When I drive through the Málagan countryside I am often struck with the feeling that I have been transported to the American southwest. Not to the red-rock deserts of Arizona but to the brushy dry landscape of New Mexico. Málaga province, which contains Málaga city, sits in the central-southern part of Andalusia, one of the sixteen autonomous communities in Spain. Once you get away from the sprawling coastal capital the landscape quickly becomes agrarian. There are almost no trees, and those that do exist are very small. The land is heavily irrigated and terraced all the way up the mountainsides. The primary crops in Málaga are citrus fruits, olives, almonds, and grapes, however blights and droughts in recent years have put some of these industries in jeopardy. Still, the roads are lined with row after row of fruit-bearing trees.
It was through such a landscape that we drove on Saturday, February 18, 2017 on our way to Ecoluciona, a local permaculture-based farm. Ecoluciona is run in part by Dickinson alumna Nedra Sandiford, ’10, who met our bus at the top of a windy hill and led us down a dirt road for about 20 minutes on foot until we suddenly turned and entered into Ecoluciona.
To say there was an immediate difference would be misleading. However, the path to the farm’s center did seem more lush and hydrated, if only gradually. When we reached the main farmhouse, we were greeted by a delicious breakfast of homemade bread and fresh orange juice and a gaggle of farm dogs. As we refreshed ourselves with food and puppy love, Nedra and her cohorts introduced themselves and explained a bit about permaculture.
The concept of permaculture was developed by Australian ecologists Dr. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1975. It is based off of the natural agriculture philosophy of Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, which encourages minimal intervention in natural processes. The name “permaculture” comes from the terms “permanence” and “culture,” suggesting that natural processes have staying power, if they are allowed to proceed on their own. According to David Holmgren’s 2002 book Permaculture – Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, there are twelve guiding principles in permaculture which are as follows:
- Observe and interact with natural processes
- Capture and store energy
- Plan for profits in order to boost motivation
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
- Use and value renewable resources and services
- Do not produce waste
- Begin designs by first observing patterns
- Integrate rather than segregate natural processes
- Keep solutions slow and small
- Use and value diversity
- Use the edges and boundaries between systems
- Respond creatively to change
These twelve principles were certainly present as we toured Ecoluciona. Our guide explained how instead of keeping the livestock separate from the vegetable gardens, they keep them close together so there is no need expend unnecessary energy transferring the animal waste which is used as a fertilizer. Similarly, the gardens themselves looked nothing like traditional gardens or the neat rows of olive trees in the surrounding farms. They were a wild tangle of herbs, vegetables, and yes, weeds. As our guide put it, it is better to give the pests something else to eat than expect them to just leave your crops alone.
After touring the gardens we returned to the farm house to give permaculture a try for ourselves. In his works, Fukuoka developed a method of repopulated forests in a natural, noninvasive way. Instead of planting trees based on their own judgement, farmers create a mixture of seeds and clay which they then roll into apricot-sized balls. When these dry they are thrown at random. Then, when there is sufficient rain to cultivate the small seeds, the clay will soften and allow them to take root. It is an easy, nonintrusive way of rebuilding lost habitats. Also, it was pretty fun.
Ecoluciona is currently just a small project, however Nedra and her associates believe it is an important one. Málaga’s history and reliance on monoculture. which strips the soil of its nutrients, will become increasingly problematic as climate change brings more droughts and stronger rains. Ecoluciona hopes to demonstrate that there is a different method of farming that can still be productive, while returning the management of the land to nature’s own processes.