From just two acres at Matapouri, Klaus Lotz and his family sell vetiver plants, banana cuttings and a variety of fresh produce. A passionate permaculture expert who incorporates biodynamics into his agricultural practice, Klaus believes the burgeoning interest in permaculture is driven by a growing understanding of its value in creating sustainability for the planet.
“It’s a great way to produce food, and it’s exciting.”
Klaus’ passion for forest gardens means a wide range of sub-tropical plants now grow in conjunction with their primary banana crop. Their land is north-facing, sheltered, frost-free, and no-one on neighbouring properties sprays. Initially the clay soil and exceptionally steep contour were problematic, but these challenges have been converted into benefits.
They terraced the hillside and incorporated swales for water-harvesting. Bananas are interspersed with vetiver, whau, flame tree saplings, mountain paw-paw, cherimoya, sapote, tamarillo, ice-cream pods (inga beans), and sugar cane. These provide extra yields, stabilise the land, and shade out weeds.
“In northland it’s important to get on top of kikuyu,” says Klaus. “We don’t use weed mats, carpet, paper, or anything else to dampen weeds. The best method is to grow dense vegetation with the right plants to starve weeds out – Mexican sunflower, coprosma, whau. I experiment constantly and enjoy demonstrating what can be done and how problems can be solved. It excites students.
“One of the benefits with permaculture techniques is that rainwater is harvested and retained in the landscape so you irrigate less and keep your nutrients in place and available to the plants,” explains Klaus. “We built swales into the terraces to hold water, not too deep because we don’t want it waterlogged in winter when there is a lot of rain, but deep enough that with shady vegetation, the ground holds moisture most of the time.
“The system naturally brings in wildlife, more than in nearby native forests. We have kiwi running around the terraces. One misguided little fellow even ended up in the middle of our living-room floor.
“Soil fertility is hugely increased in a permaculture system. We started with clay but now have black soil three feet deep, so we save on fertiliser. This high quality soil was developed through the application of biochar and mulch, and originally with the right plant succession of pioneer species.”
Succession describes a change of species and groups of plant communities following each other to develop soil to its highest potential. Klaus says all land deterioration is reparable through succession.
“Pioneer vegetation, often a mix of native and exotic species, opens up the soil profile with it’s aggressive roots and brings nutrients back into circulation. It suppresses dominant grass cover, and provides mulch and shelter for the more delicate forest species that follow.”
The property demonstrates high-density sustainable production on a small scale and offers a valuable model for the surrounding community. Their method also sequesters carbon, stabilised in the soil as humus, especially through the use of biochar.
“Plants absorb carbon which we make into charcoal, crush, and spread in the stables or put through animals. It eventually ends up as compost. In contrast, other plant products decay and eventually release their carbon back into the atmosphere. Biochar is useful, lasting thousands of years. It improves the soil’s capacity for holding moisture and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and it helps regulate soil temperature. Three kilos of biochar is equivalent to sequestering around 10 litres of petrol-produced carbon. It’s the best tool we have against climate change. More people need to understand it’s value and use it.”
Initially sceptical of biodynamics, Klaus has found it works well in combination with permaculture. He treats their liquid biogas fertiliser with biodynamic preparations. The property is in conversion to the Demeter biodynamic standard.
Klaus is originally from a village near Wurtzburg in Germany. As a child, he created rooftop gardens, even building a glasshouse on top of the garage to grow tomatoes. At 18 he travelled to Brazil for an agroforestry practicum, working with bananas and cocoa.
Later he worked as an agroforestry consultant in Bolivia where he met his wife, Vanessa, an Englishwoman also doing development work. He worked with farmers in the Bolivian Amazon basin, developing food forests by managing the succession dynamic to accelerate the growth and decay cycle. He was inspired by Ernst Gotsch (see www.agendagotcsh.com), who had bought hundreds of acres for agricultural production which were failing, and for which he couldn’t afford fertiliser. Necessity drove Gotsch to develop a system that mimicked nature’s methods of regeneration and Klaus used these methods on property he and Vanessa purchased.
“The succession dynamic is a strong force in nature mostly ignored in ordinary agriculture,” says Klaus. “Nature creates the drive to regenerate paddocks back to forest. Permaculture enhances this process. It understands the role of plant communities following each other. It guides and accelerates this, while most conventional farming opposes it.”
After 14 years of farming in Bolivia, their two children’s education was becoming more important. With the political environment also increasingly unstable, Klaus and Vanessa considered their options. New Zealand looked ‘clean and green,’ and the family moved here sight unseen in 2003.
Published in Organic NZ magazine – Nov/Dec 2016 – Vol.75 No.6
Permadynamics (www.permadynamics.net) sells produce to restaurants and at the Farmers Market in Whangarei. Klaus Lotz tutors in Sustainable Rural Development at NorthTec, Whangarei and is available for private consultations.