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Permaculture Miracles in the Austrian Mountains

Photo credit: Keith Johnson

I’d like to introduce you to Sepp Holzer, a man who not only produces food in a very unlikely location, at a high and frigid altitude in Austria, but is also growing very unlikely crops there as well — and all without the use of chemicals, and with minimal input of human labour.

I guess you could call him a European counterpart of people like Bill Mollison and Masanobu Fukuoka — as all three independently discovered ways of working with nature that save money and labour and that don’t degrade the environment, but actually improve it. In Holzer’s case, he was effectively running a permaculture farm for more than two decades before he even realised his unconventional approach could be termed ‘permaculture’.

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 4.2 degrees Celsius (39.5 Fahrenheit), Sepp Holzer grows everything from apricots to eucalyptus, figs to kiwi fruit, peaches to wheat at an altitude of between 1,000 and 1,500 metres (3,300 and 4,900 feet).

… “Once planted, I do absolutely nothing,” Holzer told Reuters. “It really is just nature working for itself – no weeding, no pruning, no watering, no fertiliser, no pesticides.” —

What’s more, the land he cultivates so successfully today had notoriously poor soil when he originally inherited it. Not anymore. Where people were before calling him mad, now farmers are arriving on his doorstep to learn how he does it, and others are flocking to buy his superior produce. His methods are currently being implemented in dozens of countries.

Holzer states his path to success began when he realised he had to discard what he’d learned in agricultural college. He set out on a path of observing and emulating natural systems, rather then attempting to control (and, in the process, undermining and destroying) nature. His knowledge rebellion also put him at odds with the Austrian authorities, who fined him several times — and even threatened him with imprisonment — for ignoring regulations on what plants can and cannot be grown in specific regions.

Holzer uses some simple, low-tech, yet ingenious methods to create a micro climate conducive to growing plants that normally couldn’t grow in the region. Watch the clip to get a glimpse at his work:

Additional clips on Holzer’s farm here and here.

Between the pinetree monocultures of Austria he built a fishpond system with his own water power station, planted 9000 fruit trees of the most various kinds in connection with many other plants to support each other (plant families). Thirty different types of potatoes, many different grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and wildflowers are growing just about everywhere — in the forest, on extremely steep hills, on rocky soil, on pathways, around ponds, as well as raised beds. All of this he grows without the use of any pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer. Holzer says: “I couldn’t understand that still everybody at the agricultural schools told you these chemicals are useful. They drowned us in brochures of the chemical fertilizers with the latest information on how many kilos of which stuff you should get. But if you follow their instructions you only have trouble, your purse is empty, you have a lot of hard work to do, and you’re destroying all this important life in your ground, and your own health with it. Sorry, but I really don’t want to spoil my own land with this poison!”

Instead of using chemicals, he simply observes nature and finds out which plants support each other. In autumn he collects many seeds and stores them, and whenever he can, he throws this seed mixture on his ground. Along pathways, on new patches of terraces, anywhere. There is no square meter of ground with only one type of plant. All plants grow together and support each other. No plant or insect is unwanted. —

Permaculture guru, Bill Mollison, once said:

Today we have more soil scientists than at any other time in history. If you plot the rise of soil scientists against the loss of soil, you see that the more of them you have, the more soil you lose. — Scott London

Why is it that, as a race, we consistently manage to ignore good science and common sense? David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, summed it up well in a Celsias interview:

… we know how to take care of soil. It’s just that we’re not doing it. — Dishing Dirt with David Montgomery

To a large degree, our lives, health and future are dependent on our ability to reverse the soil-destroying trend that political policies and industry have apparently locked us into with the last fifty year’s mass implementation of monocrop farming systems. Sepp Holzer is an inspiring example of what can be accomplished if we look upon nature as a teacher, rather than just a resource to be plundered.

Sepp Holzer: “I find it painful to watch all these farmers going broke and selling their land for next to nothing, mostly to rich academic people who know even less what to do with the land. If these farmers only knew what they could do with their land! Nature has so much to offer, so many possibilities!” —

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