Damanhur Consultation

This isn’t a full Ecovillage Design, but rather a contribution to the Federation of Damanhur’s Food Sustainability Plan.

When at Damanhur in Northern Italy May 2012 – August 2012, I was asked for a written consultation on my suggesstions to help make the community more self-sustainable in food production.  I wrote a lengthy report, which is summarized here for publication in Damanhur’s daily newspaper, QDQ:

Thoughts on a Permaculture Plan for the Olio Caldo Project

I first heard about the Olio Caldo project a year ago, when I was writing an article on Damanhur. I learned much more about Olio Caldo when I was a New Life participant last summer, and discussed my observations and ideas with Damanhurians. I was pleased to hear about Damanhur’s renewed enthusiasm for the Olio Caldo project, and would like to share my perspectives here, in hopes that they might be helpful.

There were many excellent projects in permaculture and agriculture at Damanhur last summer. It seems to me a crucial strategy would be to take a whole-systems approach to focus on food self-sufficiency. What are the total resources that are currently available? How much large-scale agricultural land, small-scale gardening land, greenhouses, and labor are available? For feeding 500 people, a rough estimate might require 100 acres of highly productive land. (1/5th of an acre per person). This might require 50 farmers for intense hand-working fertile land, but might change depending on how much tractor farming was used. What skills and expertise exist in the community now, and how might they be used?

Having a whole-systems plan would integrate efficiencies, collaborations and on-going learning to boost the productivity toward the common goal of food self-sufficiency. For example, the optimal use of the flat agricultural land of Prima Stalla would be to grow food that is unable to be grown on the terraced beds of other nuclei. That would necessitate different production methods at the nucleo gardens, such as succession-planted lettuce crops for continual year-round harvest. Having one central greenhouse production site for all the vegetable starts would help the nuclei keep up with a disciplined schedule of replanting short-term salad crops. Efficiencies could also occur by having group-coordinated efforts, such as gathering a dozen workers from different nuclei together for a group planting or harvesting at one of the garden or farm sites. Similarly, the food distribution system could be made more efficient by coordinating planting and harvesting to make sure all the food delivery trips were most efficiently planned.

When I was at Damanhur, there was considerable discussion about the possibility of the credito stimulating local goods and services. I believe that the more local self-sufficiency there is, the stronger and more valuable a local currency can be. My ultimate goal might be to circulate the credito without enabling it to be exchanged for euros – holding Damanhurian life energy from “escaping” outside the local economy. A functioning local currency could build further support for more self-sufficiency of goods and services, reducing dependence on the euro economy. The more positive feedback loops there are like this, the more self-sufficiency builds on itself.

My goal for any well-designed system is for it to be a “learning system”, that promotes continual improvement – more positive feedback loops, as well. This requires an investment in whole-system feedback sharing and learning. It might start with common learning of core principles and methods. There could be an intensive course taught by Damanhurian growers who already have considerable knowledge. Alternatively, a 2-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC) could begin the process of shared learning among the involved Damanhurians. The International PDC curriculum involves a practical design challenge, which could be a whole-system Damanhur food production system design. Just as permaculture design proceeds from whole to details, this PDC Design could utilize the existing assets to design the whole, and then focus on designing the details of a new permaculture design for each nucleo to fit into the large-scale picture. The end products would be a Community Design and multiple Nucleo Designs. Each design would have a future plan layout, in addition to phased designs for the processes needed to get to the future plans. Input from non-PDC participants in the nuclei might increase the understanding and buy-in by the larger Damanhurian community.

Part of the Community Design might include how ongoing learning would occur – a “professional development” learning plan for the growers to learn techniques from one another and get feedback on how to improve their practice. The tendency in farming is to focus on the jobs at hand, when it is also important to commit time and energy to learning from one another or from outside experts.

One strategy for obtaining a greater labor source, and also creating a “learning system”, might be to create a Farm School program, with apprentice student learners who work on the gardens and farms with supervision. The apprentices could work independently part of the time, and come together for shared learning from the knowledgable farmers or to work on common projects at one of the nuclei together. The apprentices would also “cross-pollinate” from one to another and that could help the Damanhurian farmers to learn from one another as well.

When I lived at Damanhur, and visited nuclei, I thought of ways in which food production might be helped. I shared the details in a written set of recommendations when I was at Damanhur – mainly focused on building fertility as a prime goal. The American inspirational sustainable agriculture thought leader, Joel Salatin, says: “the first thing is to return to a perennially based system rather than an annual-based system” – because annual agriculture destroys soil and perennials build soil. Transitioning to sustainabiity still requires annuals, but ultimately shifting more towards perennial agriculture is key to solving the challenge of sustainabe global food production.

Both tilled and permanent growing beds benefit from winter cover crops for enriching the soil with nitrogen and organic content. Large-scale compost production could be occurring at each production site, incorporating biodynamic and biochar methodologies. Biochar is an amazing biologically activated charcoal that greatly increases soil fertility. Ideally there might be less tilling – substituting disking and hand preparation to reduce the soil destruction that occurs every time soil is exposed to the air from tilling. I might suggest experimenting with more winter crops, and increasing crop diversity to take advantage of micro-climates. There could be more permanent beds in greenhouses and outdoor fields and polyculture combinations of plantings – both annual and perennial. Permanent beds can develop more mycorrhizal fungi-based, fertile soil ecosystems than bacteria-based, tilled soil. Although more long-term, there could be a greater emphasis on perennial plantings – beginning with short-term plants like berries, asparagus, etc. The forests of Damanhur could become long-term agro-forestry production sites that could eventually reduce dependence on annual crops. Currently diseased chestnut forests might be transformed to become productive mixed nut and fruit forests with the help of mycorrhizal fungi or disease-resistant grafted cultivars. There could be more beneficial-attractant plantings near gardens, greenhouses, and in hedgerows around fields. It sounds like Damanhur’s beef production system is being transformed; the systems of “intensely managed grazing” described by Joel Salatin could be more ecologically and financially sustainable for converting biomass into edible protein and for emulating the productive perennial grasslands of the world that could be rotated with annual crop production. Daily movement of cattle on pastures could be followed by pastured poultry to utilize the maggots on cow dung. The goal would be to copy nature’s productive ecosystems with polycultures of diverse plant and animal species working harmoniously to transfer energy with minimal waste.

A key part of the solution could include a shift in the food eating culture at Damanhur. In my own life, my menu changes throughout the growing season to reflect what I can grow so I don’t have to buy as much food from far-away climates. As the Stephen Stills song says, “Love the one you’re with” (in this case – love the food you can grow). A community-wide commitment to move toward food self-sufficiency would make it easier than trying to grow eggplants in heated, artificially lit greenhouses in the winter.

The steps that could be taken by Damanhur are analagous to what is needed for world-wide sustainable food production. I would love to see Damanur become a leader leader in demonstrating sustainable food production, as well as being a model for how humans can live in harmoniously in communities.

Bios Design
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