Scott mentioned this book in the podcast
Recorded at VerdEnergia on May 5th, 2016
Transcribed by Spenser Gabin on May 10th, 2016
- Scott Gallant of Rancho Mastatal
- Rachel Jackson of Rancho Mastatal
- Joshua Hughes of VerdEnergia
- Amanda Wilson of VerdEnergia
Spenser Gabin: Hey guys, I'm here with Scott and Rachel from Rancho Mastatal. We wanted to talk a little bit today about the economics of permaculture and agroforestry because one thing we've all been running into a lot is people love permaculture, they love agroforestry, they think it's cool, they like the vibes, but they think at the end of the day, is this really going make any money? Can this really build a business? Can this grow community or is this just something we do to make us feel good and give us good vibes? Scott, can you tell us a little bit about your background with agroforestry, with economics?
Scott Gallant: I've been managing the agroforestry component of Rancho Mastatal's education center for the last 5 years, pretty in depth. Not growing for production, in the sense that we're not trying to sell for market or anything like that, everything that we produce as trees, slowly come on board, just goes right into our kitchen. So, it's a bit of a different model. My academic background is in economics, so I'm not a practicing economist, I never worked in that field, but that's what I studied, and with the focus on the statistical side--econometrics. Spent a lot of time working with Microsoft Excel. Trying to combine those worlds a little bit, working with projects such as the folks here at VerdEnergia and trying to answer some of those questions that you just brought up, like what's the economic viability of a lot of this? And what type of long-term approach do we need to take? And I think they're really good questions, and I think there's some answers that are out there, and there's still a lot to be figured out as well.
Spenser: Ok. And Rachel? Do have any "in" on economics, or?
Amanda Wilson: What do you do at the ranch?
Rachel Jackson: So at the ranch, my focus is a bit more on the design end of it. I have a Masters in Sustainable Landscape Planning and Design. So sort of looking at how those different parts integrate together, I also manage more of our “Zone 1” areas, and then working with the education aspects of it. I think economics is probably less of my focus while there, but I think as a human being living in this world, it's incredibly important to all of us. Something that I think we really spent a lot of time thinking about, in the last 2 or 3 years at the ranch, and how we can create a livelihood that will support all our needs, both economically, socially, and recognizing what we can and can't do with that. What are we good at doing, and what are things that maybe we need to look outside of the ranch, to do for ourselves.
Spenser: Scott, can you just go over a few things that an organic or permaculture based model can do that are efficient, that stack functions, that would, in the language of economics, drive down production costs? Because I think that's something that people think, "Well, we can't use herbicides and pesticides and insecticides, so that means ants are going eat all of our crops and we're going to get no yield and we're never going to make any money." So just talk a little bit about that.
Scott: I immediately go just to the principle of using biological resources, and how we replace industrial processes with metabolic ones. We can look at different plant systems from around the world.
A classic example would be the "Three Sisters” plant guild. A guild coming out of Mesoamerica, Milpas, where you're growing corn, you're growing beans, and you're growing squash together, with other more spontaneous weed species. And each of those grown by themselves is going to obviously produce a yield of some quantity, but if we grow them together, we are able to take advantage of the various functions of each of those plants, functions that we would have to provide otherwise, if we were growing them separately, if that makes sense. As an example, if we're growing corn, we're going to need to do something to keep the weeds down.
In a larger-scale industrial system, you're probably using pre-germination herbicide, if you're doing feed corn then it's probably genetically modified and you're spraying glyphosate, and the corn can resist that. On smaller-scale systems, you're coming in with a machete, or you're hand weeding.
We can replace that cost of labor with a plant like squash. And if we get the timing really right, and the planting, which is a big challenge of these systems, is that they require more knowledge really, you're replacing that labor or that production cost with an increase knowledge of these systems. Squash, as it germinates, has these huge leaves that come out: perfect weed suppressant. So it's really good at keeping things down and keeping things low and letting the corn grow up and high. We work in the beans into that system and suddenly we realize that beans have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, they're in the legume family, they have this wonderful relationship with the rhizobium soil, and depending on how we manage those, how much we're actually harvesting from those, how much we'll be leaving in the ground, the timing of the chopping of them, again, there's some details to this. We can start to replace nitrogen fertilizer that we would otherwise have to purchase off-site and apply to that field.
Then the corn can function as the trellis for the beans, that allows them to climb up, makes them more productive, that if we were just growing beans on their own, we would either have to provide a trellis system for them, or they wouldn't be as productive because they wouldn't be able to get as much sunlight, it wouldn't be able to reach as much. They're photosynthetic potential would be less, and so, with just these little tweaks in this system, we're able to replace, potentially herbicide, potentially fertilizers, and some sort of physical trellising system that if each of those crops is grown on their own, that might be necessary.
Along those same lines, there's this concept of additive yield, or polyculture yield. Each of those crops grown by themselves in the same field, one hectare field of corn, beans, or squash, would inevitably produce more corn than one hectares of this mix system of the "Three Sisters” guild, that has all three of these plants in that same amount of space. You'd get more corn if it was just growing corn, you'd get more beans if it was just growing beans, you'd get more squash if it was just growing squash. But what happens is that as those plants function and support each other, we gain the benefits of that, the additive yield is greater to the total amount of food we get out of that system, which is more than if we just grow one single squash or corn patch.
