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Mountainous Farm and Earthworks

 
pollinator
Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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This new thread continues the story posted at https://permies.com/t/50564/Permacultura-San-Joaquin-Colombia

Part of my last reply there, a little over a year ago, was:

Rene Nijstad wrote:We're OK, trying to hang in there. The earthworks we got right, they work like they should. We're slowly expanding on them.

All other things we're trying to get working turned out more difficult. It gave us a tremendous amount of new experiences and a hell of a lot of headaches as well. Things like extreme climate fluctuations, illness, trying to find a ballance for the amount of animals we can handle without constantly having to improvise... The list is endless. We've been trying to reevaluate our approach again over the past months. I think we're moving ahead, but it's a long road to travel!



I was never good at telling people about problems, I'm more a solutions type of person. So I went silent... sorry for that :-)

It's time to break the silence though...

Let's start with our ever evolving design for the farm. The map shows the infrastructure and the planned buildings in the middle of the land. The total area is about one hectare. Some of the work we had already done, see our previous thread. But the rest of it took quite some time to figure out. We got our breakthrough when we had a backhoe in to dig the road from building site D to B. Pictures below.

Just seeing how much soil such a machine can move made us feel much bolder about the place where the house could be.
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Posts: 235
Location: Richwood, West Virginia
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That's an attractive looking dirt. Where did that come from? (How come such nice looking soil can be found at that elevation?)
 
Rene Nijstad
pollinator
Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
63
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We had a number of problems to solve. Main one was: where to build the house? The "old" house is located on top of a ridge, with steep slopes on 3 sides, and a narrow route to the most usable land to the west of it. To get to the semi flat land it meant a walk of  over 70 meter, climbing about 7 meters. That's not a Permaculture setup...

Another problem are our slopes. In many areas they're too steep to work on, although lots of neighbors still plant and work those slopes, we also also consider that not a Permaculture setup.

The most ideal situation would be if we could:
- build easy connections all through our Semi-Flat area
- change unusable slopes into usable terraces
- find some good locations to build a new main house (B on the map) and a place where volunteers/interns can stay (D)

These wishes lead to the design on the map above.

The digging of the road coming in from the West on the pictures below...
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Rene Nijstad
pollinator
Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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There is a lot more to show, but I have to run now... More later
 
Rene Nijstad
pollinator
Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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Burl Smith wrote:That's an attractive looking dirt. Where did that come from? (How come such nice looking soil can be found at that elevation?)



It didn't come from anywhere... It's heavy clay, pretty dry because it was all compacted by cows so it barely let water soak in, which totally pulverizes when the machine digs it up.
 
Rene Nijstad
pollinator
Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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Construction of the platform for the main house (B on the map). This platform is dug into the slope, and to open up the view over the valley in front of it we had to remove quite a bit of mountain... Because our soil is heavy clay, it's all relatively stable, but for safety we will build a retaining wall to keep things controlled.

The thing we're most happy with is that we managed to change an UNusable slope in the middle of our most usable land into a road with a wide planting strip and a place to build.
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Rene Nijstad
pollinator
Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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The connection to the road coming from below through our little valley also had to be dug out of the mountain.

And of course no homestead is complete without a workshop, so that space was added at the back of the platform for the house (C on the map).

Runoff from the road coming down needed a place to go, so next to the workshop we dug another pond.
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Rene Nijstad
pollinator
Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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Before I continue I need to go back in time a bit. During 2015 an 2016 we experienced a drought caused by El NiƱo. That was 16 months with barely any rain. It was our second year on the farm when the drought started, which was quite a setback. But it was also a huge opportunity to observe what lived and what didn't. Based on what we saw we decided to terrace our zones 1 and 2, with the aim to create a no irrigation farm able to survive severe drought conditions.

We started digging by hand, in the area east of the pond, north of D on the map. I think we did a total of about 1000m2 in something like 6 months. Just an hour or so in the morning and 2 hours late every afternoon after the sun disappeared behind the mountain. We estimated that we could do the rest of the land by hand in another year or two.

Then we got sick. Chikunkunya virus infection... It's similar to dengue but gives more muscle and joint problems, like pain, extreme stiffness and sometimes spasms. Despite reading everywhere that the infection generally only lasts for a couple of weeks, the complaints kept coming back, especially during colder days. You know, those days when you can actually dig if you would feel OK.

