An Atherton Tablelands farmer is growing outside the box and has ventured into Syntropic farming as a way to improve his soil to produce a profitable crop.
Syntropic farming, also known as food forests, is a relatively new farming method which originated in Brazil by Swiss farmer Ernst Gotsch, who turned 480 hectares of degraded farmland into a productive farm.
It involves arranging and planting a complex polyculture of plant species, and then managing them to produce their own nutrients and, as a result, their own healthy and more natural ecosystem.
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Multiple species are alley cropped which helps reduce pest and disease pressure, whilst symbiotically supporting each other as part of a whole system.
Turning to alternative farming methods
John Gargan and his wife Grace from Springmount Station, own a 100 hectare (250 acres) biodynamic property near Mutchilba on the western side of the Atherton Tablelands.
The Gargans have been farming with biodynamics in the far north for over 10 years, and John said they were looking for ways to improve their soils when they came across a local group sharing knowledge of the syntropics method.
"We've been dabbling with natural farming methods forever," Mr Gargan said.
"What I like about syntropics is that it's a self sustaining principle, because you have all these plants and they're using elements that you get virtually for free, the sunshine and rain.
"In the early stages you do need irrigation, but it's a self sustaining sort of system and all the excess material goes back onto the ground."
The Gargans first started syntropic farming in early 2020, and have set up six (150 metre) rows with good spacing of 12 metres between the rows. This enables him to crop between the syntropic rows.
Using intensive pruning techniques and planting sequences, their syntropic rows feature, bananas, pineapples, raspberries, comfrey, paw paws, eucalyptus trees, and cassava plants to name a few.
In between the syntropic rows they have planted a multi species cover crop that require more sunlight like pastures, forage legumes, pumpkins, corn, and watermelons.
Soil benefits abound
With the rising costs of fertilisers, Mr Gargan hopes the system will improve the biodiversity of the soil, thus needing significantly less inputs than traditional farming.
"The system regenerates itself sufficiently, because of the biodiversity of the root systems and with a diverse variety of microbes feeding from the plants root systems that produce the sugars," he said.
"I think with all natural systems, trees are so important, because they actually bring in energies and the balance of energies is enhanced by the trees.
"The legumes produce nitrogen for other plants and you've got all the beneficial microbes living there.
"It's a careful balance of species, which can lead to a self-fertilising system within three years."
The Gargans grow multispecies legumes and pastures for their 50 head of cattle they run on their property.
Using geese and guinea pigs for grass control
In order to maintain the syntropic rows, the Gargans have turned to geese and guinea pigs to control and maintain any invasive grasses.
Mr Gargan said syntropics will only work if you can minimize the amount of labour you have to do.
"It's very hard, particularly in my paddock, because I've got a running type grass that wants to invade the rows all the time," he said.
"We've introduced geese, because they are a grazing bird, and they will eat the grass down to the roots. We then clean it up and mulch on top.
"The idea of the guinea pigs then is to be a maintenance thing, and every time the grass wants to invade the guinea pigs we will be able to maintain it."
The Gargans have implemented a fence around the syntropic rows, to protect their geese from predators like snakes, birds, dingoes and cats.
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