By Ryan Slabaugh

BELMOPAN, Belize — Perhaps it was better when the power went out. The lack of microphones forced Ronnie Cummins with Regeneration International to start Wednesday’s Tropical Agricultural Conference shouting over the passing trucks.

The extra volume didn’t hurt the critical nature of his message.

“Thank you for what you do every day, and I’m going to thank you in advance for what you’re going to do in advance every day,” Cummins said. “The next 10 years, what you do, what I do, what we all do around the world, we either move in a regenerative direction, or it’s going to get very, very difficult for our children.”

When Cummins finished, the power had returned, and the sessions started around the national agriculture facility, with more than 300 attendees from mostly around the region — Belize, Guatemala, Columbia, Mexico — rotating between five active stages. A local market fed attendees with fried donuts, jerk chicken and local juices. The scene was appropriate for the theme of the conference — how to channel the vast amount of pristine natural resources into food, into a regenerative agriculture economy, and how that economy could set the world standard for using agriculture to reverse climate change.

Christopher Nesbitt took the yellow stage, a 100-yard walk from the entrance. Nesbitt, a farmer who emigrated from the United States to South America in the 1980s, taught his methods for permaculture farming and energy management. He’s tall, with a big beard, and refused to use the microphone, even though the power was working. He preferred to project his voice over the passing trucks.

Farmer Christopher Nesbitt speaks at the Tropical Agriculture Conference
Christopher Nesbitt teaches his class on permaculture growing techniques on Wednesday morning. He grows hundreds of species, including vanilla and cacao on his farm. “On my farm, if a market goes bad, I’ve got 499 other things to sell.”

“I can be louder than you,” he taunted them.

“I’m only 57-years-old, and I started doing this when I was 22,” Nesbitt told the crowd. “It is a question of time, but you can do it much faster than I did. There was no internet, no Google, no YouTube videos … you couldn’t order books about this. But I made tons of mistakes. I did this during a period of my life when I had zero money. I was destitute and penniless and off in the jungle waiting for Western Civilization to collapse.”

In the 30 years since, despite the remaining existence of Western Civilization, Nesbitt has developed a system of growing more than 500 species on his farm, dabbled in pigs (but doesn’t eat pork), and runs a permaculture school now on his farm. He teaches a three-stage method for regeneration that helped him build his farm today. His advice:

  • Start with a dominant, pioneer species. “What we’re doing is mimicking nature after a disaster. We’re using bananas. They don’t change the chemistry of the soil, but they do change the structure.”
  • After the dominant plants take hold, then plant high-yielding species. He suggested a variety of nut trees, annuals and perennials.
  • Finally, plant high-value crops. He focuses today mostly on cacao and vanilla, while also growing more turmeric now that its value is rising quickly around the world.

And what does all that look like? A bit of a mess to untrained eyes. He said the best, and most common, compliment he gets is when visitors arrive on his farm and tell him that it doesn’t look like one.

“It’s backhanded, but I like it when they tell me that,” Nesbitt said. “If you only have one crop, if you have 50 acres of citrus, if the market goes bad, I sure hope you like drinking orange juice. And if you’re in debt, you’re in real trouble.”

Taylor Walker speaks at the Tropical Agriculture Conference
Taylor Walker leads a class on edible gardening and trees. “Jack fruit is a breathtaking tree to see. I’ve heard of trees in India reaching 180 feet.”

The ultimate rules, he said, are succession and entropy. Succession tells us that when things die, others take over. Entropy tells us that when things die, they start to break down. The two systems working together build organic matter and soil life, and using those rules to build your system will eventually lead to a time when you can spend much less energy on the farm managing and more time harvesting.

Nesbitt showed a funny line graph that he admitted was “not scientific,” but got the point across. It showed how his “energy spent” line declined over time, while “energy harvested from the land” shot a line through the top of his chart.

He quickly brought it back to the theme of the conference.

“Why would we want to do this?” Nesbitt asked. “Right now everyone is talking about climate change. We’re seeing weather patterns that don’t behave like they are supposed to. Right now it’s drier than it should be. We want to sequester carbon, and build and retain tropical soil.”

He also noted one significant fact specific to Belize.

“We can do this,” he advocated. “After all, the motto of the country is ‘Under the Trees we Flourish.’”

The Tropical Agriculture Conference concludes on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

Read about Day 1 here.

Read highlights from Day 3 here, including an on-site Tractor Time podcast episode.

Ryan Slabaugh is the GM and publisher of Acres U.S.A. He’s on assignment this week in Belmopan, Belize.