Syntropic Permaculture in Temperate Climates

Syntropy at Lillie House, Before and After

Or Syntropic Agriculture and Temperate Climate Permaculture Design

Syntropic Farming is a farming revolution grown out of Brazil and made famous by Ernst Goetsch and the Life in Syntropy short documentary. Syntropic Farming seeks to cultivate resilient ecosystems that are abundant, financially viable and heal abused land.
– Ernst Goetsch, creator  of Syntropic Farming
Key points in this article:
– Syntropic Agriculture is trendy new growing system, but what distinguishes it?
– What are the key techniques and novel features of Syntropic Agriculture?
– Can it be put to use in temperate climates?
If like me, you’re keen on having a human-habitable biosphere on planet earth in the coming decades, then the most exciting technological leap of the last few decades has been the rapid wide-ranging experimentation occuring at the intersection of sustainable food systems and regenerating functioning ecologies. With the current agriculture system being probably the single largest driver of climate change, mass extinction, ocean dead zones, community disruption, and a whole host of other problems, this constant churning synthesis of new “systems” of sustainable growing is very hopeful. It can also be difficult and a bit bewildering to keep up with.
After a break-through success with the documentary Life in Syntropy, one new system called “syntropic agriculture” (S.A.) or “syntropic farming” has quickly grown in popularity. Like many sustainable Ag trends, this system, the work of Ernst Goetsch is mix of good applied ecological insight, practicality, poetry, philosophy, and just enough nuttiness to make it spiritually fulfilling to engage with, and I absolutely love it. It is a very similar system to what we use at Lillie House, and recommend to our students and clients. Like sustainable agriculture leaders before him, Steiner, Fukuoka, Dr. Hankyu Cho, Mollison, etc. Goetsch is an abundant producer of quotable quotes.

The laws (of nature) are given, it isn’t up to us to create or modify any of them. We need to act in a beneficial way for all participants, for all the affected ones, in order to be considered useful and welcomed beings in the system”  -Ernst Goetsch

And while one should take any farming poetical philosophy with a grain of salt, this shouldn’t be viewed as a limitation. Our relationship with the land, food and ecosystems is utterly sacred, perhaps our most sacred thing, and any practical approach to growing food must recognize that. It is modern “scientific” agriculture’s failure to recognize that intuitive spiritual component, our profound human responsibility for other species and the health of the systems we inhabit, which is the cause of our current multi-faceted crisis.We actually need an abundance of farm philosophers to appeal to every sensibility if we are to have any hope of salvaging our biosphere. In the case of Goetsch, he has created a vocabulary that synthesizes some of the language and vocabulary of modern ecology and agroecology into poetry and platitude in a charming way, though some critics allege that it risks the appearance of pseudoscience.

(Image via this excellent article from Agenda Goetch.)

Perhaps one of the biggest innovations of Syntropic Agriculture is how it has transcended poetry alone, and has become famous largely due to its beautiful use of film and photography to capture and convey the importance of regenerating the land, and rekindling the human relationship with nature.
Since syntropic agriculture (S.A.) utilizes design, tree crops, no-till, and mulch, many are wondering how this new system relates and compares to Permaculture, whether it works, and whether we in temperate climates can put this tropical system to work in our climates (such as in this article from Propagate which posses some thoughts  on the question.) On this last note, I have seen it frequently stated temperate farmers can “simply substitute apples for tropical tree crops” to make syntropic agriculture work. I feel I can say with a great deal of certainty that in many if not most temperate climates, that simplistic advice would yield very poor results. Yet, at Lillie house we have adapted some traditional patterns that are very similar to those used in syntropic farming, and believe these could be put to use very effectively in most temperate climate situations.
 In this article, we’ll look at the basic “active ingredients” of syntropic agriculture, its relationship to Permaculture Design, and how it could be adapted effectively to temperate climates from a Permaculture perspective. In other words, we’ll attempt to develop some guidelines for a Syntropic Temperate Climate Permaculture, for those looking to integrate S.A.’s key features into broader designs.

Syntropic Agriculture and Permaculture Design: Syntropic Permaculture?

While Syntropic Agriculture seeks to create resilient agro-ecologies, Permaculture Design is a broader design system for human habitats, including agro-ecologies. Permaculture Design proposes a general design process for our lives, and the smart Permaculture Designer might look into systems like natural farming, Korean Natural Farming, or Syntropic Agriculture to see if they get us where we want to go. Permaculture itself does not actually propose any specific type of growing system or set of techniques, only this process for contemplating and deciding which might be useful in a given context. This system of design typically works “from patterns to details,” so we might begin this discussion by observing and analyzing Syntropic Agriculture as a set of “patterns” or “active indgredients” that could help us meet our design objectives. 

