With human interventions halted and livestock gone from farming land the ecological wheels of natural succession would be free to turn.
Natural succession is a process by which ecosystems repair themselves after damage or disturbance, thereby restoring their fertility and how they function.
What this means in practice is that dormant seeds (native or introduced) start to emerge. Plants best adapted to the previously-farmed soil thrive. Fast growing and short lived “pioneers” accumulate organic matter and build soil while providing shelter for longer lived species to grow.. Multitudes of canopy levels establish, often with slower-growing, longer-lived progressions of succession developing towards their turn at occupying their canopy niche.
So is there a way to harness the processes of natural succession to support food production?
Bunya Halasz and Evan Anderson, farmers from different backgrounds, attended a Syntropic Farming workshop with visiting Brazillian Farmers Patricia Vaaz and Namaste Messerschmidt last April which inspired them to join forces and collaborate after many years of passionate dialogue about regenerative agriculture.
Syntropic farming is a modern, intensively managed, and thus accelerated, form of what gardeners of the wet tropics have done for millennia – the process of Successional Agroforestry or Shifting Cultivation.
Acknowledging the influence of decades of embodied work in permaculture and soil building Bunya and Evan relate to the work they do as successional agroforestry – a process that harnesses the forces of nature to support agriculture.
“The general concepts of successional farming can be used anywhere” says Bunya. Questions such as ‘How can we use disturbance to stimulate that system rather than using it to control that system’ guide his and Evan’s work on their ½ acre integrated successional agroforesty plot, or what they call their ‘living classroom’ at The Farm in Byron Bay.
Both farmers are educators and they use the ‘classroom’ to share practical skills with their students.
“Permaculture Food Forests have been useful at regenerating degenerated farmland but many managers of these systems have not fully harnessed the value of disturbance in these systems. I’ve been inspired by how targeted disturbance can maximise the productivity of those systems” says Bunya.
What kinds of results are they seeing?
With natural succession farming, labour and nutrient input is higher in the beginning of the process, but it continues to decrease over time. Bunya and Evan put in a huge effort over 3 months late last year with the help of keen students from Byron Community College.
They were able to convert half of their plot into perennial systems that are moving towards a more complex forest system through succession. In this process, habitat and cover has been created for native birds, and the first sightings of superb fairy wrens, wood ducks and red browed finches were observed after 2 months of canopy establishment. In some well planned beds, continual harvests of varying successional crops have been ongoing for at least 6 months straight. Efficiencies over time and space are apparent. Also, the diversity of plant species means that the soil biology is being fed and steered by a multitude of primary producers (plants).
One of the more exciting aspects of the successional agroforestry ‘classroom’ is the complex assembly of microclimates they have been able to create, which has vastly increased the number of plants they can foster in the system.
“Within 3-4 months we’ve created really effective windbreaks that also act as sun traps for winter-growing plants. Creating a microclimate means things that don’t normally grow this time of year are growing – chillies are ripening late, tomatoes are growing later into the year,” says Bunya.
“Microclimates are also creating shade and protection for fungi. Southern shady spots which are less efficient for other growth become a great opportunity for fungi. We currently have 3 varieties of oyster mushrooms.”
“Then in the hot dry months of summer we have the benefit of shade to allow a longer season for growing things like lettuce and rocket.”
So we may not need to relinquish the land entirely to Nature. Rather, we can mimic and restore elements of it while accelerating the process of ecological regeneration.
Find out more
To learn more about natural succession farming and ecology-supporting agriculture visit Bunya & Evan’s Facebook page.
Bunya will be presenting at Bruns Eco Village’s July Aspiring Residents gathering.
Note: Content amended since first publication on Thursday 28th June 2018.