Sepp Holzer: Aquaculture – Synergy of Land and Water

By lambert strether of Corrente.

Sepp Holzer is a high-altitude permaculturalist; his farm is on a mountaintop in the Province of Salzburg, Austria:

Holzer states his path to success began when he realised he had to discard what he’d learned in agricultural college. He set out on a path of observing and emulating natural systems, rather then attempting to control (and, in the process, undermining and destroying) nature. His knowledge rebellion also put him at odds with the Austrian authorities, who fined him several times — and even threatened him with imprisonment — for ignoring regulations on what plants can and cannot be grown in specific regions.

In an interesting example of “the test of independent invention,” Holzer devised a practice of permaculture over a couple of decades before encountering the work of Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who coined the term. In the video below, check out the aerial shot of Holzer’s farm starting at 1:09: It’s like a fantasy realm. Except it’s real.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Holzer:

20:00 HOLZER: “Water is life, water is important. You have to keep it in the mountain. You don’t need big streams to have water; you can channel water by very small changes in the landscape, by making basins. You don’t need to dig a lot, you just press down the earth with the dredge bucket a bit, so that you get a ditch. Imagine you have a basin here, and one on the other side of the hill. The water will run off here, and there, and I just have channel the water down to the basin, and there I make a pond. I compact it, and then I channel the water in a natural way. So I will collect the rainwater coming from the hill. On each terrace I have such a humus basin — that’s what I call them. I collect the water coming off the hill, that’s snow water, heavy rain. It’s collected in these basins, and when there’s too much, it will overflow, into the raised beds. And these raised beds have a capillary action. They take in the water and give it off again when there is too much.

The function of the water is to supply the pumpkins and all the other plants with moisture. I have made a hollow here especially to collect rainwater. It gets sucked up into the hill and is kept there for a longer time, until the next rain comes, and the pumpkins, which need a lot of water, are supplied naturally.”

REPORTER: That’s why Sepp doesn’t irrigate his plants. He prefers nature to do it for him. He doesn’t think much of irrigation.

HOLZERT: “If I irrigate, I have to fertilize, too. Irrigation washes out the soil’s nutrients.”

“Water is life, water is important.”

Fracking. What could go wrong?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. YouDon'tSay?

      Nice! And to a casual observer it looks like they’re providing a public service by settling the dust. You have to grudgingly admire the blatant criminality of it all. And if caught they’ll pay a small fine and fire the low level perpetrators, who no doubt were acting on their own and against company policy. “Negative externalities” indeed!

  1. Demented Chimp

    The Solzers have 45ha of land! An enormous land holding with limitless water. Very low yields and land use efficiency. Its not possible to use this system to feed 7,000,000 people. Most families HAVE to survive on 0.5ha.

    A dangerous rich eccentric! More of these farms would mean even less for the global poor.

    1. They didn't leave me a choice

      7000000 people? What exactly is this number? Population of Sweden? How do you know what their yields are? Moreover, how can you tell that their yields are bad in the obviously extremely difficult mountainous terrain unsuitable for mass mechanised agriculture? Also, limitless water? What are you even ranting about?

      1. wb

        By some dangerously eccentric logic, maybe the 7,000,000 could club together and buy themselves some low-productivity hectares to improve, if they can find some dangerous rich eccentrics willing to sell… of course, with methane, droughts, forest fires, etc, enormous holdings may be more trouble than they are worth, maybe a 0.5 hectare garden is the way to go, if it keeps you fed ?

      2. Newtownian

        While Demented Chimp is a bit too adversarial/rhetorical in his perspective he does have a point.

        Its not clear whether he is refering to 7 billion (the global population and confuses his millions and billions) or 8 million (the approximate population of Austria). But either way the question is to what extent/whether alternative farming practices such as permaculture or biodynamics can feed a nation or the world indefinitely.

        Certainly they treat the land with greater respect than industrial ag, but I doubt whether they can address global and Austrian needs sustainably – see literature of ecological footprinting.

        Plenty of people argue the present industrial ag system is unsustainable and they are right in the long term – e.g. due to phosphorus resource limits which are real irrespective of the games of Goldman Sachs. But it doesnt follow that alternative systems can solve things either based purely on their better principles which are worth considering but also critiquing.

        Unfortunately the numbers game isnt addressed by either Lambert or DC. So I’ll throw some numbers in here. Given Austria has a population density of about 1 person per hectare and the mountain tops arent habitable it does seem fair to ask whether Holzer’s scheme is for everyone – clearly 45 Hectares isnt.


        Re high level agriculture I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Andean civilizations who did something that looked like permaculture until the Spanish wiped it out by forcing dubious European systems on the locals.

        Re the behaviour of the authorities – it would be interesting to hear more on these regulations. In many places water access is restricted, and you cant plant just any vegetable because some may be weeds needing control. In high plains areas in Australia grazing is restricted because of vegetation impacts while in Europe there are a lot of heritage controls on areas which are classified as national parks. These of course infringe on a landholders liberty but they arent always stupid so it would be interesting to find our what the mad bureaucrats objections actually were and their rationale.

        1. different clue

          If high energy mechanized petrochemical agriculture is going to shrink back along with its energy and chemical supply in the long run, then the “alternative methods” are all we will be left with in the long run anyway. Which means we’d better figure out how to make them work or we will be left with NOTHing that works when the petro-energy agri-bizculture goes extinct.

          So we should, as you say, look to things that clearly worked in the past and work today if they haven’t been destroyed by armed invaders . . . like the Andean agriculture you referrence or the Aztec and pre-Aztec chinampa systems developed in the Mexico Valley lakes or etc.