Key Features of Syntropic Agriculture

To get a better understanding of Syntropic Agriculture, let’s take a look at its key techniques, or “active ingredients.” If you’re familiar with Permaculture, I invite you to think about how these patterns relate to those common to that system before I elaborate on the topic below.
Syntropy: To begin with, the namesake principle of Syntropic Agriculture is, of course, “syntropy.” Readers of Lillie House will know that the key feature we discuss in our particular school of Permaculture is Negentropy, or negative entropy. Syntropy is another proposed term for the same phenomenon. This refers to the observation that while man-made systems like cars exhibit “entropy,” losing energy over time and reverting to chaos or less useful states, natural systems of enough complexity appear to “catch and store” energy, rather than losing it, growing more organized, more diverse,  resilient, abundant and useful over time. This is especially seen in ecosysems in the process of “ecological succession,” where degraded ecologies (such as a clearcut forest) grow in complexity over time (returning back to a forest after going through stages of grassland, shrubbery, and young forest.) Syntropic Agriculture, like any good Permaculture, seeks to work with this process and put the power of negative entropy to use. And while Mollisonian Permaculture included design recommendations for percentages of canopy in a system that S.A. lacks, it shares the final goal: a rich, functional agroforest system dominated by trees.
Heavy Pruning: The single most characteristic method S.A. uses to work with succession is frequent heavy pruning for use as mulch, which accelerates the amount of carbon and biomass produced by the ecosystem. In Permaculture and Regenerative Ag circles this would be called “chop and drop.” Certain trees are planted specificially for the purpose of cutting to provide fertilizer. This is reflected in many common traditional patterns frequntly used in permaculture designs, including many traditional temperate climate systems, as we’ll see below.
In Syntropic Farming, we work the design aiming to arrange different species all the way from the implementation of the system and continuing at each step in the conduction of our plantations, managing them to produce their own fertilizer. For that purpose, we plant trees, grasses, and herbs in high density. They should share the characteristic of vigorous regrowth after pruning. A good farmer manages them accordingly. The periodic pruning results – in addition to the supply of light for our crops – in organic matter in large quantities which, on top of the soil, create a prosperous life in it and, indirectly, fertilize our plants.
-Ernst Goetsch
Deep mulch Once these trees are cut, they are applied as deep mulch, both chipped and as whole, cut logs. In some cases, this would appear to be a large labor and energy input. However, much could also be said for the research-based value of deep mulches and “nurse logs.” We’ll explore this more later.
Minimal mechanical tools necessary. S.A.seeks to reduce the need for mechanical tools. This is probably a goal for many temperate climate Permaculturists, so it will be interesting to see if S.A. offers economically viable tools that can be adapted.
High density and diversity. Simple enough, dense polyculture increases the health and productivity of the system. This is a key feature of our systems at Lillie House and probably have almost universal application.
Article on using the density and diversity of the French Intensive system.
Recipes, or “Consortia” (Designed plant communities.)  “One of the characteristics of Syntropic Farming is the use of consortia of plants in high diversity and density. From the initial moment of planting, the goal is to co-create agroecosystems similar to the original ecosystems of each place, both in its form, as in its function and dynamics” – Dayana Adrane. In Permaculture, we refer to these as “guilds,” and offer some more concrete tools for evaluating the roles of plants within designed plant communities.

Differences in a temperate climate

With these key features, which have a good research basis and are likely to be effective, it’s easy to understand why Syntropic Agriculture works. But does it work in a temperate climate? Yes, these same patterns are proven to have value in temperate climates as well, though there are big differences and some conceptual barriers to making it work effectively and economically.
The first is simply that we’re working with entirely different crops. We will  not be growing “consortia” including bananas and shade-grown cocoa will not be our primary cash crop. However, given that all 6 of our most valuable crops per acre in Michigan this year (as well as a plethora of valuable runner-cups) are all shade-grown forest crops, so with careful crop choice we should be able to create agroecologies that are profitable even in later stages of succession. And while apples would be unlikely to work well, be healthy or economically viable, we actually have a wide range of options to build valuable systems that actually would work well. These would depend largely on what’s native and valuable to each region, but in North America might include high-value crops like paw paw, serviceberry, maple, and persimmon.
And while in the tropics you can create a local market “vegetable” CSA with mostly tree crops like avocados, breadfruit, jackfruit, and plantains, and still more vegetables can be grown in the understory, in temperate climates we have few calorie tree crops and less light to feed an understory layer. These are all features we could design around, and there are traditional systems that evolved in temperate climates to meet those needs.
Beyond crop choice, everything moves moves more slowly in temperate climates. Succession is slower. Decomposition is slower. Nutrient loss and cycling in the soil is slower. Plant growth is slower. We can’t just plant trees and expect them to be significant sources of mulch in one year. We can’t just chop trees and expect them to have completely broken down in a matter of months. But because growth is slower, we also do not need to. We have less need to store fertility in duff, as less is needed, and it more easily accumulates in the soil. So, overall, there needs to be a much greater emphasis on early succession in temperate climate systems than in the tropics. Food forests need to become as valuable as possible as early as possible, or they are likely to fail or be seen as a burden.
A final major difference is that sun light and photosynthesis are much more abundant in tropical climates. Many crops can be grown in the understory, even with a fairly dense canopy. In temperate climates, if we want to grow any annual crops, we have to plan for more light infiltration. And this also means that there’s going to be more competition for resources in temperate systems, so it will be more important to maximize cooperation and avoid elements like interplanting with grasses that may strip crops of needed nitrogen.
Beyond those major differences, there are many small differences that add up. Disease is managed quite differently. Apples, could not take the kind of pruning recommended in syntropic agriculture, and poorly pruned trees could become a vector for disease that could impact the productivity of a whole system. Pests cycles respond differently as well, due to the cold winter season.
So overall, there’s no direct correlation for importing syntropic agriculture in a simplified form to temperate climates.
But since the best Permaculture utilizes research-based and proven patterns, let’s transpose some of the active ingredients and techniques of Syntropic Agriculture into “patterns” that we can apply in a design, picking patterns that are proven to work well in temperate climates. 

