Words // Carmen Miller
As the landscape of the agricultural industry continues to shift and adapt in the 21st century, we have seen a wave of new innovation burst onto the scene. However, for Tolga couple Jane and Neil Hawes, it has been the revisitation of old traditions which has brought new life to their operation and planted the seed of syntropic farming in the Far North.
Regenerative agriculture is far from a new phenomenon, but as the call for more climate-conscious practices grows, syntropic farming has been thrust into the spotlight as the world-over searches for greener solutions.
Jane and Neil were large-scale flower growers for many years, but had their farm wiped out by successive Tropical Cyclones Larry and Yasi.
“We suffered over $1 million in losses due to the two cyclones,” Jane said.
“We were just so lucky that the community rallied behind us after each event and helped us clean up. There’s no way we could have done it without them.”
Once the clean-up from Cyclone Yasi was complete, Jane was determined to try her hand at something different in the hope of a better result.
“After the second cyclone I just knew we couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again.”
After extensive research, Jane happened upon the practice of syntropic farming, a regenerative cropping method which was developed in Brazil and mimics the way forest plants work symbiotically to grow in abundance.
And while the ethos of syntropic farming seemed to directly contrast with many of the practices Jane had built her horticulturist career upon, her lightbulb moment came when she began piecing all of the elements together.
“When you think about the fact that the plants are not experiencing stress because they are all in their right light requirements, the fact that rainforests are cool in summer and warm in winter, the benefits the different crops and plants offer each other when planted in together, the light bulb really went on for me,” Jane said.
Three and a half years later and Jane is reaping the benefits of her shift to syntropic farming and passionately believes in this out-of-the-box concept.
“We are using 17 times less water than we were five years ago and we no longer experience damage from frosts in the winter.
“Eucalyptus trees for me have gone from this weed that depletes the soil, to this amazing life giver to other plants and crops.
“They’re [eucalyptus trees] able to access nutrition and minerals that are right deep down in the soil and bring them up, and through pruning it then releases it into the sub-soil.
“There are also the additional benefits when it comes to weather events. Eucalyptus trees have massive root systems, so when planted near a banana tree it offers huge stability to the banana trees.
“It’s all about multi-stacking your enterprise and planting trees and crops with different light requirements together, and that way they aren’t sapping each other’s light and other resources, but in contrast, benefiting one another.”
Along with the eucalyptus trees, Jane’s Tolga property also produces avocados, mangoes, coconuts, ginger, star fruit, soursops, custard apples and dragon fruit, just to name a few – all of which are thriving a mere three and a half years into the syntropic exercise.
Another passionate advocate of the practice is Atherton Tablelands biodynamic garlic grower Adam Collins.
“When it comes to syntropic farming, it is really about stripping it back to basics. When we consider monocropping, we need to realise that nature just doesn’t do it,” he said.
“It’s all about maximising photosynthesis and harvesting carbon and energy and moving away from monocropping. If we multi-stack our enterprises we can build resilience, and best of all, 70 per cent of what we grow feeds the soil.”
One of the greatest tests for the practice of syntropic farming came during the dry period in late 2018. According to Jane, however, the test was quite literally passed with flying colours.
“Nobody could understand why our farm remained so green. That was a real test and I think it showed a lot of people that we have built that resilience through this method, and it got a lot of people who previously wouldn’t have been interested asking questions.”
One of the most appealing aspects of syntropic farming is without a doubt the fast-growing nature of the technique.
“Using other methods of farming, it may take up to 25 years to see fully grown plants, and later succession plants another 50-100 years. Using syntropic farming, we can do it in five,” Adam said.
And while Jane, Neil and Adam all accept that syntropic farming has its sceptics, they stress the fact that this exercise has never been about passing judgement. They simply welcome the opportunity to educate anyone interested in learning more about the practice.
“For me, at the end of the day it comes down to wanting to help other farmers and producers,” Jane said.
“Not that long ago I was exactly like them, but I truly, passionately believe that adapting to syntropic can benefit them, and for me, that’s what this is all about.”
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