Growing up near the small Bavarian hub of Würzburg, there’s no way that the young farmer-cum-educator to-be, Klaus Lotz, could ever have predicted his town’s unusual design would not only shape the rest of his life but influence communities in the Amazonian jungle and Aotearoa’s far north.
“It had been built, quite sinisterly, to be self-sufficient in preparation for the war,” he reveals. “Everyone had to have a garden with goats and chickens. My grandfather was a deeply passionate gardener and grew a lot of food, so that’s how my interest in agriculture began.”
Thanks in part to some family connections, nearing the end of high school in 1984, the green-fingered teenager was offered the opportunity to head to the Brazilian rainforest where he would work alongside legendary Swiss farmer Ernst Gotsch. Gotsch is widely revered for developing a revolutionary agricultural technique known as syntropy that uses native and introduced plants to nourish soil in order to rejuvenate forest and farmland that most would long since have given up on.
“Way back then, you may as well have told people you’d had an invitation to work in a space lab,” recalls Klaus with a chuckle. “I was so far out of my comfort zone. We were living in makeshift tents made from tarps, with no mosquito nets, and we were having to hack through the jungle with machetes. I was working alongside local labourers who looked like pirates! It was such fun working with them, but the days were so tough. I had no idea up until that point how much the human body can work. It was a very empowering experience, and wonderful to part of—though it didn’t always feel like it at the time!”
The following years were spent studying, working and teaching between Germany, Bolivia and Brazil. Then, 16 years ago, Klaus moved with his wife, Vanessa, and young children, Frida and Josh, to Northland where they established their PermaDynamics farm in Matapōuri. Combining syntropy and permaculture (a holistic system whereby all elements work together, and nothing is wasted), Klaus developed a food forest that grows all manner of crops—including non-natives like tamarillos, macadamias and bananas. Produce from the forest is sold at local markets, and the family also run onsite workshops.
“I can’t help myself from creating a food forest wherever I go,” says Klaus. “When you work with syntropic techniques, the results are so fast it blows your mind. You can turn these ugly, unproductive wastelands into beautiful, regenerative food forests that throw food at you year-round. You just want to do that, to show everyone how it works, to share it. It’s such a no-brainer that you wonder why we ever produce food in any other way.”
He also uses his cattle dung to make biogas for domestic fuel. I ask if such techniques could be adopted on a mass scale.
“It can work on a large farm, but it would need to be broken into smaller sections. The whole point of permaculture is that you don’t segregate the production processes, you integrate them.”
Klaus points to the enormous amount of waste produced from, say, a 1,000-hectare dairy farm, that winds up in an effluent pond.
“In permaculture, you’d ask, ‘How can you create more opportunities and livelihoods from the same piece of land?’ The waste could be converted into biofuel that warms a hot house that grows vegetables. This business could be run by another company. You might want to put tree rows in your paddock to give the cows more shade, prevent erosion and increase soil fertility, so maybe there is somebody who could take care of the farm forestry, do the pruning and process the timber. People could also support each other if someone is sick or wants a holiday. This is the philosophy behind permaculture on a mass scale—shared infrastructure.”
It seems to make so much sense, why isn’t it more widely adopted?
“One of the reasons is that energy and resources are still relatively cheap. It’s also labour intensive. Unfortunately, anything complex—which permaculture systems are, just like nature—we try to dumb it down all of the time for agriculture, to make it simple, and we pay the price for in terms of degenerated landscapes and food quality.”
BIRDS AND THE BEES
Not only does Klaus’s farming system replenish the soils but lures more creatures to the land thus creating a self-sustaining circle of life.
“I love eating,” says Klaus. “I love to just go out and work in the forest and shove things in my mouth—mandarins, mountain paw paws, whatever you come across while you’re working tastes much better than when you eat it off a plate. I also love hunting in the section. The land’s insane productivity attracts heaps of possums, which are easy to shoot when they go up the inga bean trees. They’re a very good, clean meat, and of course we don’t want them in the bush. And we get wild pigs which I can use to stock up the freezer. We can easily feed ourselves from our 1.5-acre plot.”
The farm even gets some free labour by way of the birds!
“The birds bring in a lot of stuff from the surrounding bush,” says Klaus, “so there is quite a bit of native forest that grows through our forest that would easily replace it if we were to step back. They work nicely together.”
When the family first moved to the area, Klaus taught agriculture at nearby NorthTec college, so, he admits, didn’t notice the ever-burgeoning bird population on his land. Now, he can’t get enough of his circle of feathered friends, which even includes some resident kiwi.
“Kiwi like our system because, over the years, we converted hard, compacted soil into something really soft and spongy,” he says. “Especially in the drier months, they can really get their beaks in there to find the worms.”
Tui, too, are big fans of the nectar from the banana flowers.
“Tui numbers have shot up big time. We had a tui nest in a tree over the deck just outside the house with chicks in it and one night the mother came to our French doors and began scratching at them. I went out to see what was going on just as a morepork was flying off with the last chick. The tui had come to us for help which is quite crazy when you think about it. So, they certainly appreciate our presence, as we do theirs.”
Klaus says he doesn’t even listen to music these days, he’d rather listen to the birds.
“I do play the flute though,” he adds, “and sometimes it feels as though I’m communicating with them.”