Recommended Temperate Climate Patterns for Syntropic Permaculture

These are patterns that make up the basis of our growing system at Lillie House, are research-based and very comparable to the work of Ernst Goetsch, as reported in his published works.  Overall, I love systems that use trees very densely to control the land, prevent weeds and pest problems, build fast biodiversity, carbon and fertility, and provide ample mulch. I think the following patterns, adapted from Syntropic Agriculture could be valuable to almost all garden and farm systems at any scale. I especially see potential as an alternative to Regenerative Agriculture for managing broad acreage in economically viable ways that more closely resemble the traditional, evolved systems of the temperate climates. Goetch used S.A. to manage large acreage even with the tropical growth rate of Brazil. Broad-acre Permaculturists could put S.A. inspired techniquest to work to create profitable land management systems that more closely resemble the designs of Mollisonian Permaculture, the mosaic woodland and agriforest systems of Europe and Japan. To me, these would appear to have some built-in expectations for function and profitability, and would be a new niche for intrepid broad-acre Permaculturists.
Slashmulch: S.A. has pioneered the idea of Working with grasses as a valuable element in an ecological system, as opposed to seeing them as a major weed. This is what we have done in our slashmulch systems at Lillie House. Slashmulch has been considered to be one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture ever created by humans. However, grass interplantings would be very difficult to use with vegetable crops in temperate climates due to competition for nitrogen. 

(Slashmulch 3 Sisters planted without tilling, sheet-mulching or removal of lawn.)
Chop and Drop: In Permaculture, this is the technique of heavy pruning plants and weeds to create mulch in site. Also used in S.A.
High Diversity and Density: Techniques of using high diversity and density are the backbone of our system at Lillie House, as well as in Bio-Intensive and French Intensive gardening. To learn more about how we employ them in vegetable gardening visit: Bio-Intensive Permaculture.
Polyculture and Guilds: These are the Permaculture equivilents of “consortia” or recipes in S.A.
Miyawaki technique: A research-based forestry technique using high diversity and density. In a productive system, some of this density can be used to “chop and drop” as the system matures, similar to S.A. In an S.A. inspired system, many of these trees would be “sacrificial,” being cut for mulch as the system develops. We have put that technique to good use at Lillie House.
Hedgerows are another proven, long-evolved temperate climate system that has been used for creating mulch, fertility, diversity and biomass. In Permaculture and Bio-Intensive systems, these are often used to create mulch through frequent pruning. This is a technique we use at Lillie House.
Mosaic Woodland landscapes: This is a tradition agriforestry style of Temperate Europe and Asia which maximizes sun infiltration into annual crop systems while providing biomass, fertility, and biodiversity services. To explore such systems, visit our Pinboard gallery on Traditional Forest Garden Systems.
Sun-traps designs place the tallest trees to the north, and shorter ones to the south, so as to maximize sun infiltration. Horse-shoe shapes may be used to create microclimates and maximize annual and perennial vegetable production. Sun trap design could be key in adapting Syntropic Agriculture to Temperate Climates. Sun trap design also more closely resembles traditional systems, as well as many of the tropical systems of Ernst Goetsch than does conventional Regenerative Agriculture.
Nurse trees (also sacrificial trees) and nurse plants are a research-based approach that are perhaps an under-utilized pattern in many Permaculture systems. This is a technique of planting support trees to help nurture and establish target crop plants. They are a major feature at Lillie House that we use in areas where we want to reduce maintenance. I especially enjoy working with catalpas as nurse plants, as they establish easily even on sandy or degraded soils, provide ample mass, cut easily, and produce large shady leaves. They may also improve soil carbon via an interaction with the catalpa worm.
Nurse logs have been found in research to be nearly as effective as woodchip mulch in conserving water and promoting growth. Nurse logs are also energy efficient, as they do not have to be chipped to be used. It is not necessary to neatly cut logs as in S.A. systems for them to be effective. In temperate climates they may last longer and work well as bed or path edging.
Deep mulches area always welcome in any system in any climate.
Matching mulch to crop and succession is perhaps more necessary in temperate climates, where nutrients are stored longer in the soil and plants grow less rapidly. We probably have more to gain by emulating natural ecologies, selecting woody mulches for tree systems for example, and grassy mulches for vegetables which evolved in grassland systems.

