Syntropic farming is an approach to regenerative agriculture that allows the creation of dynamic, successional, and economically viable ecosystems that restore degraded soil biodiversity.
It is solely based on principles by which nature and forest ecosystems function. Syntropy refers to the tendency of a closed system to structure and organize itself and lead to complex outcomes and an abundance of resources.
Syntropic farming, therefore, mimics the natural regeneration of forests and integrates natural food production systems. It is an intensive variation of agroforestry that combines market gardening and slash and mulch agroforestry, to promote yield at successive stages, generate soil fertility, and create a productive forest.
The natural processes applied in syntropic agriculture can be translated into farming interventions. The goal of establishing highly productive agricultural areas results in the provision of ecosystem services, with a keen focus on soil formation, regulation of microclimates, and the preservation of water cycles. In this way, agricultural production is linked to the regeneration of ecosystems.
Syntropic agriculture was created by Ernst Gotsch. His scientific approach is based on Greek philosophy, Kantian ethics, and mathematics. This agricultural system is driven by logic and data with the goal of attaining practical results.
He systematized his findings and developed self-sufficient agroforestry that allows the interaction of different plant species, which over time form increasingly complex ecosystems and more fertile soils. In his assessment, intelligent design and management would replace pesticides and fertilizers.
Principles of syntropic farming
Keep the soil covered at all times
Syntropic farming requires the soil to be covered always, mainly using organic materials such as plant trimmings, leaves, and compost. According to Gotsch, bare soil accelerates weed growth. The benefits of covering the soil are the protection of moisture and the prevention of soil erosion. Nonetheless, such soil is an ideal habitat for microorganisms which are vital to the productivity of a syntropic system.
This refers to the arrangement of plants over time. There are three stages of natural succession through which a forest matures:
- Placenta– This is the earliest stage of succession. It is characterized by vigorous vegetative growth and short life spans.
- Secondary stage– It incorporates taller shrub-like trees which can exist for a very long time.
- Climax stage– This is the maturity stage consisting of fully developed fruiting and limber trees which can live for many years.
The cycles can be subdivided into Placenta 1, Placenta 2, Secondary 1, and Secondary 2. Each succession cycle can last for hundreds of years, until there is an outside disturbance to the system, for example, a fire or a storm. These will reset the cycle and facilitate the evolution of the system.
This refers to the different light requirements of various plant species. There are four levels of stratification: emergent, high, medium, and low. Some plants prefer direct sunlight, while others prefer filtered light. This is applied in the making of food forests.
Plants are specialized in a variety of ecological niches, which will determine whether they grow under, above, or next to each other. The plant’s height will give an idea of its stratum within a specific succession stage. In a syntropic system, the stratum and succession state will be used in plant selection.
This principle requires an understanding of the life cycle of a plant, and how it affects soil organisms and neighboring plants. Correct pruning of plants harmonizes the relationships between plants in a syntropic system, reinvigorates plants, therefore, facilitating flowering and fruit development, catalyzing natural succession and regeneration of the ecosystem, and facilitating the transformation of organic materials that enrich the soil.
Plants will thrive in the early stages of development and slow down when budding begins. When fruits appear, the plants will begin decaying. The stage at which this happens is called senescence.
At the same time, microorganisms in the soil communicate through plant roots to provide essential nutrients in exchange for sugars. Syntropic farming aims to interrupt the plant’s life cycle before senescence begins. If applied simultaneously in a system, syntropic farming will stimulate organisms in the soil to provide nutrients needed for accelerated growth.
Compare to the 12 principles of permaculture.
Features of syntropic systems
Gotsch defined several key features of syntropic farming, including:
Planting everything at the same time
In a syntropic system, it is efficient to place your plants in the ground at the same time. This process is labor and time intensive.
Ideally, you should plant around 20-40 plants per square meter. On a small farm, choose the denser system, while in large-scale farming, use the smaller density option.
Planting north to south rows
This is done to maximize exposure to sunlight and photosynthesis. Syntropic agriculture requires planting trees on a north to south axis as opposed to contouring as is popular in other systems.
Syntropic farming calls for direct seed planting over cutting or tree transplants. The system requires planting a huge number of trees, which can only be viable through seed planting. This approach allows for the best genetics to succeed in the system, with a higher possibility of the trees reaching full maturity.
Developing a planting code
This combines the principle of successive planting and stratification. On the Y-axis, define the strata, which encompasses the physical space and light requirements of the plant.
The X-axis refers to the time taken by a plant to occupy the strata at full maturity. The planting code gives a better idea of how each plant fits into your system over space and time. It is important not to leave any space or time gaps in your system. Considerations for what to plant will be determined by the ecological niche and your microclimate.
Difference between syntropic farming and permaculture
Syntropic farming and permaculture are modeled on naturally occurring ecosystems, with particular emphasis on forests. However, they differ mainly in their system design and scope. Permaculture deals with the ethics and morals that influence the development of more sustainable food production systems while syntropic farming adopts a hands-on approach to agroforestry that imitates nature to increase food production while restoring poor soils and depleted ecosystems.
Here are some key differences between the two approaches:
- Origins: Syntropic farming was developed in Brazil by Ernst Gotsch, while permaculture was developed in Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.
- Philosophy: Syntropic farming is based on the concept of syntropy, which is the idea that living systems constantly seek balance and harmony. Permaculture, on the other hand, is based on the principles of care for the earth, care for people, and fair share.
- Focus: Syntropic farming emphasizes the use of diverse plant species and the creation of multi-layered plant systems to mimic natural ecosystems. Permaculture, on the other hand, focuses on the design of sustainable human settlements and the integration of agriculture, housing, and other human needs into the landscape.
- Techniques: Syntropic farming involves the use of techniques such as planting guilds, agroforestry, and cover cropping to create a diverse and self-sustaining ecosystem. Permaculture also uses a variety of techniques, including organic farming, water conservation, and renewable energy, to create a sustainable and self-sufficient system.
Permaculture uses energy-intensive systems, which take a while before significant yields are produced. This method is focused heavily on functional design that requires a lot of energy to maintain.
Often, the return from permaculture systems is less than the time, energy and money invested. Syntropic farming creates a system that requires less energy and has a higher return on investment.
Syntropic farming is a new approach to food production that is simple to implement even in areas with limited resources. The system, designed by Ernst Gotsch, is nature inspired and managed through the principles of natural succession, stratification, and synchronized pruning. It is labor-intensive, but it creates a productive and sustainable environment over time. Syntropic systems foster harmonization with nature, enabling high and scalable food production while benefitting natural ecosystems.