Something that has thoroughly impressed Kevin during our six weeks at The Farm Inn in the southern depths of Belize, where a paved highway has only just made it, is that we are only using things that are already on the property. When I hear him excitedly describe his concept of permaculture—what we, my wife Emma and I, are doing—to people, he always mentions this fact. Over the last few weeks, he’s learned a lot more about permaculture as well.
Truth be known, we were quite impressed with Kevin’s farming practices when we arrived. The Farm Inn is an organic cacao farm also turned into quite a nice rural eco-hotel. His cacao trees, as they are, are grown in the shade of pre-existing, large jungle trees. Within the grounds, turkeys and chickens roam freely throughout the day and amongst pretty expansive food forest. Ducks are enclosed but have a pond that he has an eye on using for hydroponics. Water comes from a nearby stream. Much of the electricity comes from solar, the rest from a sparsely used diesel generator. There’s more. It’s interesting here, and we are learning a lot from him.
But, this article is to talk about what Kevin means. It’s about an approach to farming that has seemed to accumulate and follow us from country to country. It’s something we’ve done in several places now, something we’ve seen smilingly accepted, talked about, and appreciated by many who haven’t read a word about permaculture but given us a space. It’s an approach that has made good sense to growers who have been steered otherwise much of their lives, despite logic. The Farm Inn, Kevin’s excitement, has been inspirational for us, and the farm has been an amazing wealth of resources. We’ve done some really fun things with it.
Project #1: The Small Swale Paths
The first area Kevin gave us to work on, interested to see what we’d come up with, was a former chicken pen. It’d been at rest for some time, and the lower corner of the pen held far too much water during rainy season. It was now overgrown with brush and weed trees, but the big redeeming quality was that it was still fenced, i.e. protected from the turkeys and chickens out for their daily scratch-and-dine sessions. The space was obviously sloped and roughly ten meters by five.
We wanted to put in a small swale system to combat that water-retaining corner. So, we measured some (we fit in three) contour lines roughly two or three meters apart. The slope was actually quite gradual, so we decided to use the soil from the swale trenches to make raised, double-reach keyhole beds between each swale. Midway through the process, a huge storm swept through and filled the contour swales just as planned. We were all really excited to see them fill up just right.
For some finishing touches, we filled the swale paths with a layer of slow-degrading material like sticks and palm fronds, topped that off with some leftover sand, and finished with a thin layer of also leftover gravel. The beds were mulched with rice husks from a nearby factory that charge about $5 a truckload. Since, we’ve been throwing in the odd legume—cowpea, black bean, and soy—as well as other plants—chaya, papaya, tomato, basil, hot peppers—from around this place. It’s been a hit with visitors.
Project #2: The Chop-and-Drop Clean-Up
Our swale system only took up the bottom portion of the old chicken yard, so upon it’s completion, Kevin was happy to have us continue filling the space with ideas. The next step was more a fortuitous event: A huge cohune palm had rotted out and collapsed into a heap along one of the footpaths. So, we gathered up the remains and spread them into three rather rough and mulch-y raised beds in a shadier area of the space. We decided to grow a bit of ginger and vanilla there.
As those beds took shape, we ‘d only gotten to somewhere around halfway through the yard, but what remained was hugely over grown, a tangle of weed trees crowding in a few fruit trees, a cashew and some cherries. Most of the weed trees were actually a common species here, madre de cacao, which is often cut and used for living fence posts (and is actually a medicinal plant). In other words, it was a perfect species for chop-and-drop mulching for those cherries and the cashew. Voila.
Kevin loved the chop-and-drop idea, something he’d been practicing with his cacao trees already but had never thought to do with the other bearing trees. Well, within a couple of weeks, he seemed to have fully embraced the technique, and I relished seeing him roaming his already diverse little food forest with pruning sheers. I think the trees were pretty happy about it, too.
Project #3: The Seed Starters & Kitchen Garden
Believe it or not, sometimes in places like Belize, seeds can be a little difficult to come by, at least for those looking for them in packets. As for Emma and I, we’ve been collecting seeds regularly along the way and manage to always have a bag full of samples on-the-go. We were all too pleased to share some—cashew, cranberry hibiscus, rosa de Jamaica, tree tomato, etc.—with Kevin to get his garden going. Even the housekeeper chipped in with some okra from her garden.
Emma whipped out her special beer bottle method of making newspaper seedling pots, and we compiled the seeds he already had, along with the seeds we’d contributed, as well as seeds we’d saved from our farmer’s market squashes and peppers and so on. Soon, we had a whole diverse collection of perennials and annuals popping up. Some of them—the hibiscus, tree tomato, pumpkins—were perfect for our chicken yard area, others—rocket, garlic, peppers, herbs—for a garden space a little nearer to the house.
