for growing pasture. With new knowledge of successful crop associations and topsoil conservation, some are starting to reconsider.
The Río Muchacho Organic farm has been reforesting for more than 30 years with varied success. Some years, with the help of consistent rain, there has been a productive survival rate. Other times it has been unpredictable; the dry season is sometimes too dry for survival, in the wet season plants get drowned out. In 1998 the farm planted 600 Guayacan trees (one of the best, hardest woods of the dry/transition forest) but with the ceaseless rains of El Niño they all rotted in the ground. Local, native species are usually used for reforestation.
Reforestation in the tropics sounds easy, but when the trees grow quickly, the weeds also grow quickly. It is a continuous battle to establish the trees.
The weeds are placed around the base of the tree as a mulch, to maintain the moisture and slow down weed growth around the plant. In the dry season the farm makes up liquid fertilizer and fills up old soda bottles; one is placed with each growing tree. The bottle top is removed, then the bottle is turned upside down and firmly stuck into the soil. The water seeps out slowly and keeps the area wet for about 10-15 days (depending on the soil type and amount of mulch). This system has proven a great success. The combination of the mulch and the slow watering prevents the extremes of dry and wet that the seasons create. This system has been used successfully in some of the driest parts of Manabí (much of which is semi-desert). The organic farm has contributed plants for reforestation in the community – these species are good timber species and are therefore valued, increasing the likelihood of their care by the locals.
There are many designs of dry compost toilets. In Ecuador, the design of this toilet was created in the Andes to provide a better alternative for sanitation in mountain villages.
In 1991 the design was brought to the coast, and first used at Alandaluz Ecological Hotel. It proved to be an excellent solution for dry areas as there is no need to use any water. Human waste was used in a productive way, as compost for pasture grass, and free from seeping into water systems. As is the case with all waste, it has to go somewhere, and may as well be used for productivity. When the compost is ready it resembles any other animal manure compost and is very useful in tree planting.
The farm has produced a dry composting toilet for every living area, and the public spaces. The compost is used on coffee, fruit trees, and reforestation areas, but avoided in vegetable areas.
We avoid having processed food in Río Muchacho and reject all the trash that comes with it. Also rejected are disposalable cups, plates, or cutlery. Most products are bought in bulk and the containers are reused. We use only utensils made from naturally-occurring resources, e.g. mate cups & spoons and locally handmade ceramic bowls.
All paper is collected and recycled by local women at our workshop on the farm and turned into artisan style, handcrafted stationary. Read more about Ecopapel under our products page.
All plastic bottles that reach the farm are used either to protect young plants against leaf-cutter ants, or to facilitate irrigation; we fill them with liquid fertilizer and place them upside down next to fruit trees, as described above.
All showers and sinks have water-saving shower heads and taps, and the water is reused. Guests are asked to conserve water and to bring biodegradable soap. We also have a grey water system for washing clothes.
Some of our electricity comes from the national system, while an increasing proportion is provided by solar panels. All bulbs are as energy-efficient as possible, and guests are reminded to switch off lights when not in use. We run some machines on the farm from electricity, while others, such as the bicycle grinder, are powered by exercise.
We have built a biogas system, which is based on a simple design used in Vietnam. It uses a long plastic tube and flexible rubber “bladder”, which is placed in a trench and filled with water. Each day we have to “feed” it with animal manure (5 buckets of recycled water and 1 bucket of fresh pig manure). The manure ferments and creates methane gas, which can then be used for cooking, lighting, and heating water, and “biol” – a very effective biological liquid fertilizer.
Solar power in its raw form is used in our secadora solar, or solar dryer. We also have a passive solar heated shower. We have solar panels for the main house and for the speaker that plays music to the animals in the morning during feeding time.
Part of the irrigation on the farm was previously done with a hydraulic ram pump. This is a very simple pumping system that uses the force of the water itself for pumping.
All water from hand basins, showers, laundry, and the kitchen is recycled and reused. It all passes through a grey water system, which may include a grease trap, a series of filters (e.g. gravel and carbon), and in the case of the laundry, a reed bed system. The water is then used for irrigating plants. In the past these systems were entirely necessary, as biodegradable soaps and detergents were unavailable in Ecuador, but now they are used simply as an extra measure in combination with biodegradable soaps.
We also have many more alternative energy and recycling systems at the farm. Come and see them!