More tomorrow...
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Rene Nijstad
pollinator
Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
63
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Since digging by hand was now out of the question we had to review our plans again. Renting a backhoe with operator is not terribly expensive in Colombia, it comes down to about 25 USD per hour at current rates. And they work pretty fast, I would say a machine does in a minute what would take 6 hours or more by hand...

When a close family member offered a bit of financial support we decided to do some more terracing by excavator. We also wanted to prepare a place where we could house some employees and/or volunteer workers, because our old house is barely suitable for ourselves to live in, let alone share it with other people.

So these pictures are of digging the platform for D, the visitors house, and using the soil from there to construct a terrace west of it, to grow crops.
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Rene Nijstad
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Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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Now we needed a connection to the terraces dug by hand and the work shown in the previous post. The terrain here showed a bit of a circular shape, so we went for a mandala garden! And it turned out pretty OK!

We also had the platform D on the map extended a bit, so we have a bit more space to build later.

The excavator work is now done, but the details we're filling in by hand at the moment, so that's still ongoing. More pictures in some weeks or months from now when we have connected all these terraces, garden and platforms together as one system.

Maybe you guessed it, but that also means we finally got the chikunkunya problem under control... Last December a friend suggested us to see a different doctor. Long story short, turns out the virus was long gone, but the nerve damage done by it caused repeated auto immune problems that felt eerily similar to the pain and stiffness caused by the virus itself. With some vitamins and other supporting food choices most of that nerve damaged is now repaired and we're very happy to be properly functional again...
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garden master
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Location: Maine, zone 5
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Rene, it looks like it's going to be amazing.  I have visions in my head of a Sepp Holzer farm, but Colombian style.  It will be a slice of Heaven!  
 
gardener
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Location: Central Texas zone 8a
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Agreed. Zach Weiss did some work in Ecuador.  This looks familiar. Great job
 
Burl Smith
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Rene Nijstad wrote:

Burl Smith wrote:That's an attractive looking dirt. Where did that come from? (How come such nice looking soil can be found at that elevation?)



It didn't come from anywhere... It's heavy clay, pretty dry because it was all compacted by cows so it barely let water soak in, which totally pulverizes when the machine digs it up.



The clear demarcation between the lighter and darker soils suggests to me that the geology may be a result of tectonic plate upheaval which is covered Fabio Cediel's and Robert Shaw's (as editors) Geology and Tectonics of Northwestern South America
 
Rene Nijstad
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Posts: 263
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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Ah Burl... Now I understand what you mean! Yes, we find lots of fossils here as well as tiny white snail shells that remind us of sea rather than land creatures... Also the shape of many mountain ridges here is rather triangular as a big zigzag or wave, gentle slopes on one side, steep slopes on the other side like it was all pushed upwards.
 
Rene Nijstad
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Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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Why do we terrace our terrain? The first picture shown below I published a few years ago on our website. It shows the usual amount of plantains we would get from our land as it was (on the left) , compared to a cluster of fruit from one of our hand dug terraces without any further special attention or fertilization (on the right). More here: https://www.wetdrytropics.org/portfolio/powers-of-observation/

We had a volunteer castor bean, igarilla in Spanish, growing next to our new road coming down, on a wide strip of now loose soil. Castor oil is made from these beans. Normally we see some volunteers around our house for some reason, and those grow around 1.5 to 2 meters high and produce a handful of beans. Those look like the one on the first picture. The big castor bean is growing on that loose soil next to that new road. It is over 4 meters tall and wide and flowering/fruiting like crazy. The picture doesn't even do it justice! And we never fertilized that area, it's just loose clay soil...

I was digging a bit into one of our new terraces to give some extra space to our new mandala garden. The wettest part of the terrace was all the way on the left, on the lowest point of the loose soil now covering the original slope. The picture below it shows our guess for what is happening. The original slope is so compacted and closed up that it still doesn't allow water to sink in. So it rather moves down inside the new loose soil of the terrace on top of the original slope.

Our neighbors told us that a decade ago they could grown anything on these lands. But that nowadays nothing wants to grow here anymore. What we see by observation is that we actually have very fertile soils. But if you kill all weeds and keep your fields bare, either by your own effort, or by overgrazing, the soil not only gets compacted, but it also forms a closed off layer on top that prevents water from infiltrating.
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