That's a really simple example of really good design, plant systems, the diversification of our crops, which is something we're generally pretty interested in the world of permaculture and agroforestry. Trying to replace industrial processes, industrial equipment with biological ones can lead to, what a lot of studies have shown, is a really highly productive system that's lasted hundreds of years, has a durability and resilience to it that people still practice this form of agriculture, all throughout Mesoamerica because it makes economic sense in the end.
Spenser: I think that's a question that a lot of people have is, well, the monoculture system that dominates the U.S., why would we be doing that if that weren't the most efficient way of doing things? So why are we doing what we're doing? What do you say from a person that's coming from that paradigm? Or Rachel, what would you say, why are we doing a monoculture of corn a lot of the time, or palm oil, why do we insist on doing it that way?
Rachel: I think economically we're not accounting for other variables: the cheap oil that goes into that, the cheap fertilizers that do make that monoculture of corn when you add in the outside influences, cheaper, because we're not accounting for this larger debt, be that in greenhouse gases that we're putting into the environment, be that the decline fertility of the soil in the end because we're overusing our nitrogen fertilizers. I think you also have touched upon that Scott, that knowledge base, that is necessary when you start working with complex biological systems, that they can be much more productive in the long-term, that they require a level of knowledge and understanding that is a skill that has to be developed, it's a cultural wealth, that is best frequently in systems like with the Milpa and the "Three Sisters", things that have been built up over generations and passed on, and once you have that break in knowledge, and you're trying to develop these systems, particularly for your climate, your environment, your specific locale, that's knowledge that takes a long time to be able to do well.
It's not as simple as, I go out and I plant my corn, on whatever date that is, and I spread my second fertilizer four weeks later, and I go in and I do the herbicide spray at this certain time period: it requires adapting to the land, adapting to the local conditions.
Scott: I think those large-scale systems are easy, it's easy for people to do that, and that makes a lot of sense. Growing food is really hard work. And there's a lot I think we can learn from these systems, they produce a huge amount of calories, which probably shouldn't be our goal, it should probably be more nutrients and making sure that those nutrients and calories go to the right places and not simply just sheer quantity which is what that system is designed for.
But it's easy, we have this concept of food forests in permaculture that we get really excited about, and everybody comes to the courses and comes to our site and they want to know about food forests and it's a system that I've shied away from in a lot of ways because it's asking people to build really complex ecological systems and layer all these different plant species together, understand their functions, match those functions, and most people that are coming into that and are interested in it, that have never worked with plants before, they've never been working with the land before, you're suddenly asking them to manage something that's complex.
And I've seen a lot of those systems not necessarily fail but not thrive in the way they could, or find a lot of people that get burned out from the management of that and the sheer amount of work it is, as they expect this lazy gardening myth of permaculture to come in, which I'm not a huge fan of, and if we can produce food on scale with simpler systems, there's a lot of value to that. I think there's stuff to be pulled from both worlds and I think it's also important that we recognize that there are really good things about large-scale agriculture.
Spenser: Like what?
Scott: It produces a lot of food, with a little amount of labor. And growing food, historically, could be called drudgery, and there are technologies that are probably really appropriate to grow food. So, for example, a couple years ago, my partner and I got a grant to study the history of indigenous agriculture in our region, we went and stayed with all of these folks from the indigenous reserve and various communities around there, and basically, "How did your grandparents grow food? What did the land look like 500 years ago? What are you eating now? We're extracting recipes..." Pretty amazing experience. One of the big goals from that was to understand, how can we support farmers here so that as an organization, Rancho Mastatal, we can be an economic driver. We want to buy all the corn, all their rice, all their beans that they produce, but people had stopped growing most of that, and that was kind of dying out.
Basically, I came to this quick realization that if we were going to encourage people to grow food as they did in the past, the minimal amount of inputs, so it's probably more sustainable than perhaps other larger-scale rice down on the coast, we were basically asking them to live a subsistence lifestyle, and to not step into the modern world and receive some of the benefits of that, and there are great benefits to this world, and the physical work of that is exhausting, it wears your body out. Working a machete, all day, every day, and at a certain point, that work, if you're growing food especially for sale, just beyond your own household needs, the physical amount of work required can turn into this weird word that I use, called drudgery.
None of us are interested in going back to that. Nothing will be good about taking steps back, and so there's reasons we've gone away from that, there's technologies we've adopted as a global society to move us away from that. [We've] probably taken that [to an] extreme now. So where do we pull back a bit? How do we identify the technologies that do make sense? We're finding that appropriate scale. I'm not interested in going back in time. How do we marry this wonderful technology that exists today with the practices that existed in the past, the cultural components of it, that Rachel was talking about, that allow you to manage these complex ecosystems. I think it's either Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson that talks about the eyes to acres ratio. We need to bring that ratio back down a bit; we need more eyes on more acres.
Spenser: I believe I read that 1 U.S. farmer can feed 125 people, and I think with permaculture, I've heard Josh throw around numbers that maybe it's more like 1 can feed 20: which still means 95% of people don't have to farm. But could you talk about some technologies that you either use at Mastatal or might use in the future, that would keep that number from--I think there's an idea out there that permaculture means that everyone's a farmer and everyone needs to farm in order for us to not starve, which is not true. So what are some technologies that you guys use that keep that number from ballooning out of control?
