There has been a lot of recent discussion about permaculture and livelihoods, especially as regards food growing, self-sufficiency and also being able to make some money. In early 2017 I volunteered at a smallholding in Venezuela, where these questions are asked every day. Venezuela is currently undergoing a huge political and economic crisis and food is expensive and scarce. Many people are now under nourished and self-sufficiency (or at least partial self-sufficiency) has become a hot topic.
Where I volunteered, at Nelson and Yuly’s smallholding, or “conuco” on the western slopes of the Venezuelan Andes, the subsistence lifestyle they follow is a matter of survival. Apart from the government subsidised rations of one packet of pasta, two packets of rice, one bag of sugar and two litres of oil once a month, they eat what they harvest. When I was there, in February, it was mostly pumpkin and chayota (a large pear shaped fruit with an apple like texture and a clean delicate taste), plus maize, wheat, quinoa, amaranth, beans, taro, potatoes and some greens as well as eggs from the chickens, some cheese I bought them, and other bits and bobs. Simple food but healthy and nourishing and above all very tasty.
Nelson and July practice permaculture, and use soil re-generation methods for farming. They have separated their three hectare conuco into two parts – a productive forest, where Nelson has planted over 200 fruit and nut trees amongst the already existing ones, and a more traditional conuco, where the land has been cleared for annual and some perennial crops. However, in order to survive Nelson and Yuly have to make this way of growing food work – and it has to work better than conventional agriculture, otherwise it wouldn’t be sustainable. And here’s the thing – it does work.
After only two years of moving here, Nelson and Yuly produce enough food for their family of four (and the odd volunteer) to eat all year round, and the permaculture model means they can do this at a very low cost. Seeds are saved and re-planted, manure and liquid fertilizer is provided by the farm goats and chickens, no herbicides or pesticides are used, and hay (or in this case bracken) mulching lowers the work load so that the smallholding can be maintained without any hired help. Extra protein is provided by the chickens and guinea pigs raised at the conuco. The only major input so far has been 100 sacks of chicken manure, bought from a local farmer.
But Nelson wants to be more than just a subsistence farmer – he wants to prosper. To do this he needs cash crops. These cash crops have to perform at least three functions: they must be low volume (to reduce transport costs), high value, and extremely well adapted to local conditions i.e be low maintenance crops that get on with growing without too much care and attention. Right now he is working with turmeric (with cardamom and inca peanuts(1) on the way) which do very well in this climate, and have no pests that attack them. In Nelson’s model the cash crops are not just sold as primary materials but are processed into products with added value, such as oils, powders and butters. They are then sold, via local markets, straight to consumers, thus cutting out the middle man. Money from the sale of these products can then be invested back into the farm.
It’s not all a bed of roses though, the bean crop crashed earlier this year after heavy rains removed the flowers, the cash crops have not yet really got off the ground yet, and despite being low maintenance it’s still damn hard work. However, in general terms Nelson’s model is working and it’s working well. And it was truly inspiring to be in a place where permaculture is having such a positive impact on the lives of the people that are practicing it, not only as regards their wellbeing and health, but also on a financial level.
(1) Inca peanuts/Sacha Inchi (Plukenetia volubilis), one of the newest “superfoods” on the market, are said to have the highest concentrations of essential fatty acids in the world, at nearly 50% omega 3 by volume