With a babbling river to our left, and an Eden-like oasis of green bursting with flowers and fruit to our right, “The Lazy Farmer” himself, John Douglas, begins our tour with an unabashed tale of his humble origins. He reminds us (Ben, Laura, and I) that before his wife was an ex, before he bid adieu to his American life for two years in the Peace Corps, and before he purchased 25 acres of land near Penonome, Panama, he was just another back-porch gardener in Wisconsin with a brown thumb.
En route from Panama City to Isla Palenque, we’ve stopped to meet with John because his permaculture farm is pioneering the way for Panama’s farming future – and we want to learn from the best for our on-island organic farm. For those of us city-dwellers who know organic as something we can find at Whole Foods, permaculture is defined as “a theory of ecological design which seeks to develop sustainable agricultural systems and human settlements by attempting to model them on natural ecosystems.” Luckily, John has a simpler way of putting it:
“Hold out your hand,” he says, as he whips out a pocketknife and bends down to the dry road near our feet to scoop out a bit of dirt. He dumps the light dry earth in each of our hands and beckons us over to the cool shade of the river bank, where he adds more dirt to our open palms.
“Now,” he exclaims, as if this handful of dirt explains everything, “whats the difference?”
Ben, Laura and I mumble in reply, afraid of not pointing out what is so incredibly obvious to John. The soil near the river is much darker in color, it’s heavier, richer, and full of little roots and bugs. The soil from the road is just light brown and dry.
“Organic matter!” he booms, helping us along. “This soil is full of organic matter, and well, you can see where things are growing, can’t you?” He finishes this exercise pointing from the lush green riverbanks to the barren roadside and back again with a smile and nod.
“Okay, get rid of that, let’s go see the farm.” He snaps his pocketknife back into itself and leads us, dusting off our hands and shaking our heads, onward.
When he first started planting his newly-acquired farmland smack-dab in the middle of Panama, all John had was some good advice from other farmers, the few books available on permaculture, some native seedlings and an open mind. The game plan was guesswork and the rules were simple: use organic matter as fertilizer to create a natural, biodiverse environment that will maximize the production of organic produce. Experiment until it works.
Five years later, it’s apparent that John has done something right. I pull a plump orange off the tree and savor my first juicy bite with the satisfaction that no harmful unnatural chemicals have touched this bright orange ball of deliciousness. John doesn’t have to tell us he’s found the secret to a healthy permaculture farm in Panama – in fact, he won’t. He’ll only illustrate what he’s learned with one hands-on escapade after another. Luckily for us, many of those include a taste test.
The entrance to his farm boasts a large painted sign that says El secreto es La Basura, which means “The secret is The Trash.” My first though was compost; though I’ve never raised organic crops of my own, I’m aware that banana peels and eggshells are much more than litterbin fodder and that kitchen-scrap compost makes an excellent fertilizer.
But John’s “secret trash” translates to something a bit different. If you’ve driven through any rural area in Central America, including Panama, you’ve likely noticed the rich organic smell and flickering flames of the small roadside fires of the campesinos (loosely translated as “country people”). Local farmers dispose of the leaves, sticks, and palm fronds they clear from their farms and villages by piling these materials up on the edge of the road and burning them. They’ve long treated this organic matter as “trash,” but John’s goal is to educate them in its uses and encourage them to re-think their traditional practices. In teaching his fellow farmers, John taps into the Panamanian penchant for self-deprecating humor, especially when it comes to their lackadaisical tropical work ethic. John has taken to repeating, “I’m lazy.” (He tells us this numerous times throughout his tour.) “Work less to produce more. Use your head, not your back. That’s what I do.”
But John’s secret goes much deeper than the slogans and antics that make him memorable. He doesn’t clutter his message with a lot of theory or methodology because his purpose is much larger than merely proving a point or blazing a trail.
His tours are free and his message is simple because he does this to help the campesinos farm their way to a healthier and richer life. His efforts help protect Panama’s lands from abrasive agrochemical fertilizers that strip the soil of organic matter (rendering small farm plots useless after only a few years) and poison the drinking water of the many rural communities that make up Panama’s interior. Here in Panama’s heartland, organic farming isn’t about promoting a lofty ideal – it’s bigger than that. It’s a practice that will bring local farmers one successful yield after another without the hefty overhead and risky business of chemical fertilizer.
It might be his farm’s strange name that gets locals to raise their eyebrows, but it’s his incredible produce that has them rapid-firing questions. Many of his neighboring farmers grow plantains, and they’re taken with one of John’s favorite and most successful permaculture techniques, the Magic Circle: dig a circular hole about a meter wide and a meter deep and fill it with organic matter – leftover plants, branches, food, you name it. Use the soil dug from the hole to create a ring of dirt around it, then plant four or five banana trees around the hole, alternating them with sweet potatoes and taro plants for complementary biodiversity and a rich root system to withstand erosion. From there all you have to do is throw in organic matter when you have it and watch those trees produce the plumpest, healthiest bananas in town. Sound too easy? That’s because it is, and the locals love this lazy-farmer technique.
The Magic Circle is just one of dozens of simple, sustainable techniques John shared with us during his tour. He told us about every success and failure he’s had over five years, what’s he’s still doing because it works, and what he’s not because it didn’t.
Through trial and error, he’s discovered tricks and tools for managing his crops the natural way. He knows plants that are nitrogen fixers for trees, like Guandu or Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) and the Ice Cream Bean Tree (Inga edulis), as well as plants that act as repellants for mosquitoes and other pesky crop-ravaging bugs – his favorites are the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) and the Balo (Gliricidia sepium).
Between sampling familiar favorites like mulberry and juicy citrus, we ate the leaves and fruits of most things we passed, rubbed others on our arms to repel bugs, and even had some shoved into our pockets with the gruff well-wish: “Here, stick this in the dirt on your island, it’ll do great.” It’s safe to say that no matter how many farming techniques we study in the process of cultivating a healthy organic farm on Isla Palenque, our day with the “lazy farmer” is going to be hard to beat when it comes to entertainment value.
Meet the Lazy Farmer Yourself
Whether you’re a budding organic farmer or merely curious about life in the mountains of Central Panama, I highly urge you to email John (at email@example.com) and arrange a visit to his farm. Better yet, one-up our afternoon jaunt by staying to volunteer for a few days – waking up to John’s view at the top of the hill will be nothing short of breathtaking.