Rachel: Chainsaw. An absolutely great tool that might be running on fossil fuels but if you are working in managing a forest and we don't use a chainsaw very often, but that is something that the time that it saves us is--
Spenser: What would it take with an axe versus a chainsaw?
Scott: It'd suck. It's horrible. Trying to fell a large tropical hard wood tree with an axe.
Rachel: And safety wise.
Scott: An unskilled person, yeah. And then you break your handle and then you have to rehandle, and that's going to take a couple days, if you have the tools and that skill set. A chainsaw you're just done, it happens right away, it's like a two-minute thing.
So along those lines, just recognizing the appropriate use of fossil fuels, I love fossil fuels, they're amazing, I don't want them going away. I fucking want to keep using the chainsaw. My weed trimmer is really helpful, to manage our farm, like I like being able to drive [to VerdEnergia]. From that perspective, recognizing the value of that as a tool, and then of course wanting to conserve it so it's around for a long period of time. I think other tools, which we've been talking a lot about, during the last couple hours here, is community-scale food processing equipment. It's a huge part of this, I can't tell you how many farms I've seen where there's just thousands of pounds of mangos just rotting on the ground, because it's really easy to plant those trees, it doesn't take that much work, it's not that expensive to care for those trees and bring them into production. When you have all of that fruit, and it's all falling within a two-week period, your ability to spread that yield out over time is really what separates, I think, the hippy in the hills, versus a large farmer.
We can plant 100 mango trees, just like a larger-scale mango farmer might be able to do. But they have the connections to sell that right away, to process that right away, and so that's a piece of technology that is often missing. The food processing equipment is either home-scale, like hand-powered stuff or it's big, big industrial-scale. And all the in between, the "shmedium" almost, or community-scale equipment. That's a scale we think we exist at. There's not good examples of that, that equipment, people are having to make it themselves, they're trying bike processing equipment, and the reality is, you can DIY that stuff as much as you want, but unless you have that skill set on site to repair that, it's going to break, you're going to need to fix that, for me, that's a big gap. Is the technology that's really needed to allow smaller-scale farmers, people that are implementing agriculture based on permaculture design, which I think in general means a focus on perennial based crops and tree crops, that's going to allow those producers to be successful to store their food, to get it to market, and be able to feed people, and figure out what that ratio is, of this farm here, how many people can it feed?
Rachel: I think also with that, it's very difficult to make any money whether you're trying to grow ecologically or grow conventionally, selling wholesale products to the large-scale market. I mean you are at the mercy of the middlemen, or the people there when you're trying to get your small product into the market and community-scale technologies that also allow people to take a product that might be your mango. You've got to sell that to somebody or it's going to go bad in the next week. If you have a product like a dryer, or depending on what you're doing, something that can extract or convert that into another product that's going to have a greater storage life, which you can then find a different market for, or allow you to get more money from the work that you're putting into it. It can really help make the economic difference. We have our friends and neighbors who grew wholesale cacao and have now switched into doing the entire process of making that into chocolate, and that is so much better able to support them and support small farmers than when you are trying to sell a wholesale product.
Spenser: We were talking earlier about one common pitfall that you've experienced, is that somebody graduates from a PDC, they kind of think they're ready to take on the world and they go to some plot of land where they think they know what they're talking about and they say, "I can't believe you're growing a monoculture" of whatever, and they don't understand the concept of transitional ethics, which I don't think I fully understand, so could you just talk a little bit about transitional ethics in terms of economy and technology?
Scott: Transition ethic is a fourth ethic that our lineage of teachers that arrive to me through that line, which goes up from Chris Shanks and Dave Boehnlein to the Bullock Brothers, who studied Mollison so I'm not quite sure where that first came in, but it's basically about meeting people where they're at, getting off your soap box, we can operate under the assumption that we're all interested in sustaining this planet for our children, if we're going to have kids, and what that means is that everybody is going to be different but pretty much you can assume most people in this world want the world to be a better place, they want it to be safer and happier and healthier and they want the forest to be there and they want water to be clean. Whether they make choices to do that or not, I think in general, I come from a place of positivity toward that.
If we can make that assumption that we're all on that trajectory somewhere, then it's recognizing that we all enter that trajectory at different points, and who's to say that I'm further along than you, so I can critique you, or tell you what you're doing is bad. I think most farmers; they want to care for their land. They get that how they're treating their land, large-scale farming is more akin to mining than it is to growing soil, which would therefore grow food. I think most people get that.
Spenser: Could you explain that analogy?
Scott: Industrial farming is more of an extractive process. We're mining phosphorous from one part of the globe, we're shipping it to another part, we're applying it, we're mining food, nutrients, from that land and we're shipping it to another part of the globe. We're not growing something there that's going to last for a long period of time, it's just the movement of nutrients and parts around the world.
Spenser: Right, so typical monoculture, industrial farm, how long does that land last?
Scott: It depends.
Spenser: Typical corn monoculture in the U.S.?
Scott: I think it can last a fair amount of time if you're continuing to just pump it full of fertilizers. We're losing a lot of topsoil and that's probably the biggest detriment, the first thing that will go when these systems really start to fail, that loss of topsoil, year after year, millimeter by millimeter as it is, will add up. But you can grow food for a long time by bringing in outside chemicals. The quality, the nutritional compositions of course, then you start getting to that conversation.
