Living in close relationship with plants has been characteristic of Klaus Lotz’ life from the beginning. Alongside his family of three generations, he has created PermaDynamics, a farm in New Zealand that practices and teaches syntropic agroforestry, biodynamics, and regenerative farming practices.
I was honored to have the chance to interview Klaus, and meet his daughter Frida and baby grandson Tūānuku to talk about his story and the philosophy behind PermaDynamics.
From early childhood, Klaus has fond memories of harvesting apples and making cider at his grandmother’s small subsistence farm in Germany. His own home in the suburbs of a small industrial town also had a garden but these early experiences with agriculture came with a sinister history. The government provided citizens with plots where they were required by law to keep a specific number of animals, crops, and fruit trees, what Klaus called “a permaculture system by law.” While it sounds somewhat idyllic to envision suburban row houses with half acre backyards filled with gardens and animals, it was systematically designed to prepare for the war so that a resilient working population could withstand food shortages.
As he learned about the philosophy behind permaculture later in life, it struck him that one cannot simply take a technique from permaculture, apply it to industrial scale agriculture, and continue to call it permaculture. One of the three foundational ethics supporting permaculture is care of people. Divorcing agriculture from ethics has a devastating effect.
Klaus liked gardening and being in nature as a youth, and, as luck would have it, his family knew Ernst Götsch, the founder of syntropic agriculture. Ernst was working in Brazil and offered Klaus a practicum after he finished high school. “At the time being offered to go to Brazil for me was like being offered some space travel after high school,” said Klaus, and of course, he went.
Klaus described Ernst Götsch as “an incredibly hard worker, a driven, passionate man.” Ernst had just obtained his farm, Olhos D’Água, and “we lived there like a bunch of lost Amish in the rain forest – no power, no water in the house and all of that.” A key skill Klaus learned during that time from the local farmers was how to work with his hands. “It was a real pleasure to work with those laborers all day, and learn from them, how to use your body, how to use your hands, how to use hand tools and sharpen them and use them efficiently so you can do it all day long,” he said.
Klaus returned to Germany to do an internship but had fallen in love with the indigenous cultures in South America and was soon back in Brazil. Ernst, meanwhile, had developed his early ideas of syntropy. Klaus saw this work first-hand as Ernst experimented with the depleted soil. In one test, Ernst brought in resources like rock phosphate and lime for some areas of soil, and in other areas he relied on certain types of vegetation to turn it around. “And those areas,” said Klaus, “turned out to be better in the long run than the ones where he put the amendments in, funny enough.”
Traveling to Bolivia, Klaus met his wife Vanessa who had come from England working with Oxfam. They formed a family and bought a little piece of land just outside of Cochabamba, where their children Frida and Josh were born.
Klaus became increasingly interested in how Enrst’s work in syntropy agroforestry complimented permaculture. He completed a thesis on indigenous plants of the Cochabamba Valley combined with sustainable agriculture and worked for a few years with local subsistence farmers to encourage regenerative agricultural practices.
While rewarding and important, the work was taxing on their health and the Bolivian political system was becoming increasingly unstable. The family moved to New Zealand “with a container full of nostalgia and enough money to be a part of a land trust,” said Klaus. They spent some time WWOOF’ing around the country to get an idea of what was possible agriculturally and came across locals whose dreams of homesteading and subsistence farming had tanked after a few years. “They couldn’t handle the land that they bought as a lifestyle block and got overrun by grasses and other weeds they didn’t want to spray, and they just gave up on it.” Klaus recognized this as further evidence that syntropy needs to be practiced alongside permaculture for success.
Klaus started teaching sustainable land management at a Polytechnic school in town while taking permaculture courses to become an accredited permaculture teacher. When the program closed five years ago, the family decided to start their own business as a regenerative education center, and PermaDynamics was born.
At PermaDynamics, the family strives to work alongside nature within a reciprocal relationship. In a culture that can often be harsh toward humans and the impact we have on our environment, Klaus takes a positive tack and focuses on the good we can do while working with nature.
He explained that most animals modify the landscape to some degree by instinct. For example, when a rabbit is ring-barking a tree (biting off the bark around the trunk which disrupts the flow of sap), their motive might be nourishment from the bark but it also serves to keep the grassy areas open as a habitat. Humans went beyond instinct when we found fire and realized that with fire we can totally and easily alter a landscape to keep the forest back and create more grassy areas, which support the large animals, which support us.
“Every organism works on the principle of power maximization,” said Klaus. “There is no organism that says, ‘there is all this energy out there but let’s not touch it because we are purist,’ no. Every organism is going to exploit every power source to its maximum if it can, and we are no exception. But once we found fire, we went nuts on it, and this drunkenness on this massive power is following us through our existence.”
This controlling of our landscape has continued to progress in obvious ways. “The extreme now is genetically modified standardized crops in vertical farms in glass houses with LED lighting with people wearing masks – that’s sort of the maximum control you can put over plants,” said Klaus. The downfall of this way of thinking is that it is a constant fight against what naturally wants to happen, it requires high levels of inputs which cost money, and the lack of diversity makes the business very fragile.
Klaus describes a different way for humans to interact with nature: instead of controlling it, we can respect and adjust to it. He mentioned Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and philosopher, who created a particular method of farming commonly called “do-nothing farming.” Rather than immediately deciding what a piece of land is going to do and conforming it to your idea, stop and observe what actually wants to be there. “In syntropy,” said Klaus, “rather than rushing in, we would look at what plants do well here, and then maybe extrapolate – if this plant does well here, do we have a similar plant that might provide food for humans or for wildlife, and does it maybe produce more biomass so we can use that and it builds the soil faster.”
Given the important first step of observing nature, I asked Klaus how someone who lives in urban environments can do this. Easy, he said. As you drive around in the car, look out the window. Look at the type of soil the cut of the road shows – is it clay, or gravel? What is growing there? Roadsides are fantastic, he said, because you can always see areas that are abandoned or have different types of disruptions, and you can see what naturally grows in these areas.
What brings joy on an average day for Klaus? Just being in the food forest every day is uplifting. He described the food forest as a living sculpture, multi-layered and all shades of green, shaped by his family as they plant seeds and prune, and by other influences like the animals and storms. “It’s a really beautiful living environment, combined with the natural earth building that we do here in amongst those trees, it’s just a beautiful feeling,” said Klaus.
In agriculture, as in life, people with the most resilience and ability to adjust quickly to change will ultimately fare the best. As our manic binge on the earth’s resources is being curtailed, we will find ways to adjust our lifestyles to our climate and soils and find plants that can flourish in a reciprocal relationship with us.
PermaDynamics is doing incredible work creating a living example of ethical agriculture and building an international online learning community to share their approach. After having taught over 2,000 students on site at their farm, they now also offer online courses in syntropic food forestry, permaculture design, and sustainable earth building. Memberships provide access to a wealth of content, discussion forums, live Q&A sessions, and a lot more. They also provide consultancy services, helping read the potential of the climate and soil you live on and guide your personal application of syntropic agroforestry, permaculture, and food forest design. Learn more and join in!
“Rather than rushing in and saying we need to control that, you respect, you try to understand and look at what is going on. Adjusting to the situation is maybe a better attitude than controlling.”