In recent years, sustainability has become a more widely discussed topic in the coffee industry. While this is a focus that has stretched across the entire supply chain, there is more interest than ever in sustainable coffee production.
When we talk about environmental sustainability in particular, one of the many areas where coffee production can turn is agroecology. This is a field which covers farming techniques which by nature account for the ecological relationships between plants, animals, people, and the environment. By using them, the idea is that we can minimise the impact of farming on wildlife and nature, while also giving farmers more control over crop yield and quality.
Syntropic agriculture is one agroecological model which is used in many industries, including in coffee production. But how does it work and how can producers apply this model to their farms?
To find out, I spoke to the pioneer of syntropic agriculture, Ernst Götsch, and two coffee farmers who use this model. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on biodynamic coffee production.
What is syntropic agriculture?
Syntropic farming (also known as successional agroforestry) is essentially regenerative agriculture, but there are a number of layers to the model. Farming methods are used to integrate food production (including coffee) with the surrounding environment in a way which benefits both.
The syntropic farming model was developed by Swiss farmer and researcher Ernst Götsch. He has been working on farms in Bahia, Brazil since the 1980s.
He explains the holistic approach behind syntropic farming.
“It’s the process of producing and harvesting what we need from plants and animals, while still maintaining a positive balance in the relationships between the different species,” he says.
While some agricultural models focus on increasing crop yield, Ernst points out that syntropic farming encourages more natural and sustainable methods of food production. For instance, planting several different species of trees together in the same area will encourage biodiversity. The number of animals, birds, insects, and microorganisms will increase, thereby creating a more healthy and diverse ecosystem.
“Syntropic agriculture is about understanding the dynamics between all organisms,” Ernst says. “It’s also about reaching a level of integration that is beneficial to all organisms in the ecosystem.”
In order for syntropic agriculture to be successful, Ernst says it must be acknowledged that each plant, animal, bird, insect, and microorganism plays a vital role in the ecosystem, and therefore they all need to work together harmoniously.
Agroecological farming practices are known to improve soil health and water cycles, regulate microenvironments, and improve the area’s resilience where climate change is concerned. Over time, if balance is achieved between all organisms, crop production can benefit immensely.
Implementing the model on coffee farms
Wilians Valério Jr. is a Brazilian coffee producer from Alto Caparaó, a city in the coffee-producing region of Caparaó. He won the 2019 Brazil’s Coffee of the Year award with a “syntropic coffee”. He tells me he uses this model across all areas of his farm.
“I try to accelerate the processes of nature,” he explains. “If you can understand natural processes, you can improve soil health and accumulate energy in the ecosystem.”
After several years of disappointing results using more traditional farming methods, Wilians says he and his family were pushed to try syntropic farming. In his experience, he tells me that these traditional methods resulted in low-quality coffee with inconsistent yields, which didn’t provide them with much economic stability.
In order to improve quality and yields, Wilians’ father replanted all the coffee trees and intercropped them with other trees, including peach, physalis, and olive.
When Wilians took over production on the family-led farm in 2015, he chose to focus on specialty coffee production.
“I decided on a farming model which could improve our income without removing any coffee trees that my father already planted, so I looked into syntropic agriculture,” he says.
Two years later, Wilians placed 12th at the Brazil Coffee of the Year awards. Since then, the family have used syntropic farming across their entire farm, which has had promising results; he placed 6th the following year.
He tells me he was inspired to use syntropic farming by another farmer, who had been sustainably growing coffee in the Caparaó mountains for over 25 years.
Clayton Barrossa Monteiro grows organic specialty coffee at a farm near Ninho da Águia. He is well known for his self-sustainable, agroecological farm management practices – receiving his first award in 2012.
“Producers started to believe that specialty coffee had to be organic,” he says. “This then pushed others to start growing coffee in more sustainable ways.”
Changing perceptions and practices
Wilians says that in order for syntropic coffee production to be successful, the impact on the entire ecosystem must be taken into account.
“We’re always looking at the next step,” he says. “We must consider what benefits the plants. We are always growing, pruning, and harvesting in balance with nature.”
Ernst actually adds that traditional farming techniques have some “limitations”. He says that in his experience, they can sometimes result in an imbalance of resources, such as water, nutrients, and natural light.
Conversely, he explains that issues related to syntropic farming are typically the result of lack of knowledge about how to carry out these methods effectively.
“The problem is not about a lack of water or soil fertility,” he explains. “It’s a lack of knowledge about syntropic processes. The farmer or consultant is not recommending the best techniques or practices.”
