Friday 30 November 2018

An Interview with Info Europa - The Polyculture Project

A few months back I was asked to do an interview for an Austrian journal published by the Institute of the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM), yes i'd never heard of them either but the questions seemed well thought out so I happily obliged.

Some of the questions they provided are often asked by those we meet so I figured it must be somewhat interesting to people so decided to post the interview here seeing as the Info Europa publication is print only and written in German.

The Article

So here it is, with a few pictures and links added

You are originally from the UK. What motivated you to move to Bulgaria? 

We originally bought a holiday home here and enjoyed the relaxed pace of life, climate and natural beauty so much that we decided to stay. The environment was very suitable for bringing up our children Dylan was 5 at the time and Archie  was 2, and living in Bulgaria provided us with the time to develop our interests without the pressure of running a business seven days a week, mortgage payments, high bills etc.
Left to right, Arch, me, Soph and Dylan 

With the Polyculture Project and the Balkan Ecology Project you are running two innovative projects that seem to be unique not only in Bulgaria, but also in other countries of the Danube Region. Please give us a brief overview of your work and outline the main research objectives.

Our aim is to develop and promote practices that provide nutritious affordable food while enhancing biodiversity.

We work towards this by

  • Researching, designing and implementing systems on the ground. Providing working examples of our designs at our sites open for the public to visit during open days and by appointment.
  • Providing quality education and training courses to aspiring growers and landscapers.
  • Practicing an open source policy, whereby we disseminate our results freely and share all aspects of our work.
  • Growing, selling and promoting the use of plants and plant communities that have high ecological and nutritional value from our plant nursery

What was your personal motivation to start this project?

Coming from a manicured and highly managed part of the UK it was a real pleasure to observe the wildness of a landscape and how this intermingled with residential and commercial areas and the high levels of biodiversity associated with this. It was also very inspiring to see how many of our neighbors produced large quantities of food including fruits, vegetables, meat and diary and remarkable how tasty the food was. It dawned on me that as the country moved into the EU with EU funded backed agricultural practices the ecology would deteriorate as would the local grown food practices so I started to consider the possibilities of producing food whilst enhancing biodiversity.

Shipka, Bulgaria 
Was it hard to establish a project like this? Which challenges did you have to accept? What is still tricky to handle (maybe in terms of bureaucracy, funding, awareness etc.)

We’ve worked hard but when you have an interest in something it is not hard to work hard.
Getting the word out about our project was a challenge, not coming from a marketing background, and it took some time to learn a range of online tools and platforms such as social network sites, blogger, online forums etc. Language was obviously a challenge , a challenge met far better by Sophie and the boys.  Once we had developed the vision for the project, purchasing land was a very slow process and funding the project is an ongoing challenge. We did have some savings to rely on in the first 5 years and i could rely on work back in the UK but providing an income from the project was essential if we were to continue. We do manage to bring in an income from our activities in the nursery, courses and consultancy but we are still struggling to find  funds and resources to increase the quality of our research and delve deeper into what appears to me at least to be relevant issues.

How did local residents react to your projects? Did you get any support from municipality, neighbors?

We had hardly any experience growing when we moved here and our neighbors and broader community were our main source of information on what and when to sow, how to preserve, how to care for animals and what wild plants and fungi are useful. The majority of the younger generation had largely lost interest in such practices and knowledge but the elderly generation were very happy to share their knowledge with us.  As we started to develop "permaculture" practices (largely inspired by the books of Linda Woodrow, Martin Crawford and Patrick Whitefield) I think most seasoned growers thought we were crazy (perhaps still do) but some of the results we are getting speak for themselves. Generally people in the town seem happy that we are undertaking the project and bringing visitors to the local area. 

Since 2015 you are cultivating a Market Garden in which you experiment with growing vegetables in polycultures in order to find out how to make them fit for market and processing. Could you please share some results with us? Are there some take-home-messages? Perhaps you can also give an example of what did not work out

Regarding our vegetable polyculture compared to vegetable block planting trials, we are in year 3 of a 5 year Polyculture study so we cannot draw any conclusions. For what it is worth the results so far indicate that the polyculture patch is marginally more productive but takes marginally more time to work on than the block planting patch. What is clear based on a total of 6 years of records  is that our practices improve soil fertility, provide a stable and optimal pH level, and the physical condition of the soil gets better year on year. You can find out results here.
These practices include establishing permanent raised beds that are forked over annually and topped with  organic matter in the form of manure and straw in the spring. The pathways and bed edges are populated with local plants and nitrogen fixing covers such as Trifolium repens and mown at regular intervals throughout the growing season  with the clippings applied to surface of the raised beds.

