Sven Verwiel with his sister Michelle and the ForestFoods team at the farm in Brackenhurst Limuru

Syntropic agroforestry, a unique way of farming successfully without need for fertilisers or pesticides

It’s a system that creates its own input, and own biomass and its own fertility as opposed to conventional farming, where crops relentlessly strip the soil of nutrients, necessitating a continuous input of artificial nutrients

To many, it may sound like a fairytale in today’s world where agriculture is deeply reliant on fertilisers and pesticides. However, ForestFoods, a pioneering company that runs a farm situated in the lush and forested landscape of Brackenhurst Limuru in central Kenya, does not use synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. This is so yet its yields are excellent, sometimes surpassing those of crops planted conventionally (It only uses a limited quantity of biopesticides, where necessary, and compost manure at the initial stages of planting it crops).

To make it even sweeter, the farm will not need to irrigate its land in a few years’ time to get a continuous flow of produce. It will be self-sustaining even during dry months!

ForestFoods, which is owned by a group of likeminded individuals, a hybrid of Kenyans, Brazilians, British and Americans, has also been raking in on average Ksh250,000 monthly from vegetables per acre.

The question you could be asking yourself is how this is possible yet over the years, the use of fertilisers in our depleted soils has been increasing. A Smart Farmer team visited the farm to find out its secret.

ForestFoods’ farm is a picturesque complex of lush vegetation where rows and rows of different crops are growing together interdependently. Different species of trees growing tightly line the farm in rows that are six metres apart. In between, there is a variety of vegetables.

All around, especially within the tree lines, the soil is full of foliage and biomass that enriches the soil. In the tree lines, fruit trees, perennial crops and eucalyptus are all growing. Under normal circumstances this cannot happen. But at ForestFoods, eucalyptus and banana trees, apple trees and blueberry, and the zucchini are all happily growing. The kale, spinach, and other vegetables in the middle all look good.

At first glance, one may imagine that it is agroforestry that Sven and his sister are practising but it goes deeper than that. This is what is known as syntropic agroforestry. Through this pioneering venture, the siblings are rewriting the traditional rules of agriculture.

 

The farm showing different crops at different stages

Imagine a forest that is rich and deep, where you will find all manner of life – tall trees, shrubs, dense foliage, and undergrowths – all in harmony. Sunlight filters through the dense but towering canopy of foliage, creating shifting patterns on the lush undergrowth. The towering trees, draped in moss, reveal the passage of time in their sturdy trunks.

The air is thick with the scent of earth, dampness, and smell of wildflowers. Unseen creatures contribute to the natural hum of rustling leaves, distant bird calls, and the soothing murmur of a hidden stream.

Beneath the lush canopy lies a nutrient-rich world teeming with microbes and natural life. Unfortunately, the conventional practice of clearing such forests for agriculture, while initially boosting productivity, has led to depleted nutrients, acidic soils, and lifelessness, hence, the need for the growth of syntropic agroforestry.

 

A line of trees and fruit trees including banana and eucalyptus among others,
Syntropic agroforestry
Syntropic agroforestry

 

This is a farming system that mimics natural forest ecosystems to create sustainable and productive agricultural systems. It is like arranging a diverse group of plants on your farm in a way that they support one another just like in a forest.

“Syntropic is a thermodynamics term, which means growing in complexity overtime. Entropic is the opposite and most conventional commercial farming, where the ecosystem becomes thinner and thinner, and more and more inputs such as fertilisers are required to produce the same or less,” says Sven Verwiel, managing director of ForestFoods.

In syntropic agroforestry, different types of crops, trees, and other plants are combined in a thoughtful way. Each plant has a specific role. Some provide shade, others add nutrients to the soil, and some may deter pests. The idea is to create a harmonious environment, where each element benefits the others, leading to a more resilient and productive farm.

In this approach, farmers work with nature rather than against it. By doing so, they can potentially increase crop yields, improve soil health, and reduce the need for external inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. It’s a holistic and sustainable farming that can be adapted to different climates and regions.

“Syntropic agroforestry is a paradigm shift in agriculture,” says Sven. “Instead of fighting against nature, we embrace it. We understand that nature has a remarkable capacity for regeneration and rejuvenation.

“It’s a system that creates its own input, and own biomass and its own fertility as opposed to conventional farming, where crops relentlessly strip the soil of nutrients, necessitating a continuous input of artificial fertilisers. By aligning our farming practices with natural processes, we can unlock the full potential of the land.”