Spenser: But you're getting fertilizer from somewhere else, versus getting your own fertilizer from your own compost, where it's an internal system.
Scott: Yeah, you start to get into conversations on peak phosphorous, for example, which is--
Spenser: I never heard of that.
Scott: I honestly don't know that much about it, but a lot of people believe we've hit peak phosphorous and our ability to supply phosphorous for fertilizer, around the globe, is going to be decreasing sharply in the next 20, 30, 40 years, and that will be one of the biggest limiting factors for the continued success of industrial agriculture.
Spenser: Even more than fossil fuel and petroleum, possibly?
Scott: Possibly, I'm not that well versed in the idea but I think there's some merit to it.
Spenser: Going back to your analogy, a farmer that's coming from the framework of it being more like an extractive, mining process, and then transition them to something that's more regenerative, but also profitable, how does that transition happen in your mind? It's complicated.
Scott: Yeah, I think it starts small, I think there's a really great model out there called the Savannah Institute. They're based in the Midwest, I think in Illinois. What they're essentially doing is finding farmers that are interested in being case studies, and converting a small percentage of their acreage, maybe just half an acre or an acre, 5 acres, from whatever they'd been doing from a conventional...whether that's just corn-soy rotation, or something else, and turning it into a perennial polyculture, heavily focused on the chestnut, hazelnut polyculture that's becoming pretty popular in the Midwest, mostly due to Mark Shepard's book, "Restoration Agriculture", and his work, up in Viola, Wisconsin. They are the Savannah Institute, not sure if they're providing funding, but they're providing technical support for farmers, and support in finding plant materials and sourcing for this conversion, and then they're trying to do the ecological monitoring and allow farmers to compare side by side.
And so that transition, in my mind, it's not like, what does one farmer do? It's like, how do we all do it? It's finding early adopters--that's the first step, and empowering those [adopters], because everybody has to see it to believe it. It's the same thing here, any technique that we're applying, no local in the right mind is going to adopt that, unless they see we've been doing it for 5 years and it's really successful. And it's the same thing on these big farms. There's no way you can expect the farmer to shift over to these theories, until they've seen somebody put it into practice successfully, from that environmental, social, and economic side. So I think the Savannah Institute has a really nice model for finding early adopters, and trying to find examples of this that work, that other people can see, and growing it out small like that.
Spenser: [Rancho] Mastatal's been around for 15 years?
Spenser: So that gives you sometime to prove yourself a little bit, right? Has there been a reaction from locals from seeing any of that? What has that been like?
Rachel: I think on the agricultural end of it, we've only been focusing on agriculture for the last 6 and a half years or so.
Spenser: Ok, so not that much time.
Rachel: Agriculturally, our systems, especially the agroforestry, are really just starting to come into fruition. On that, we have seen, having been there for 15 years, a lot of the early focus was on natural building techniques and education. Our main focus is as an education center, and we've actually seen the locals adopt both of those, very heavily throughout the area. It's been great to watch our neighbors start their own farm-based tourism projects, they each have a different focus. Some are focusing more on the ecology of the rain forest, some are focusing more on giving a Costa Rican farm experience, teaching Spanish, things like that. But they've seen a way that we've been able to do a business model that has been able to give us a good quality of life, and then they've taken that and made that their own and done their own things with it. Then we've also seen the building techniques, not wholesale adoption, but definitely things that are out there as well as technologies like the rocket stoves, wood-fire ovens...
Scott: Composting toilets have been really successful.
Rachel: Composting toilets definitely.
Scott: I think a big part of that is just the interest in conservation in general, which was a big focus early on at the Ranch. A lot of the groups coming through were there to study the national park that borders us, and our wildlife preserve that kind of sits on the edge, and so a lot of young people now, because of those early interactions, care about the environment, they're not poaching anymore, they're studying to be birders, they give tours, and so that has been a really healthy shift in just general awareness, which is where this all has to start. It's that education piece, which is why we're an education center, first and foremost, and it's just like getting the switch to flick for a couple people, and now we have people like Jorge Salazar, La Iguana Chocolate, who basically manages a full-on permaculture design project focused on cacao, and having a lot of success, and able to sell his product to the local region, keep it in the local region and make a livelihood for their family and...
Spenser: He's a local Costa Rican?
Scott: Yeah, born and raised in Mastatal, and he's gone out for education and university, but he's a Mastataleño as they say.
Rachel: All these projects have been started by people in Mastatal, it's been really exciting, we have the Ecoemprendedores group, the ecobusiness association, that are organizing and everything from bringing events and marketing, having a jungle run.
Scott: There's a marathon coming up.
Spenser: I'm a runner.
Scott: May 8th.
Rachel: Watch out for snakes.
Spenser: Wait, really?
Spenser: 4 days from now?
Scott: Yeah, you better start training.
Spenser: I've been running, I can run a half marathon right now.
Scott: Sign up man, it all supports the [La Cangreja] National Park.
Spenser: In Mastatal?
Spenser: I think I'm there. I don't know why I wouldn't. How many people come out for it?
Scott: I'm not sure, last year it was very successful. We aren't that involved with it, which is awesome. It's all run by the park and the local business association, and think they run on our land a little bit, and we high-five people as they come through.
Spenser: I love a good half marathon. Well ok, getting back to agroforestry and economics...
Scott: That's economics, that's supporting the local economy, through the agro ecosystems of Mastatal.
