When hearing about Freixo do Meio repeatedly, we understood that they were experimenting with new agricultural systems and that their head, Alfredo Cunhal, was particularly interested in driving forward a sustainable and wholesome agricultural practice. We had preemptively read about a farming technique called syntropic farming, or successional agroforestry. This is known to be “a proposal for reading the ecosystem which enables the farmer to seek his or her answers using another reasoning, quite different from what we’re used to”.(1) Syntropic agriculture can be seen as a sub-category of agroforestry, a scheme that combines forestry with agriculture or livestock. Ernst Götsch, known as the frontrunner of syntropic farming, established theoretical and practical principles and a consequent method that can be applied at various scales. These principles also found their way to Freixo do Meio through Alfredo Cunhal and are currently being explored and tested in practice.
This methodology entails a certain way of planting various species very close to one another, which are not typically planted alongside each other today. The abundance of the rainforest acts as a model; with myriad layers of plants one above another, each using a different position within the bigger structure to its own advantage. Among other beneficiary consequences, fertiliser is automatically produced at the lowest, most humid levels. On a larger scale, this strategy can be used to re-vitalise areas that have been destroyed by serious events, such as agro mining or fires. Finding a regenerative system that works on a large scale is vital for our planet’s future. Arguably, this larger system needs to be “productive and profitable, because sustainability has to be economic, social and environmental”(2). Repeatedly discussing the importance of the interdependence of architecture and agriculture throughout our trip, we were both very curious to find out more about this system, potentially offering a holistic and long-term approach to farming and using the land.
At the Herdade, a strip of flowers, vegetables and small trees, planted in accordance with this method, stood tall in front of the farm’s shop. We could see cabbage grow alongside rhubarb and chrysanthemums, swaying in the wind, standing strong and close, like old friends. Simultaneously, syntropic agriculture is being tested at the Herdade at a larger scale in the acreage behind the agricultural buildings, where endless rows of trees spread their crowns across lush, green vegetable leaves. Naturally, this process does not yield quickly visible results and the fruits can only be harvested in years to come, but it was incredible to see the beginnings of these first hand tests and to understand more about how these principles could be put into practice.