This approach, he adds, is a win-win solution that not only restores degraded land and enhances biodiversity, but also provides economic opportunities for farmers.

“Through our model, we show that regenerative agriculture can be financially viable and sustainable in the long run.”

The concept of Natural succession

Sven adds: “We use natural succession as the driving force for production.”

Unlike traditional agroforestry, this approach embraces the natural processes of land rehabilitation. It encourages the growth of a complex and diverse ecosystem, resulting in a sustainable and productive farm.

“Natural succession is a way of rejuvenating land. You see natural succession in the wild, and in man-made environments. If you plough a field, for example, natural succession occurs immediately because weeds pop up. If you burn a field, natural succession starts immediately, too. Natural succession is nature’s way of rebuilding itself,” he adds.

Syntropic agroforestry guides and influences natural succession. The farm goes through various phases, from primary to secondary, eventually reaching a climax with a productive forest-like ecosystem.

By carefully planning and implementing diverse crop and tree lines, ForestFoods maximises the potential for abundant and efficient production.

 

Sven explaing to the Smart Farmer how synthropic agroforestry works

 

Sven showing us the density of biomass in synthropic agroforestry. Photos/Peter Kiptoo

“The concept is about creating harmony and synergy within an ecosystem,” Sven continues. “Through careful planning and the strategic arrangement of crops and trees, we create a complex web of relationships that support each other’s growth. This interplay of species and the diversity it brings is the key to success in syntropic agroforestry,” he says.

“Imagine a farm that evolves and matures over time, just like a natural forest,” Sven says. “In syntropic agroforestry, we guide the farm through different phases of succession, allowing it to reach a climax state that mimics the resilience and productivity of a mature forest ecosystem.”

“With each phase, the farm becomes more self-sustaining,” he adds. “We start with pioneer species that prepare the soil and create the conditions for the next wave of growth. As the farm progresses, we introduce a diverse range of crops and trees, each playing a specific role in the ecosystem. It’s a symphony of life, where every element has its place.”

Growing in Four Dimensions

Another factor that defines syntropic agroforestry is its ability to grow in four dimensions: Width, length, height, and time (using the space in every direction and also being smart about when you plant and harvest to make your farm more productive and sustainable).

“In vegetable production, we apply the principles of stratification in space (physical location of plant) and time (their growth stages). Different vegetables have different sunlight requirements and lifecycles. For instance, we grow lettuces and leafy greens near the tree lines, where they receive partial shade. As we move away from the tree lines, we cultivate crops that require more sunlight such as tomatoes or peppers,” Sven says.

“We also practise intercropping, pairing compatible crops together, such as beans with corn or pumpkins with zucchini. By implementing these techniques, we maximise our land’s productivity and foster a balanced ecosystem.”

The complexity of soil biology

The success of syntropic agroforestry hinges on understanding and fostering soil biology. ForestFoods outlines the importance of microbiology, specifically bacteria and fungi, in the ecosystem.

Throughout the succession phases, the composition of microbial life shifts, favouring beneficial fungi over bacteria as the system matures. This shift influences the crops that thrive, creating a balance within the ecosystem.

“We believe in the power of nature and its ability to heal and nourish the land,” Sven explains.

One of the most awe-inspiring transformations at ForestFoods Farm is the improvement in soil quality.

Sven and Michelle have rejuvenated once compacted and anaerobic soil in just a year into a vibrant and life-filled medium.

“We have observed an average increase of one per cent in soil organic matter per year. Each one per cent increase in organic matter allows the soil to retain an additional 365,000 litres of water per hectare. This rise in organic matter reduces our reliance on irrigation or rainfall for crop cultivation and has created a nourishing environment for plants and microorganisms, fostering overall soil health,” Sven says.

Creating a harmonious landscape is at the core of ForestFoods’ agroforestry design. Sven and Michelle carefully consider various factors such as machinery access, irrigation needs, sunlight requirements, and crop preferences.

Sven showing of one ofhis plants. Photo/Peter Kiptoo

“On this farm, we have six-metre tree lines to accommodate our machinery and maximise vegetable production. The east-west orientation of our planting ensures optimal sunshine. However, on our coastal farms, we would likely choose a north-south orientation to provide shade for crops such as vanilla and cacao. In such, the tree lines will be closer together to provide shade more quickly,” says the farmer.

Diversity is also a key principle on the farm. It includes planting a wide variety of tree species, both native and non-native, within a relatively tight spacing.