Spenser: Sure. Yeah. With the exception of being chased by a cow at one point, I do like running here. "Chased", I don't know, I pissed one off a little bit. But anyway, so tourism is part of this, but I think that maybe the idea is that these permaculture communities, seems like on the face of it, like they're producing food profitably, but really it's just tourism and education. But would you say La Iguana Chocolate is an example of a truly, just in terms of the product they produce, the physical product, of a profitable model?
Scott: I can't answer that fully. They also receive groups and do a lot of tours and workshops. So I think like most places they are diversifying, they're interested in that diversification, and yeah, I can't speak to exactly what percentage of their business comes from the chocolate and if that supports itself.
Scott: My general understanding is that they're happy with the way that it's going financially with the chocolate side of things, it's a good question.
Spenser: So not focusing on them so much, do you think that is a valid concern that people have, as they look at a place like VerdEnergia or Rancho Mastatal and they see it and they say, "oh that's nice, but what's really keeping that place afloat?"
Scott: Yeah, so I think it is a valid concern and it isn't. First of all, it's immensely, frustrating when someone shows up at our place, "Oh, you don't grow all your own food?" And I'm like, "Well, where did we say we grow all of our own food?" That's not our goal. And so, first, well, what is your goal? Just because we use permaculture design and we use the language of permaculture and that word is on our website doesn't mean we're trying to be self-sufficient. We're not interested in self-sufficiency.
Spenser: Fully self-sufficient?
Scott: We have no interest in that. We're interested in region-wide sufficiency.
Amanda: That would be a more permaculture ethic anyway, right?
Scott: I think so.
Amanda: Being a cell in a larger body rather than, "We don't talk to anyone outside our world."
Scott: We're growing all of our own food. That's just one source, that's not a very resilient system, I want to be growing some of our food, but I really want to make sure our neighbors are growing food that I can purchase from them, and further out, and further out. And so, getting over the self-sufficiency fallacy, and then just, permaculture is about context, it's about goals. If your goal is not to be a production farm, then we can still use permaculture, people have to get over that part of it. First, there are those pieces. Stepping aside from that though, yeah, I think there is a problem where you do find places that use language that implies that they're growing maybe a significant amount of their own food and they're not.
Part of that, I think here in Costa Rica, is because the word permaculture has been tagged on to a lot of marketing schemes around different developments and it is, for lack of a better word, a buzz-word, that people use for promotion. That creates a bad part to this. That gives people a bad taste.
Then the other thing is, for example, at [Rancho Mastatal]. As the foreigners in that community, that do not rely on agriculture for generating income, we're not subsistence farmers, we're not interested in being subsistence farmers, that means that as look at our agricultural goals, we recognize that we have the opportunity, the challenge, the responsibility, of being the risk-takers. That's how we approach agriculture. We are the people that are trialing new species, new techniques, and new strategies, many of which will fail. But we should be the ones failing at those, because we can afford to fail. It doesn't make sense for some of our neighbors to go out and trial a new variety of taro or to spend hundreds of dollars on breadfruit trees, when they don't know how they're going to do there.
Spenser: They could get burned.
Scott: Then they're done. We could get burned but if we get burned $1000 on those trees, it's a hiccup. We're going to suffer a bit but we're going to keep going and we're going to be fine. And so that is, in our context, why we're not completely focused on producing huge amounts of food. We're more focused on the fact that we've recognized that agriculture is not working where we live. People have stopped growing food there because they've degraded the soil so badly over the last 70 years that they can't grow food anymore with the same old techniques, the same old crops, so we need something different.
"Ag" is not working, wherever you're at, if it's large-scale agriculture, it's producing calories but it's destroying the environment, it's destroying rural communities, its calories are often empty calories, the movement of those around the globe is really unbalanced with people’s needs. It's recognizing that "ag" is not working, and so we're looking for alternatives, and there's probably really good things in the permaculture world, that are going to provide solutions, and there's probably a lot of really bad ideas, too. And as an education center, we want to be the people filtering those out.
Unfortunately, a lot of the species we're working with, cause we're interested in perennial crops and tree crops and nut oil protein fat species, they're going to take a long time. It's going to take me 20 years before I can really say, “Is Okari nut an appropriate crop for this region? Could that improve food security? Could that be a viable market crop?” Maybe I'll know in 10 years, but probably like 20 years is realistic.
We're not used to operating on that timeframe anymore, no one has the patience for that. That's, again, in our context, in our organization, how we're approaching this. Yeah, we want to get a yield in the mean time, we're trying to grow more food in the mean time. This is a year where we're actually focusing more on that, because we've got most of these trial species in the ground. We've kind of checked off some of those boxes.
But, taking that approach, I like to think of it as, I share this with students a lot, this concept of building a cathedral. Back in the day in Europe, when people would build a cathedral, if you were the mason, you knew that you were going to work on this building your entire life, and it wasn't going to be finished, and your son or daughter might continue that work, and your grandchildren, well after your gone, might continue that work. It's like this multi-generational approach, and as a skilled craftsmen to commit to that, knowing that you're not going to see the end result. And that’s the same approach we need here, it's taken us, basically since the Industrial Revolution, to create all of these problems that have compounded and compounded and compounded, probably going to take that long to unhinge all of this and bring all of this stuff back to where we want to be. It's like this really long view. So if we're not able to have a 30, 40, 60, 100-year timeline on our radar that extends past us, that's super short-sighted, and it's really frustrating to only see people say, "well, you're not growing all of your food right now."