I think for the annual polycultures, the relative complexity of the plant placement is not well suited for larger commercial practices  especially if you have new people working there each season. Machines that can work with the relative complexity of polyculture do not exist yet. 

On your blog you present a lot of data that is based on detailed recordings (activities, costs, quantities, weights,…). What happens with all this data? Are they being used by other researchers?

The idea behind providing the data is to provide a broad guide as to what can be expected for other growers and to inspire further research and study. We are not professional researchers and have no training in this field, it would be marvelous if professional researchers looked deeper into what we are doing.   

What role does biodiversity play, when it comes to prevent pest? Can polycultures bring solutions to this problem? Could you give an example?

This is actually quite a complex question but I’ll use a simple example of birds controlling pests in order to hopefully make the point.

When certain nesting birds rear their young they obviously need to feed them. Their young nestlings have a voracious appetite for caterpillars and grubs many of which are garden and orchard pests. In order to take advantage of the birds desire to eat these pests a few things are necessary. The parent birds must have a source of food nearby your plot during the early spring (diversity of berries is a good source as are a diversity of insects). With such resources available the birds will be attracted to the site and have an opportunity to meet each other. If a suitable nesting habitat such as hedgerows, dense bushes, trees with rot pockets are available nearby the birds will take advantage of it.  To attract the insects that will attract the birds a diversity of vegetation is essential.

Some biodiversity from the gardens 

The combined benefit of having a diversity of birds, insects and plants on your site is that the biomass shed from leaves and roots and the animal droppings and even the bodies of these organisms provides a diverse and renewable source of fertility to the soils. Healthy soils produces healthy plants and healthy plants are better equipped to resist pest attack in the first place.
Growing different plants together means a lot of advantages (preventing pests, fostering natural fertilizers, improving of soil quality, reducing diseases, etc.), yet one of the main arguments in favor of monocultures are the efficiency (for commercial production). What are your main arguments when talking to farmers/growers/consumers?

I don’t like to argue with anyone that is on the ground practicing as I know well  from experience the challenges of growing. I believe the majority of farmers will practice what they are incentivised to. Currently the incentives are provided by governments who are heavily influenced by an industry that provide the tools, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to the farmers. It’s basically a subsidy to the big agricultural companies. The vast majority of consumers (including me and my family in some cases) do not seem to mind this as it provides affordable food although the cost is transferred to the environment. If you value biodiversity, nature and wildness and a healthy environment than it’s probably a good idea to grow some polyculture or buy your food from someone who is.  I make no claim that polyculture can feed the world but I do claim that anyone can grow polycultures and by doing so they are taking a small but significant step in reversing at least a small portion of the damage that industrial agriculture creates.

Especially this summer – with its very long dry periods - Austrian farmers had to face the direct effects of climate change. Do you think that these experiences might lead to a change of mentality? 

I’m not sure. I would say seasonal irregularities are expected by farmers. If long dry periods continued for many years, it certainly would.

If I, as a non-expert, have a small garden at home and I am interested in starting a polyculture, what are your recommendations? (sources of information, first plants …)?

Understanding how plants function and behave is a great place to start and there are many superb books that provide excellent introductions, for example Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon.
Once you have a fundamental understanding of plants,  start very small with a plot you can easily manage with plants that excite you and look very carefully at what occurs. To start with, working with annuals is great as you can quickly correct mistakes and build upon successes each season. I consider polyculture as an intellectual pursuit as well as a physical one. It’s a living, 3D, amorphous puzzle that you can eat.

If you are more serious about growing polycultures, developing  a thorough understanding of your climate, topography, ecology and soil as well as your plants is essential. There are many interesting projects going on around the world and many great books. Permaculture Magazine  does a great job of bringing attention to many of these projects and their publishing branch Permanent Publications have some of the best books on the topic.   This bit was not in the interview but here is an old post I wrote about my favorite books in this field that you may be interested in - My top 10 books that inspired our project.     

Thank you to Daniela Neubacher for the interview.

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