“We employ a relatively tight spacing, allowing us to fit between 3,500 and 4,500 trees per hectare on average. We use a diverse range of tree species, both native and non-native. On less than a hectare, we have over 50 different species. By planting them close together, we utilise stratification in space and time.”

Complementary companionships emerge. “Bananas and eucalyptus are excellent companions that coexist harmoniously without impeding each other’s growth. We also ensure regular pruning of each species to optimise their growth. Our aim is to keep the soil always covered, providing habitat and utilising biomass from the surrounding area and the farm itself,” Sven adds.

Being used to the conventional way of farming, this has been a challenging concept to understand. However, Sven has been gracious enough to keep explaining and breaking it down for me.
One thing I am curious about is the use of eucalyptus in the tree lines. Eucalyptus tree has not had a favourable reputation, vilified, especially for its use of water and soil nutrients.

“Eucalyptus trees often face misconceptions in modern forestry practices. However, we have found that when properly integrated, they offer significant benefits. Eucalyptus trees possess rapid growth rates, high biomass production, and an ability to coexist without competing with other plants,” he says, adding that the trees are adept at locating water sources and can even communicate with neighbouring trees through their root systems.

“As long as they share resources with other species, they contribute positively to the ecosystem,” he adds, explaining that by carefully spacing and pruning all plant species, “we can create an environment where they thrive together”.

But how did they come across this concept and decide to adopt it?

 

The Pioneer

In the 1980s, Swiss farmer and researcher Ernst Götsch embarked on a remarkable journey in Brazil. He acquired a piece of land that had suffered years of degradation due to the exhausting demands of timber production and cattle rearing. Once a fertile and vibrant landscape with natural springs, it had sadly transformed into a barren, desolate environment, abandoned by farmers, who saw little hope of revival.

But Götsch was about to change that narrative.

With the groundbreaking farming technique he pioneered, this forsaken land underwent a miraculous transformation. In just a few years, what was once a barren wasteland flourished into a lush, vibrant rainforest. It teemed with an abundance of biodiversity and boasted remarkable crop productivity.

Soon, food crops thrived, painting a stark contrast to the desolation of the past. Götsch’s pioneering system, now known as syntropic agroforestry, became the cornerstone of this incredible rejuvenation.

Today, the influence of his work has garnered a big following. Though it took a while before spreading out of Brazil, over the last 10 to 15 years, it has been attracting small and large-scale farmers, activists, policymakers, researchers, and students.

 

ForestFoods

Among the syntropic agroforestry enthusiasts are Sven and Michelle and their partners. They draw their inspiration from the Brazilian pioneers and have adapted the techniques to suit Kenya’s environment.

With their farm as the first official venture under the ForestFoods umbrella, they hope to transform food production in Kenya and beyond.

 

The ForestFoods team at the Limuru farm pose for a photo.

“The success of syntropic agroforestry in Brazil has inspired us,” Sven says. “We have seen how this approach can regenerate land and transform lives. Our goal is to adapt and localise these techniques to the unique conditions of Kenya and expand the movement globally. We believe it has the potential to revolutionise food production and contribute to a more sustainable future.”

ForestFoods focuses on horticulture and forestry, especially native trees. While they practise regenerative agricultural techniques, their primary emphasis is syntropic agroforestry. By establishing farms in all of Kenya’s different agroecological zones to create models for profitable reforestation, ForestFoods aims to build a trusted brand and develop self-sustaining systems before incorporating smallholders and other landowners.

“Our long-term vision is to inspire and empower others to adopt syntropic agroforestry and regenerative practices,” he says. “We want to empower farmers and landowners to embrace syntropic agroforestry and create a network of like-minded farmers, researchers, and enthusiasts, who can exchange knowledge and collaborate towards a sustainable future.”

By hosting workshops and open-field days, and providing educational resources, the company hopes to spread awareness about the benefits of this system.

 

One of the employees packing vegetables ready for delivery to a client. Photos/Peter Kiptoo

“Ultimately, we believe that by restoring harmony between agriculture and nature, we can heal our ecosystems, produce nutritious food, and ensure a prosperous future for generations to come,” he concludes.

 

ForestFoods has created an investment vehicle where small and medium scale investments can be taken in through a local placement agent.
If you are interested in helping to rebuild local production systems through investing in our restoration initiatives, please get in touch using the following link;
https://www.forestfoods.co.ke/invest-in-forestfoods

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Source:By Bernadette Murgor