And there should be people doing that, for obvious reasons. We want to eat, we want to enjoy, and that should be part of what we're doing on our site, and it is, but it is to a lesser degree than trialing these long-term crops that are going to answer some of the good questions. That's how I look at it, I love that idea, of building a cathedral, and I think it's really powerful. Mostly because it doesn't exist, we don't build that way anymore, whether it's soil or infrastructure, and that's something that I really hope, people come to our site, people come to [VerdEnergia], these projects that Blacksheep is working on, are taking that long view and it's such a nice way to reframe everything for people, I find it very powerful.
Joshua Hughes: When I was looking at starting Verde, I told everyone in my crew, cause what you're saying really resonates with me about being a laboratory for these things, and being able to take the risks. I knew, for sure, that nothing mattered financially for at least 10 years, when I came to look at the soil. And being able to take that kind of long view, for some people a decade is forever. A decade has gone by now while I'm here, and I'm just now figuring out what you're saying. "Oh, this crop, like turmeric or something, is like a weed and it's amazing and we've taken all these steps to develop it all the way to the consumer markets.”
So we're not just reinventing the way things grow, we have to introduce it to the market and reinvent it as a whole. Cause its confused and lost. It's very interesting to take the long, long view, I love the cathedral analogy, that's great, but even anybody starting these projects, if you're thinking you need to produce in the first 10 years, maybe you've already practiced and know something I don't. The sites we're at here, we chose destroyed areas. You guys chose a destroyed area. That was cause we had the time to experiment and play. I think it's a big part of what you just said, and for me personally, the reason it hasn't stressed me out, day-to-day, was because 10 years was like the first step, and having a couple week course, but I would've been very frustrated if I thought results were going to be any part of this. But now I see it. And the results are there, whether or not I thought they would, seeing the way the soil has already changed is amazing right. Seeing what happens even in a few years in a spot where we leave it alone or something.
Scott: I think that's a huge part of it, most people that are interested in permaculture, that are purchasing land, that are starting sites, probably 9 out of 10 are ending up on the worst land. That's what's affordable, that's what remains to us, and that work of just regeneration--
Spenser: [Rancho] Mastatal was that case? [VerdEnergia] or worse?
Scott: Way worse. Every farmer says their land is worse.
Spenser: Right, that's part of the pride you take.
Scott: You guys have it easy, man, it's a piece of cake.
Josh: Puriscal was a destroyed area; it was ranked by a few places, like the worst implementation...
Spenser: Right, so that's land that they can get that's affordable.
Scott: Right, if you're talking five years of rehabilitation before you're talking the financial side, "whoa, that's a big sunk cost right there." How do you deal with that?
Rachel: This is why it's really important to plan for transition in that. If you are going to be starting in the most degraded soil, you do not want your economic well being to be based on getting production from that soil, in the first 5, 10 years, depending on what your goals. So for us, this is where the education and the hospitality, focusing more in the rain forest in the beginning, and building things like that.
We also didn't start the project and start teaching agriculture, permaculture, either, because we wouldn't have had good, hard experiences to backup anything we were saying. So that shift in education has also happened as we've gained more experience in different areas. But whether that was somewhere where you're starting a farm but keeping a side-job at the same time, it's important to realize that you can't just jump in and live all your dreams and ethics and what you want this land to be, all from the outset. It's a process.
Spenser: Right. [Rancho] Mastatal, in particular, I think, is focused on science, evidence, and education, whereas, I think there is to some degree, a fair stereotype that permaculture sees itself as operating outside of those spheres, and I think maybe in the worst cases, sort of above it, and as somebody that believes in the scientific method, and demands evidence, you were talking earlier about the lack of what we would typically see as the lack of valid, academic, peer-reviewed evidence for permaculture, and the reasons why. I think maybe a first reaction might be, "well, there isn't any, because permaculture doesn't work, it's a bunch of hippies that don't want anything tested because then they'll realize they're not actually doing anything that's effective." But, as I know, that's not the case--
Scott: There's probably some truth in that.
Spenser: Well, ok.
Scott: There are probably a lot of things that don't work.
Spenser: Right, but there's a little bit of a sense of well, "Of course everything works, the magic of the trees will ether out and everything will be ok."
Scott: Mollison said, "Will permaculture work? Well, will plants grow?" I'm not sure if I agree with that statement, but...
Spenser: That's a claim open to investigation. And that's something that Rancho Mastatal supports. Why is it that we don't have peer-reviewed studies on the relationship between cacao and turmeric?
Scott: So there is a lot of information out there and studies out there, it's almost always flown under the banner of agro ecology or agroforestry. So you can always find really good studies on commercial crops. You can find studies on the relationship between overstored legumes and coffee. There are a lot of studies out there on that. In this part of the world, a lot of the studies are buried in obscure academic journals, in Spanish or Portuguese, and so for us, operating in Latin America, there's a language barrier and then the cultural barrier of navigating those bureaucratic university systems to extract that information, which is kind of a different conversation.
