Rough, Ready, But Very Real – a November 2013 Update on the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’ Site)

Project from above, featuring a garbage-accumulating fence edge

Well, you would be hard pressed to find a tougher block of land — a 400m below sea level, West facing slope, in an extremely hot, arid climate, with extremely poor, shallow highly alkaline top ‘soil’, covered in rocks, with a limited water supply and in a mostly Palestinian refugee-populated village. When we first started working on the site local farmers thought it was just ridiculous to even try to produce any kind of result on such a rough site. They were not interested at all and could see no reason to stop using chemicals and burning crop residues and planting nothing but large fields of monoculture cash crops.

The triangular shaped ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’ site,
a two-year comparison (above images originally posted here).

…and in November 2013 (i.e. two additional years later)

Compare surrounding terrain – click for larger view.
Note: If nothing is built on a section of land, it can be taken from the owner. Notice the
scattered ‘buildings’ which are built as ‘placemarkers’ to ensure ownership is retained.
These sections have sat like this for years — as without Permaculture design, the land
is impossibly unproductive.

Herdsman with large flocks of goats and fat tail sheep showed no respect for our site initially because it did not resemble any conventional local systems. It was not a garden or a farm. To them it just looked a bit like a wild mess, and many times goats and sheep had somehow been allowed to force their way through our basic fence and had nearly destroyed our young trees when we arrived, which was just heart breaking. We had very little money for infrastructure initially, even to ensure the site’s security, and very little to show except the permaculture design, passion, belief, dogged persistence and determination that we could make a difference and create a game-changing event.

The ever-present flocks

Over the past four years, with much of our time spent on our busy schedules elsewhere, there have been many times when we could have just given up on this project in despair — but dogged persistent prevailed, and numerous permaculture volunteers have come and tirelessly worked through extreme situations to just keep the project moving forward against all odds. We will be eternally gratefully for their wonderful efforts in such a difficult situation, and I really hope they gained that special experience that only these trying situations provide.

The now well developed prosopis serve as a living, spiky, livestock-repelling road fence edge

Now at last the site is set up to provide accredited PRI teachers a venue they can take advantage of. They can now book the site to teach courses in this unusual location with comfortable accommodation, telephone and WIFI internet connection.

Alex McCausland, as the PRI registered lead teacher, and Salah Hammad, as translator and assistant teacher (presently going through the PRI teacher accreditation process), are the next to start planning a PDC on the site in April 2014.

More shade!

April is the very best time to see the Middle East because after the winter rain and cooler temperatures the herbal growth on the ground is still lush green, and as the spring temperatures rise the deciduous trees put their on their spring flush with fresh green leaves — so it is green at the ground level and in the canopy.

Mediterranean climates typically have two slow down periods a year — the cold of mid-winter, and the hot dry of mid-summer. Winter brings bare deciduous trees and brown above and green herbs below, and summer brings green leaf tree canopy above and brown, dried-off herbs below. Only in springtime are both top and bottom green and both lush.

A good permaculture designer can take advantage of the two slow downs in the year and sees them as two edges in time. As we know, the more edges we can take advantage of the better we can design.

You may ask why set up a demonstration site in such hard conditions? Well, for a start, that is all we could afford. My wife Nadia and I somehow raised the capital through teaching courses and after presenting a reasonable enough concept of what we want to achieve, were given a few gratefully received donations that have helped us move forward a little faster.

Secondly, our plan has always been for the land to be permanently owned by the Permaculture Not for Profit Organisation of the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan that we set up for the local people, to be run by local people. The intention for it is to be a demonstration on very ordinary land that is typical of what local poor people here have to deal with, and to build the whole project in a way that can demonstrate what is achievable by local, poor people.

The shower and toilet block, set high on the project site, is much bigger than most people would need and was funded by Muslim Aid Australia — but, with the goal of it being both a demonstration site and an educational centre, it is built for male and female student numbers of 20 to 30 people that can attend a PDC. The toilets are the classic faralone style dryland composting toilets, demonstrating minimum water use, and the showers and sinks all drain into a reed bed greywater system, also still high on the project site for multiple water reuse options downslope.

