Permaculture farm seeks alternative to commercial farming

Rachel Alexander

Driving to Hacienda Ilitio is a bit of an adventure. The farm is nestled in the foothills of Mt. Cotopaxi, one of the tallest active volcanoes in the Ecuadorian Andes. The road up to the farm is mostly dirt, zigzagging and turning up and down hills in all directions, defying any attempts to remember the way. There’s a river crossing thrown in too, where water reaches almost to the door of the few pickup truck taxis that are willing to give wayward travelers a ride. After a grueling climb up one final hill you reach the gate of the farm, and the road levels out as you pass a herd of alpacas. It’s not the easiest drive in the world, but perhaps that’s fitting. The farm’s owner, Sebastian Kohn, is hoping to make Ilitio into an entirely self-sufficient farm based on principles of permaculture; a place where, at least in theory, there will be little need to travel to the outside world.

Although Ecuador’s new constitution explicitly states that the country is to remain free from genetically modified organisms, the government’s agricultural policy still focuses on high-tech, chemical-dependent farming. In this regard, Ecuador is like many developing countries that have adopted green revolution technologies to grow their agricultural sectors. Many agricultural policymakers believe that chemically-intensive, mechanized farming is the only way to feed the growing world population. Kohn, who graduated from Whitman in 2007 with a degree in biology-environmental studies, respectfully disagrees.

“That whole system is going to collapse,” he said, referring to the fact that mechanized agriculture is largely dependent on the availability of cheap fossil fuels.

Kohn isn’t interested in arguing policy with the government. He wants to make Ilitio into a living example of an alternate future for agriculture, one where systems are deliberately designed to mimic natural processes. Currently, Ilitio is a traditional organic farm: no chemicals are used, but crops are still planted in rows. Kohn is working to gradually redesign the farm to incorporate permaculture principles: intercropping maize, squash and legumes rather than planting them separately; continuing the use of rotational grazing to allow animals to fertilize the soil; and working to plant traditional varieties of crops which have been developed over centuries to grow well under local conditions. Really, he says, the entire approach is dependent on soil health, an approach not generally taken by chemically-intensive forms of agriculture.

“Instead of farming the soil, they farm the plant,” he said. “I want the soil to be good so that the plant will be good.”

Ilitio runs under the direction of its workers. Marcelo, Narcissa and their three children live on the farm and take care of day-to-day tasks, which include moving goats and sheep to different grazing areas, milking cows and harvesting crops. Two other paid workers are there on weekdays, and there’s also a constantly rotating stream of gringo volunteers.

Marcelo has been a farmer for most of his life. He enjoys his work at Ilitio, though he’s more concerned with making sure the burro doesn’t escape from its pasture again than discussing food politics. He’s perpetually full of energy, regardless of the time of day, the outside temperature or the amount of time he’s spent digging an irrigation ditch in the afternoon sun. He’s not quite sure what permaculture is, but he knows that Ilitio’s organic methods have become less and less common over the past few generations.

“Before, a long time ago, we planted crops without chemicals and people lived longer,” he says. “My grandma lived to be 120 years old. Now, people grow older sooner.” His family eats almost all of their food from the farm. Marcelo says that’s better for their health, because the chickens in town are full of chemicals.

Kohn knows the transition back to traditional, organic farming methods won’t be easy. People have gotten used to large farms, machines and fast food meals that fill you up without really leaving you full. The extreme poverty in which many farmers live means that they often can’t afford to think about the long-term health of their soil: they have to maximize their output now or their family won’t be able to eat and send their kids to school. Right now, most people on earth eat only a few varieties of a few staple crops. Wheat, rice and corn dominate the global food system; an approach Kohn says is “putting all your eggs in one basket.” His antidote is refreshing in its simplicity, yet daunting in the scale of the work it calls for.

“People need to value food,” he said.