I think in general, that information and those studies aren't being done in a hard way, [because] I think it's a financial [issue], I think it's really important to do these type of studies and the ability to get grants to do a really long-term study, is nearly impossible. Most things that are studied are studied for a year, two years, three years, max. It's like holistic management, Allan Savory's work, with grazing animals, gets a lot of critiques, some of which are quite real, but a lot of them are critiques that his system's never been truly measured in a controlled, scientific way, which is kind of true, because his entire system is based on constantly readapting to what you're doing, based on feedback. And so there's nothing you can do to control it, it's about understanding what's happening and changing, all the time. And that's very much the antithesis of controlled science, or economics, or holding variables constant, to be able to look at singular relationships, which don't exist in ecosystems, which is what we're trying to monitor.
So, if we're practicing permaculture and we're using permaculture design, that means we're taking feedback into account and we're constantly re-evaluating and if we're working with long-term species, it's really hard to setup controls for that. There's things you could do, like cacao and turmeric, you could do some really simple things that you could get information on, but would that be enough to say that this works or this doesn't, or are you just better off growing that, managing it, being a good observer, documenting your work, and bringing empirical evidence to it, and bringing that to the world over 20 years.
Spenser: So certainly the randomized controlled trial, used for drug testing, isn't going to make economic sense for agroforestry, at least in the ways that we're doing it. But, can you talk about some other spaces and avenues to present that documented evidence, the way that you would do to an engineering department at a university, to be critiqued, assessed, and reviewed? Just the spirit of observation, analysis, empiricism. Do those avenues exist in the agroforestry world? If so, what are they?
Scott: Yeah, I think they do. I think most people aren't working with them, it's cause it takes time and effort, and if that's not part of your mission, it's a lot of work to document stuff, we're pretty mediocre at it. We have a lot of cultural memory, or institutional memory I would say, on our site. Which is why I can sit here and talk about things that we've done, and then there's organization's that are doing it better.
A really great example is the Analog Forestry Center, down in Londres, Quepos, pretty close to here, they're not particularly flying under the banner of permaculture, but, they are promoting, essentially, concepts of food forests that are mimicking the native forests, and are looking at analog species that would replace native species for yield. And they take a more rigorous, scientific approach and in their documentation, and it's really based in the science of ecology, which is generally considered less of a hard science, more of a science of relationships, which, again, you get outside of those controlled settings and it's more of trying to study the process over time. So I think that's where we should be heading toward, and I think places like analog forestry center are great examples of people doing that really well, and they're also able to do that really well, because they're a nonprofit and are getting a fair amount of government grant money, so they're able to do that and they're able to offer really affordable training, and there's value in that.
For places like ourselves, as just a small business, we get a dozen university students a year who get really excited about monitoring soil moisture levels below and above a swale, and how is that different on different grades, and they bring in some testing equipment, but the complications of doing field testing on a working farm, with a transient population...
Spenser: Over time. Over long-time spans we’re talking about?
Scott: Yeah, for a university student, who needs to do this for--
Spenser: 3 months.
Scott: Yeah, they're excited about it, they really want to know, but then they're moving on.
Spenser: And 3 months is inadequate, really, is it?
Scott: I think so. It depends on what you're looking at. But to draw real information, like that example, how much does a contour swale improve the moisture levels throughout the dry season, on soil horizons below it? That'd be interesting, you could get information, but that's like one dry season, what was the rain like? It's just the complexities of that are so great, you could tell me that, but it would be with a huge grain of salt, if you just did it that one dry season, on three of our slopes, like who can actually use that information to then say, "yes, swale=good." Can you take that around the world and apply it to other contexts? Probably not. That's where you get into trouble.
Josh: Carlos, [a local farmer], finally this year, a couple months ago even, we were out in the field, and he's been hit or miss on a lot of things because he's got to see it, with the swale for years, he'd be like, " heh, heh, whatever", and now he's started saying, "Oh, well I like the way the water is flowing." Just the other day as we were doing soil samples, and someone who's here for two months thinks they're going to finish this process, it's interesting, that's a big part of what we talk about with people, just getting them to think longer, but Carlos grabbed the soil the other day and goes, "Swales work." That's it.
Swales work. It's good. One scientific experiment I've done my whole life is running a small business. You want to do a scientific experiment and see how it's working, is your small business open still? Are you piled in debt? If not, you are going through that trial and error that has to let things go when they don't work, or if you push too hard in a small business, you're done. I think the small business lab of all of this is kind of interesting for me, too.
Scott: That example from Carlos, that strikes at, what, in my opinion, the science should be based on, and it should be a farmer science based on observation, really over time. And it's got to be so place-based, because who's to say that that technique that they're applying here, would work where we are, would work in Ohio, would work in Mongolia. I think that's one of the classic problems with science that permaculture has pushed away from, is that it tends to lead toward cookie-cutter techniques and the homogenization of practices, because we go, "oh, look, this works, in this example, so we're going to apply this over here."
Especially, you can't emphasize enough, the complexity of these systems. There are so many variables, the only way to manage those is time on-site in observation, which is what permaculture is founded in, right? I completely agree with the statement that there needs to be more science done, and there's interesting, exciting organizations that are doing that.
I mentioned earlier the Perennial Polyculture Project, at the University of Illinois-Champaign, doing some great side by side comparisons of polycultures and corn-soy rotation, but for organizations that are operating outside of the nonprofit or the university sphere, it's really going to be challenging for people to do the type of studies that would be useful to a larger percent of the population, in my opinion. And where I think the best energy is put into is into documenting what they do well. And just observing what they do well.