For coffee farmers who have the infrastructure and financial access to invest in syntropic farming, Ernst adds that there needs to be a significant move away from long-held, traditional farm management practices in order for the new methods to be as effective as possible. This change can be demanding and costly, therefore making it inaccessible to some coffee farmers.
“Farmers spend more money when they first implement sustainable agricultural models,” Clayton says. “But if they can ensure that they plan out tree lines and nests (the holes in which trees are planted in) in an efficient manner, then they don’t have to keep investing in their trees.”
Clayton adds that once farmers have implemented syntropic farming techniques, most future costs will largely stem from pruning coffee trees.
How can syntropic farming enhance coffee quality?
Ernst explains that one of the many benefits of syntropic agriculture is that it can optimise yield per tree in the long term. This is largely because the trees grow in harmony with nature, so they can reach their full potential when given sufficient time.
After implementing syntropic farming techniques at his farm, Wilians says he noticed significant improvements in his coffee.
“The trees’ resistance to pests and diseases, tree growth and productivity, and bean size all improved,” he says.
He adds that his coffee tasted more complex, with more depth and a prolonged finish on the palate.
Clayton adds that when using more sustainable methods of coffee production, such as syntropic farming techniques, coffee yields can become more consistent.
“When trees are exposed to more stress, it can lead to variations of high or low productivity,” he explains. “With syntropic farming, the development of trees happens in a more balanced way, and we can taste that in the coffee.”
This is mostly a result of consistent pruning, shading, and exposure to light. When these variables are more consistent and controlled, coffee trees can respond in a more positive way to any environmental changes.
The challenges of syntropic farming
Although there are numerous benefits to this sustainable method of coffee production, farmers certainly face several challenges when adopting it.
Wilians says that it can be difficult for producers to acclimate to how long it can take for quality and yields to improve.
“The time it takes to learn, understand, and change the perceptions tied to more traditional farming is also challenging,” he explains. “It takes time to understand what is good for the land and the natural processes involved.
“Farmers have a higher chance of making mistakes,” he adds. “Undoubtedly, they will make mistakes, but they can learn from them through constant practice.”
Clayton agrees that syntropic farming methods may not be suited to every coffee farmer.
“A method that works on one farm may not work on another,” he emphasises. “Farmers have to be very careful and have a lot of patience.
“Many producers are used to carrying out the same conventional practices for years,” he says. “They know a lot, but mostly about a few plants.”
For producers using more conventional agricultural methods, transitioning to agroecological models means intercropping coffee with other trees and plants. Ultimately this means that each crop requires different treatment, which can be time consuming and costly.
“Corn can be harvested in 90 days, whereas cassava and other root vegetables are harvested in six months,” Clayton says. “Farmers have to prune higher trees more as well.
“Nature is going to dictate your rhythm. There’s no routine because there is more diversity.”
Is syntropic farming applicable to all coffee farms?
Wilians and Clayton believe that the syntropic farming model can be applied to farms of all types and sizes. However, the key to success is to make sure that the model can be adapted to the specific environment of the farm.
“I’m currently developing syntropic farming in Norway, the Mediterranean and other tropical areas, and even places susceptible to drought,” Ernst explains. “The principles are the same, but the species and ecosystems involved are different.”
In Wilians’ case, it’s a challenge to carry out efficient crop management in a mountainous area as his farm is located at around 1,300 metres above sea level (m.a.s.l.).
“It’s not easy to best arrange trees for planting, but it’s the only way that allows you to see the possibilities for successful farming,” he says.
With syntropic farming methods, trees are usually planted in parallel lines. Farmers can choose to plant different species and co-ordinate pruning schedules according to the development of each tree.
“Coffee is our main crop, but you can’t ignore other species,” Wilians tells me. “You have to think about the whole setup because everything matters.”
Wilians provides some advice on deciding which plants will work best when intercropped with coffee trees.
“There’s no right or wrong answer, you have to identify the resources you have,” he says. “Available sunlight, types of soil, altitude, the slope of the land – these are some of the factors that impact your decision.”
Sustainable farming models can be beneficial for coffee producers, especially when they have a dual focus on driving up coffee quality and positively affecting the local environment.
Syntropic agriculture is a promising alternative to conventional farming methods, but it’s important for farmers to consider the challenges that come along with it. It requires plenty of patience, as well as no shortage of investment to switch in the first place, meaning that it should not be a decision taken lightly.
Ultimately, by sharing knowledge and collaborating further, farmers will be able to learn more about the nuances of syntropic farming and whether or not it might suit them.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on environmentally sustainable coffee production & profitability.
Photo credits: Ana Paula Rosas, André Berlinck, Iberê Périssé, Georgia Thome
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