Shower/toilet block and head pressure tanks

The greywater reeds grow at last

The site’s shade house nursery is positioned on the shady north side of the shower toilet block and was donated by a volunteer, Damian from the USA, who ran his own fund-raising campaign.

The breakfast crew, prior to building our planned new kitchen

We are now also just starting to build a purpose-built kitchen which will also be larger that the average household’s kitchen but we intend to demonstrate alternative cooking systems and waste systems and this is being built with a donation from Lush Organic Cosmetics.

Material for the start of the new kitchen

We would also like to include solar hot water and rocket stove mass hot water systems for the kitchen, for easier cleaning and more efficient boiling of water.

Our main project house houses our classroom, an office, nice student bedrooms and a rooftop camping area with a view of Jericho by day and the lights of Jerusalem by night.

The house has a very convention structural concrete frame, which is tried, trusted and understood by local poor people, but instead of the typical concrete block (or besser block) walls, we have infilled the walls with straw bale on the sunny/hot western (without windows) and southern sides, to hyper insulate out the heat, and used mud brick on the eastern and northern sides (i.e. shady sides), along with all internal walls, to bank the cool. It looks beautiful and works passively and wonderfully well.

Mud brick student bedroom

Straw bale mud brick office

Our straw bale mud brick classroom

We now also have a CIS solar panel array on the roof, with a 3000 watt inverter, a charge controller and a 24-volt battery rack with 8 sets of 12-volt batteries, plus we have the wonderful invention of our master solar scientist team member, Chris Darker — a grid switch. The whole system was donated by Chris.

CIS solar electric panels rise above the food forest

The Dead Sea valley, being the lowest place on earth at 400m below sea level, is surprisingly hot for the latitude of 31 degrees north. But just as every 100m elevation in altitude is equivalent to one latitude away from the equator, for every 100m below below sea level it is equivalent to one latitude towards the equator — so it is more like 28 degrees north of the equator, which is a sub-tropical temperature range.

Subtropics usually get Summer rain, but the Dead Sea Valley gets the Mediterranean rainfall pattern of winter rain instead, but because it is in an orographic rain shadow it only gets an average of 150mm a year.

Food forest

The standard commercial chemical agriculture of the region continuously pumps the rapidly depleting groundwater table, causing it to drop meters each year. That, combined with open-channel large dam irrigation water, is used to grow a large variety of non-organic vegetable crops — including many in chemically-treated, toxic plastic hot houses — forcing the natural system further out of function just to achieve short term profits.

All of this is very much standard practice globally, with no thought for water harvesting, absorbent contour earthworks that can passively and continuously recharge the groundwater while also reforesting with productive tree systems that can stabilise the inter-contour tree lined landscape into organic production.

Trees waiting to be planted onto the site

The most profitable production crop in the Dead Sea Valley is in banana plantations, a very water-intensive crop (average of 600 liters of water for 1kg of bananas), as they are some of the most northerly in latitude in the world. But, we have now convinced many farmers to convert over to growing less water-intensive organic banana systems, and commercial date palm production is now also increasing as we are also trying to encourage farmers to grow a diversity of productive trees in their understory, and an overstory of date palms provides the greatly needed shade that allows other species to survive and thrive in their canopy shade.

The canopy is beginning to close up, providing much-needed shade

Kitchen garden, planted for winter

More seedlings, ready to be planted

We especially promote a date palm overstory, with multi-species understory food forests on contour swale-planted systems covering more than 50% of the landscape — which multi functions to also recharge ground water, reduce evaporation through shade and wind shelter, and create organic matter and mineral accumulation — dispersed with fungal net interactions with crops on contour between the food forests. To gain all the benefits we recommend that swales are placed not more than 20m apart in this climate.

The food forest systems are always easier to establish with hardy legume tree species as the initial pioneer plants, creating a canopy over the more sensitive and sophisticated fruit trees. Then, as the productive trees become established, the system is favoured in their direction and the pioneers are sacrificed as mulched, nitrogen-rich organic soil additions, with only a few remaining to maintain long term nutrient cycles.