Spenser: And would they publish that on their company or organization's website, is there a forum that they can go to, where do you go to see all of this? So somebody in Mongolia does a study on soil moisture, how do I know that exists if it's not buried in some academic journal or something?
Scott: So, finding the academic stuff, the Permaculture Research Network, from the UK Permaculture Association, probably the best organization I've found of compiling that information, and so they've scoured the obscure academic journals for that study, that we can draw from.
Spenser: If Rancho Mastatal were to do something, or has done something, would you just publish that on your website?
Scott: Yeah, it would probably come out on our blog, it would be documented through that. There are some forms that region-specific, are really successful, permies.com, their forum system. Some of those regions are just jumping with people that have been documenting their project over a decade on their, with photos, this is what we're doing, on some it's super quiet, there's not much going on. And so I think there's a role for that, I think permies is...
Amanda: Informal, and that's the cultural case-by-case, "I tried this in my composting thing and it didn't work," or "I tried this and it worked, what do you guys think?" And so you're able to trade ideas.
Scott: It is very empirical-based. But is also based in people's actual experiences managing these ecosystems, these agro ecosystems, I think there could be something more formal, but I think there are, like the Permaculture Resource Network, that are tackling this question more, that's good to see.
Rachel: I think it's still an area that could use more work, but it's really having local farmers getting together and sharing that information, every piece of land is going to be different, but knowing what people around you, or in similar climates have tried is the starting point that's going to help jump start that process. That then is going to be filled in with the observation and feedback and changing from there.
Spenser: Is that something that Rancho Mastatal uses? Would you go to permies.com to look at the success of such and such project that you guys are thinking about doing? Is that a resource that you guys use, that you see as credible? Because, in a typical academic setting, there's filtration for quality and everything, and verifiability, scrutiny...
Scott: In theory.
Spenser: In theory, right. But at least there's the pretense of that. With an Internet forum, you sign in on an email account, it could be anybody. You don't know what their background is...when you're culling through that stuff, what are you thinking about?
Scott: First we have the issue of shitty Internet. We use books, mostly. Books, actually.
Spenser: I think that's a challenge that will be overcome, given enough time.
Scott: It's kind of gotten worse, actually, in the last couple years.
Scott: Yeah, as more people get on the phones, and bandwidth gets narrowed. But anyway, so we use a lot of different stuff, permies, as a specific example, I don't think is particularly useful to us, because Latin American tropical forums aren't super active.
Amanda: It's really America and Canada centered.
Spenser: And generally speaking, what works in those climates is not that relevant to a tropical setting?
Scott: No, not very relevant, in general.
Josh: You say not very relevant, but I think the practice that we do, translates so easily, if you can just get people to think about nut trees, it doesn't matter if you live here or the Northeast [of the United States], it's just which one.
Amanda: But for things like, “I built a chicken coop.”
Scott: You're talking, big picture, patterns and principles: super relevant. Techniques and strategies: less relevant.
Josh: It's a lot different to deal with winter, and how soil grows in the winter, compared to our eternal spring here.
Rachel: I also want to say how useful things like the Ministry of Agriculture has been to us, here. And that, even if it's not always the exact same goals, as what they were trained to be working with, especially techniques, as a starting point, they've provided us a lot of resources, a lot of help, and especially here in Costa Rica, they really are trying to promote a more ecological approach to agriculture, and really useful for us.
Josh: And they're doing the long study that we can't keep with our students that come and go. "MAG" here, they're coming back, and measuring that tree that they gave me 10 years ago again now, because it is in their scientific mind, because "MAG" people I've worked with, they do come from science, they don't come from permaculture and get involved in the government. So I'm finding them very, very helpful, on that longer study, and they're evolving quickly. An organization, that's in its title, isn't just the Ministry of Agriculture, what's the "G" mean? Cows. So it was the Ministry of Agriculture and Ganadería, but as I'm in a meeting with them, the next meeting they have is to put more cattle in play, maybe in an area, or more palm oil, so they're dealing with whoever is going to show up and do the work here, so we have to be a bigger part in their game and they love it. But, I love how they're here for the long study, they're known, and the studies I've read from the late '70's, were telling the future, and they're scientific approach is going to long-term win out, and that's where some of the money is, going into the science here that I see consistently. You have to empower the governmental organizations to do the long study.
Spenser: You got a blog at Rancho Mastatal that posts every two weeks?
Scott: Yeah, it's super cool. Our apprentices post to that, we all share stuff a couple times a year, it's super varied, it's the last one that came out, was just about nursing in the tropics, from one of our apprentices before then it was on cashew processing, I wrote one on transition ethics, and so really, just kind of a peek into the life at the ranch, it's pretty neat. Our Facebook page is really active for what's going on week by week as well, we try to keep that up, a fairly useful educational tool with good photos and stuff, and documentation of what we're doing, on the day to day grind of what we're doing.
Spenser: Great, I'll link out to all that stuff. It's been a nice calm rainy morning in Puriscal, sun's coming out, we're going to go take a look at a prospective cacao project, and the folks at Mastatal are going to map that out for us at Blacksheep, get us dialed in and squared away for that. So, if you have any feedback or questions for any of us, please feel free to comment on this or shoot me an email. Anything else to add?
Scott: Thanks man, it's good. Let's go walk around.
Rachel: Great conversation.