Using some halved barrels that Kevin had made for container beds, we redesigned a spot where he’d already done a bit of gardening in the distant past. We arranged the barrels to allow for more growing space. We cleared some branches and leaves to let in a little more sunlight (Then, used the clippings as mulch). We installed a few other raised beds where space allowed. Now, we are adding a few plants—tomatoes, basil, chives, lemongrass, garlic, Malabar spinach—here and there as they become ready. But, again, nothing had to be bought or brought in.
Project #4: The Living Compost System
A common composting practice throughout Central America is to dig a large hole and fill it with vegetable scraps, often with rogue bits of plastic or the odd can tossed in. In truth, this is pretty much how non-organic trash is often handled as well: buried and forgotten. This composting method was what was happening at The Farm Inn, but when Kevin mentioned that he’d didn’t think it was working too well, that it was getting to wet and never being used, I offered to build him an above-ground bin to use.
After clearing the area around the fruit trees in the chicken yard garden, I’d become quite enamored with the madre de cacao, as both a great chop-and-drop legume tree but especially as an easily accomplished living fence. Seeing that there were plenty more leaves to clear to allow sunlight into the remaining half of the garden, where he was hoping to include the compost bin, I came up with the idea of making a living compost bin. It turned out pretty cool.
Madre de cacao is the type of tree that, when a clipping is stuck in the ground, it will most certainly take root, so my plan for the sides was to simply stick pieces together close enough vertically to not need any horizontal slats to contain the compost. Once the trees start sprouting, it’ll provide a top to add a little weather protection, as well as something to trim and add to the heap when necessary. In the front, I left the branches above ground so that they can be pushed away for access to the compost. I can’t wait to see it in a month or two.
Project #5: What More Can We Do with What’s Here?
As is often the case once we gain footing somewhere, Emma and I began to run away with ideas and gumption. Kevin had shown enthusiasm for what we were doing, and with that, well, we just can’t help ourselves. To make matters even better, being an organic farm already, there were piles of organic material all over the place, as well as an incoming group of interns from the local high school. In short, we started playing.
• Along the tree line of the area Kevin calls the farmyard, there was a load of organic material that had spent some quality time rotting. We gathered some still intact, but largely broken down tree trunks, to bury along the garden fence for more raised beds. It added a huge swath of garden that should provide a great deal of fertility to the space.
• The swales had been great for harvesting water in the lower side of the old chicken yard, now called the permaculture garden, but the upper section still needed some work. After noticing where the drainage naturally went, I installed a small backfilling swale, which attached to a sort of silt-collecting frog pond. When that filled up convincingly with the next rain, it expanded into an overflow ditch leading to a second pond, between the cashew tree and a cherry.
• The edge between cleared farmyard and jungle underbrush near the permaculture garden had also been a great dumping ground for trimmed branches and leaves. However, because outside the garden fence was susceptible to free-running chickens and turkeys, we were reluctant to put beds there. That changed. Knowing we had plenty of small perennial trees on the way, I decided to start forming the piles of organic matter into beds with rough mulch, a perfect spot for okra, cranberry hibiscus, tree tomato, rosa de Jamaica, papaya, moringa and pigeon pea.
• As the piles of rough mulch cleared away from the jungle brush, a great collection of composted material was unveiled, filled with soil life and rich nutrients. So, in a morning I decided to relocate it to the garden for some dandy beds between the cherry trees there. And, like that, what had been an overgrown, largely forgotten chicken yard become a pretty complete system of gardens, dry pathways, water catchments, chop-and-drop fence posts, and edible plants on the way.
Our last goal for the area is to introduce some standard cycles between it and the day-to-day farm operations. For example, workers typically rake paths clean on Fridays, and we’ve asked them to cover our compost and mulch the beds with the leaves. With the madre de cacao fence posts, we are hoping to start a system of chop-and-drop throughout wet season, when more sun is needed (and organic matter breaks down quickly and soil surfaces need a little weather-proofing). Then, in dry season, the posts can branch out a bit for some shade from the overbearing sun. Wild banana leaves (he’s used these plants in abundance for quick shade for the cacao and stabilizing soil banks) are now being spread on the adjacent chicken yard for the laying hens to scratch up and manure, after which it can work as rich mulching material.
Most importantly, however, is that Kevin, the farm’s owner/operator, has taken pretty well to the mode of thinking, and long before our visit, he was using his own creative capacity to make some pretty nice systems. It’s been a rewarding experience introducing him to things he’d not seen before, as well as picking up some pointers that were new to us. Once again, volunteering on farms from time to time has proven an amazing way to share, learn, and grow as a collective of respectful, earth-loving people. The Farm Inn has been a fantastic stop, one we may be returning to in the year to come.
Feature Image: To The Farm Inn, photo courtesy of Emma Gallagher