Permaculture in Europe

Jeffrey Newman newman at
Tue Sep 4 13:50:51 EDT 2001

Here's an inspirational tale.  -  Jeffrey

August 24, 2001 By Reuters

RAMINGSTEIN, Austria -- In the coldest part of Austria, a farmer is
turning conventional wisdom on its head by growing a veritable Garden of
Eden full of tropical plants in the open on his steep Alpine pastures.

Amid average annual temperatures of a mere 39.5 Fahrenheit, Sepp Holzer
grows everything from apricots to eucalyptus, figs to kiwi fruit,
peaches to wheat at an altitude of between 3,300 and 4,900 feet. Once
branded a fool, fined and threatened with imprisonment for defying
Austrian regulations that dictate what is planted where, he is now feted
worldwide for creating the only functioning "permaculture" farm in
Europe. Permaculture, an abbreviation of permanent culture, is the
development of agricultural ecosystems which are complete and

"Once planted, I do absolutely nothing," Holzer told Reuters. "It really
is just nature working for itself -- no weeding, no pruning, no
watering, no fertilizer, no pesticides."

His 110 acres of land in the mountainous Lungau region in the province
of Salzburg are classed by European Union directives as unfit for
agricultural cultivation due to the steep gradient and poor soil. When
Holzer inherited the farm -  then 44.5 acres -  39 years ago, it was
only used for the grazing of the family's cows and sheep. He carved
terraces out of the steep inclines - like the ancient Incas and Maya of
South and Central America - to stop erosion and trap rainfall. He
rejected the use of pesticides and fertilizers, which he considered
poisonous, and the concept of monoculture - the cultivation of just one
plant type over an expanse of land - because he believed it sapped the
soil of all nutrients. Instead he began growing a host of timber and
fruit trees, shrubs and grasses all mixed up together.

"Everyone said I was mad and I had to pay numerous fines because the
authorities said that it was illegal to plant such a combination,"
Holzer said. "When I bought this patch of land off a farmer, it was not
fit for the cows and sheep grazing on it. People scoffed that I was
neglecting my land -- but now they come to harvest cherries from June to
October." "This is the worst type of soil, which just goes to prove that
there is no bad soil, just bad farmers," he added.

Most of the plants Holzer and his wife Vroni grow at his "Krameterhof"
holding are not meant to flourish in Alpine conditions, according to
experts. In winter, the temperature can fall to below minus 22 degrees
Fahrenheit and a blanket of snow lingers into May. Snow can even fall in
the height of summer. Holzer said he found agricultural textbooks and
his own years at agricultural college virtually useless. "I followed
their advice initially, but my trees started dying off. I then realized
that I had to eradicate from my memory all that I'd learned at college,"
he said.

Enlightenment came one winter during one of Holzer's routine moonlight
strolls, when he noticed that the only apricot tree faring well in the
harsh winter conditions was one he had forgotten to cut back according
to ministerial regulations. Unlike the pruned trees whose main lower
branches snapped off under the weight of snow, the "neglected" tree's
branches were intact. Their unrestricted length had allowed them to
droop with the tips touching the ground for support while the snow slid
off, Holzer found. Allowing natural vegetation to grow around the trunk
provided further support and nourishment for the tree. "If people would
only realize that if one leads a life in cooperation with nature and not
against it, then nobody in the world need die of starvation," he said.

Holzer's philosophy is that nature knows best and needs negligible
interference from Man. "We're born into paradise, but are destroying its
foundation, the soil. The soil can look after itself, there's no need
for Man to tamper with it." Giant stone slabs pepper the landscape and
serve as incubators by absorbing the sunlight and giving off warmth. The
trees do their part as well in keeping the ground warm. Fallen foliage
helps keep frost from reaching the roots. Tree stumps dot the
plantations to regulate irrigation. Like a sponge they soak up water and
later distribute it. Animals too have a role in the Holzer ecosystem.
Scavenging pigs till the soil in place of a tractor, while grass snakes
were reintroduced to keep voracious slugs and mice in check. Holzer is
modest about his achievement which has led to projects in more than 40
countries and lectures on "the elimination of poverty in agriculture."
He has rejected suggestions that he should have his method of
permaculture patented. "I would consider that as theft from nature. It's
not my possession, I got it from nature and have an obligation to pass
this knowledge on," the bearded 59-year- old said.

Holzer says his method of organic farming produces a much higher quality
of crops than conventional farming, and at a fraction of the cost and
effort. He says his rare strain of grain contains 12 times the goodness
of conventionally grown grain and as a result fetches a price 100 times
higher. His success means that he no longer lives directly off the crops
in his sprawling garden, or the rare fish in his Alpine ponds and lakes.
People pay to pick their own fruit from his land, experts visit to study
"Holzer Permaculture," and the man himself regularly holds seminars when
not in a far-off country such as Colombia solving chronic problems of
the soil. And only one thing has so far stumped the man with green
fingers. "Bananas," he said with a shrug of his burly frame. "They
froze. It's no surprise as they need an average temperature of 30
degrees. But I'm still working on it."

Copyright 2001, Reuters

Jeffrey Newman

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