(Tree-based fertility system at Lillie House.)

Implementation Process

Aside from knowing a list of techniques and patterns one can utilize for a growing system, to be practical, one must also have an idea of implementation and establishment.
On smaller acreage, it’s possible to just integrate some of these patterns into the existing landscape or garden system. Plan and develop useful hedgerows and forest garden areas around the perimeter of growing areas in a suntrap configuration. Possibly add sacrificial trees like catalpa. Work with invasives like autumn olive as chop and drop mulch. Start using nurse logs and deep mulch in the garden. Explore bio-intensive gardening and polyculture interplantings. Using these patterns, you will arrive at a system with much of the form and function of tropical S.A. systems, or what we has worked very well for us at Lillie House.
On larger acreage, more thought towards process and implementation is necessary, and will depend greatly upon what the cash-flow needs are, what priorities and goals are, who will harvest and how. But the basics will involve selecting high-value crop plants that can be sown and established in successions. A final system design would probably include hedgerows, Miyawaki type plantings, paddocks, and forest gardens, as well as periodic clearings for annual cropping. Succession will move from an initial disturbance with annual maincrops, through phases of “slashmulch” using perennials as mulch, through old field and shrubland, choosing crops and sacrificials as they arrive, until the final stable configuration is arrived at. This might be in rows such as with Regeneartive Ag. or it might be in sun-trap designs of openings as in mosaic woodland patterns.
Ultimately, I expect experimentation with Syntropic Agriculture patterns is likely to lead to novel profitable income models in temperate climates that rapidly regenerate ecosystems as well. If you’re working on that project, I’d like to hear about what you’re doing.

1. Natural Recovery of Species in Agroforestry and in Soil Recovery, Ernest Goetsch, Fazenda Três Colinas Agrosilvicultura Ltda. 45436 Pirai do Norte Bahia, Brazil, August 1992
3. Life in Sytrnopy

6 thoughts on “Syntropic Permaculture in Temperate Climates

  1. Great comparison with lots of valuable insight!
    Where did you find the info regarding the most valuable crops in Michigan? Also curious what the top 6 were…

    1. Thanks for asking, it gives an opportunity to slightly correct the statement, which was based actually on a couple of studies from 2017, when I started writing this piece. Many of the pieces I publish take a couple years of R&D before they make it to the page. Just searching now, I’d guess that little has changed since then. My methodology was based on cross-referencing a few national and international studies, as well as a piece from UofI on the Chicago market, then focussing on the crops that were possibly to grow (legally) in Michigan at the time. You can use those as a baseline, then look at market rate for some other current specialty/permaculture crops and see that profitability/acre is actually higher on some of these, but they’re not being studied yet. It’s probably not surprising to you, but I’m sure it is surprising to many people who just follow the vegetable farming models, but the top $/acre crops for Michigan are often specialty crops at home in the forest. At the top of the list at that time, were: Ginsing, simulated-wild cohosh, certain specialty mushrooms, ramps, a few rare native stock plants, and a few specialty perennial edibles and medicinals are commanding very high prices/plant and have very high productivity per acre. At that time, the rate for coppiced woody craft materials/acre was just off the charts. We used to know someone in Illinois who actually operated such a model and appeared to do very well! Usually when people have such models, they’re smart to keep them somewhat quiet. The market’s always slow to invest in these sorts of crops, as it takes longer to profitability, but on sustainable rotation, some of these crops are realistically yielding $100k acre and harvest can be human scale. In a polyculture system, profit/acre will be lower, but we should be able to get the same return/acre as wild-grown.

    1. Yes, there’s a link to our plant list someplace on this blog. I’ll try to find it and post an update to it soon. If you follow us, you can make sure to see that when it’s available.

  2. With respect to the quote ‘temperate farmers can “simply substitute apples for tropical tree crops”’, do you think it would work if we used the guilds that were native to our areas, for example, the diverse list of plants that existed in an “oak savannah” area like the Pacific Northwest (and I think most of the US).

    1. Of course! But in a lot of cases the system would be more economic if it included some exotic plants. And also probably more stable, due to climate changes and soil changes, which mean our biomes are really no longer “native.” But a large % of natives would be very good.

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