More trees being planted

Tree crops that can be grown commercially and are commonly found in local village gardens include dates, olive, figs, pomegranate, mulberry, guava, carob, banana, papaya, cactus fruits, henna, and grapes. Less common are custard apple, mango, caramel sapote, brazil cherry, moringa, passion fruit, apple, jojoba, and jujube, but these can be found if you go out searching for the diversity that is present and there are many more that could be tried and trailed.

Food forest closing in

With overstory semi-shade shelter, the enhanced, comparatively gentle, sheltered situation facilitates the possibility of a much greater stretch of productive tree diversity — simply because of micro-climate modification, or moderation, of the extremes.

In addition to swales, on our little demonstration site and education centre we have increased soil fertility with contour rock wall earth-backed swales, combined with a great diversity of leguminous trees and shrubs, plus large quantities of mulch and additions of homemade good quality compost, worm castings and worm farm juice.

We have grown our compost worm farm from one to two and now we are expanding to three and we are continuously making compost.

Worm farms in repurposed bathtubs

We have a long, sloping, deep litter prosopis-shaded straw-yard chicken pen that we are about to build. It will have three strong half-meter high, fold down metal mesh walls, stretching across the pen from side to side and placed at equal distances down the slope of the pen. These will act as staged composting bays, moved every week, creating a 4-week interactive chicken litter composting sequence system.

Our long, sloping, deep straw yard for the chickens

Strawbale earth bag chicken house

View from chicken house of deep-litter, kick down yard

The topmost input bay will be the one week old, manured, high carbon mulch from the chicken house — from under the roosting area — plus equal amounts of sheep, goat and cow manure sourced from local grazing herdsmen and brought into the site, plus equal amounts of food scrap sources from local homes in the village where people are prepared to separate their food scraps if we provide them with a bin.

Each week the bottom bay will be emptied out of the chicken pen and will sit next to the main vegetable garden, where it is possible to turn again one week later. Then each half meter high metal mesh wall will be folded down, and the material on the uphill side will be pitch-forked by hand to the next bay downhill, leaving enough room in the top to refill the top bay and refill the chicken house with fresh mulch under the roosting area.

My estimates are that we should have two square meters of high quality compost produced every week, with the eager assistance of 25 chickens — chickens which will not need any extra feed because they will do very well on the food scraps and insect life within the one month, four stage turning process of the composting sequence, so the eggs produced with be a surplus, an almost-free by-product of the system.

Always more compost!

We have found the highly alkaline soil really hard to neutralise with just mulches and composts, so that it can have a more neutral pH, and so we are now starting to introduce organic minerals of sulphur and a broad mixture of organic elements that include iron and zinc, which are often deficient, or locked up, in drylands.

The next animal system we want to include will be meat pigeons, with a purpose-built pigeon loft, and there is a great wealth of traditional knowledge available on keeping pigeons in the Middle East, where the valuable manure is easily harvested.

It has been hard to keep the local people from prematurely including animals into the new system while the system has been going through initial establishment, and before it can easily cope with their needs, and before it is prepared to deal with their inputs efficiently, because it is deeply ingrained in the local cultural Bedouin heritage to live in close contact with animals and is seen as part of their identity.

The greenery of the project contrasts against the surrounding sun-scorched landscape

Our neighbours are now starting to emulate our system and many of our techniques and strategies are appearing throughout the village, and surrounding villages — which are all starting to look a little bit greener, and a few farmers are now finding that converting to organic and including permaculture thinking and patterning is saving them money, even when organic produce sells at the same price as chemical produce.

The chemical input costs are so high now, and keep rising, and the volume required keeps increasing, so that hard-working thoughtful organic farmers using good design techniques find they have cheaper input costs without losing their soil’s fertility, and the next stage will be improved design patterning that will start to gain extra fertility.

A neighbour just begins with his food forest

A local farmer arrives for a course

Further Reading: