Small scale successional agroforestry enterprises with Rômulo Araújo

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Rômulo Araújo is an agronomist who has been involved with successional agroforestry for the past 10 years. In an interview for Podcast Impacto Positivo, Rômulo delved into the intricacies of designing and maintaining small scale successional agroforestry enterprises. A strong advocate of farmers’ markets, Rômulo shares how his gourmet coffee is rapidly becoming one of his main enterprises.

“As a principle”, Rômulo explains, “successional agroforestry seeks to drive the evolution of the systems we live in towards an abundance of resources”. And although within this approach the production and marketing of horticultural produce fit into the first stage of the ecosystem’s restoration, he asserts, the size of the property as well as its proximity to urban centres limits and informs a good design of fruit and timber species in these systems.

Most farms around Brasília, Brazil, Rômulo notes, are small, between 1 and 2 hectares with those granted by the agrarian reform between 5 and 10 hectares. The farms ranging from 5 to 10 hectares have more options regarding the species chosen and the transition strategies from horticultural produce to agroforestry products, according to Rômulo. But both these cases, he explains, still fall into the small scale farming which should clearly inform the design, he explains. 

Small scale successional agroforestry farms have to focus on farmers’ market, CSAs and direct sales. These farmers need to offer a variety of quality produce instead of large volumes of fewer products in order to be viable from the get go in Rômulo’s view. But if these farmers do not evolve their systems to prioritise perennial plants, he alerts, they will be enslaved by the horticultural production in a limited cycle of the ecological succession which usually builds input dependency.

The species and strategy designed for a transition from horticulture or an annual based production to a perennial one will vary, however, according to the property size even within the small scale farms. A 2 hectares farm such as Rômulo’s will be too small to produce citruses, and compete with agroforestry enterprises that have already established 10 hectares focusing on these fruits. That is why Rômulo chose to invest in the production of a gourmet coffee. He explains that the nutrient density and flavour of coffee grains produced in agroforestry systems allows him to charge more for his production which compensates for his scale of production.

“So that we can generate income in successional agroforestry systems we have to design it thoroughly combining various elements. Not only climate, elevation and latitude, the type of soil you’re working with, but also the scale you’ll be working in and the market you’ll be selling to. So [a good design] involves many variables until one can arrive at a final design”.

Another advantage of Rômulo’s design focusing on coffee production is that the coffee plant is a low strata one, which means that potentially there are at leat 3 more strata to be filled with other trees. And each of these forest strata can be seen as an enterprise in and of themselves. At Sítio Raíz, for instance, Rômulo has eucalyptus grandis (emergent strata), acacia mangium (high strata) and a few other trees that volunteered in his systems as service trees.  In the successional agroforestry jargon, service trees are those designed into the system to produce organic matter and be pruned to be used as mulch covering the soil and expedite the nutrient cycling. Bananas are both service and fruit trees. Mahogany trees occupy the emergent strata, some citruses occupying mostly the medium strata, and avocados and mangoes the high strata.

Not all areas and climates are prone to the production of a gourmet coffee, but the stacking of enterprises using the successional agroforestry 4 strata system remains as a principle. There has to be a balance in the choice of trees, however. Showing how to use the organic matter from banana trees to mulch and fix potassium for the coffee bushes, Rômulo explains that “we have those trees that will generate income”, alluding to the fruit and timber trees, “and those that will produce organic matter, which is the ecosystems income”, alluding to the service trees. 

Showing the area in which he is still focussing on the horticultural production, Rômulo explains that “when we work with successional agroforestry we’re always thinking about this evolution from an open field to a forest”. He shared that the area in which he produces vegetables today was once a degraded and rocky area. In this area he had to plant 2 entire seasons of pigeon pea and tree marigold (Tithonia diversifolia) before he could produce nutrient dense vegetables.

In hindsight Rômulo shares the lesson that even when one needs to bring external inputs such as organic fertilisers, a soil that was built upon the succession of appropriate plants and had their organic matter cycled in that area will respond better and those inputs will last longer. 

Still looking and walking about his horticultural production Rômulo said that the irony is that that area would soon become a forest and the area he has already forested would one day be thinned in order for him to keep producing vegetables. “We need to plant forests in order to be able to cut forests and create the clearings we need to produce nutrient dense food in rich soils”, he said gazing his fields.