          Also, people are working on various high work/high yield approaches today.

          System of Rice Intensification:

          And no doubt others which smarter people than me will hopefully submit.

          1. Newtownian

            Absolutely agree with all you say.

            Trouble is you need to sort the rationality from nonsense with both alternative and industrial agriculture.

            Re problematic alternatives I am constantly aware that ALL current alternatives (Biodynamic, permaculture etc) are in effect subsidized by the dreaded fossil fuel based systems – like transport, cheap tools from China, fencing wire etc. and this is often not recognised. Alternatives certainly need to be supported but I worry whether the numbers will add up in the end having seen how hard it is for people who try to get back to grass roots.

            A different challenge is how to devise new systems for mass scale supply. In the past so much research, analysis etc. was subsidized by government (which led to different imperfections). Now to make any money farmers are by in large forced to operate as subcontractors to big processors, big agriculture etc. making doing things differently very difficult.

    2. William

      Some people (trolls) will manage to fabricate a negative out of ANYTHING. They’re just looking for attention and to waste others’ time.

    3. Brooklin Bridge

      A better example of a dangerous rich eccentric would be Monsanto that essentially guarantees that unless it, Monsanto, is making a big profit, the global poor and anyone else in the way can starve outright, for all they care.

      True, not everyone has 45 hectars (what, about 111 acres?), but so what? That would hardly make him ‘dangerous’. He is demonstrating the viability of scalable low maintenance/cost natural systems that can be of immense value and that non traditional, non high yield environments can also be highly successful and productive.

      1. Demented Chimp

        Sorry if the language in my original post was a bit hyperbolic and missing 3 0s – bit of a blurry morning.

        All i see is an man mucking around on a hillside with an excavator making ponds, rediscovering tricks subsistence farmers already know. No mention at all of yields and hard to discern from the video what he is growing apart from fish and pasture.

        I actually work as a professional in the agricultural sector and quite often with small subsistence farmers. Let me me assure you for most of the world 45ha would be see as a big farm on a mountain or not.

        Yes permaculture is a low intensity alternative if there is a lot of land and labour, it is not a way to feed the worlds current urban population. I dont have strong views either way i just dont see any real evidence to change that viewpoint after watching Solzers work.

        1. wb

          You might at least attempt to get the man’s name correct, now that you’ve got the number corrected.

          …it is not a way to feed the worlds current urban population.

          Try googling ‘urban permaculture’.

    4. different clue

      Does Holder get less food per acre off his land using his system than his neighbors get per acre off their land using their systems? If so, then you might have a point. If not, then you have no point.

      Of course, once the oil and natural gas all runs out, how much food per acre will his neighbors get then? And how much food per acre will Holder get then? That’s important to the no oil no gas future.

        1. different clue

          Well . . . that’s what my second paragraph just above was addressing.

          But in the meantime, if Holder’s neighbors don’t EVen grow as much food per acre as Holder grows . . . even WITH all their mainstream supply chains . . . . then THAT would be a powerful tire iron to beat deranged chimp into a proper silence with so that he doesn’t waste peoples’ time in the 20-30 years remaining before “supply chain problems” start showing up.

  2. burnside

    I’ve encountered nearly all these elements combined for kitchen and ornamental gardening in Italy and Southeast Asia – the raised beds, terraces, various means to create self-sustaining ponds and microclimates – all effective in collecting and regulating water supply, and in preserving fertile soils.

    The chief differences were in the choices making them either formal or apparently natural in appearance. Many are quite handsome, others easily overlooked. Holzer’s approach is fascinating. I think perhaps the oddity of its appearance interferes with an easy appreciation of all he’s accomplished.

  3. bmeisen

    Thanks for the inspiring video. Looks like he broke with an Austrian Alm dairy farming tradition – didn’t see any cows or cheese and only one shot of what could be pasture. Not your usual working farm high in the Alps.

    Most promising is his complete food chain claim: he doesn’t have to feed his predator fish because the ponds regulate the foodchain themselves. Let’s hope that his neighbors get the same ideas and that they all raise trout, pike, bass and save ocean fish stocks! He probably ships his catch down to the main road in the valley in a Seilbahn gondola powered from his hydroplant.

    Also these are the sorts of basins that would be used to store energy from regenerative sources.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Actually, Holzer incorporates animals. From [blush] WikiPedia:

      [T]here is a huge role for animals in the Holzer Permaculture. For example, Holzer is using different kinds of pigs to dig new beds. This is a very effective way of digging, the only thing he has to do is to throw some maize and other fruits to the place he wants to dig. A couple of days later, he can push the pigs back to their enclosure and plant new plants in this beds. Holzer is able to crop his plants with a huge success, without using any fertilizer.

      Get the pigs to do the work by letting them do what pigs do!

      1. different clue

        Why blush about Wikipedia? If its good, its good. I’m not to proud to refer to ANYthing if its useful.

  4. JGordon

    If only economics and finance, those man-made, degenerative, arbitrary, semiotic systems that have little or nothing to do with actual physical reality in the real world, would incorporate permaculture principles into their design. Maybe then the world economy wouldn’t be going down the toilet right now.

    By the way, I’m a credentialed permaculture designer. And I started taking courses in it after I saw the first Greening the Desert video here on Nakedcapitalism. Now that I’m experiencing reality, all this economics and finance stuff doesn’t seem much different to me that the average bad RPG DnD fantasy game.

      1. JGordon

        Hell yeah!

        Thanks to you I know how to produce all the food me and my family need on my tiny yard. And the best part is, unless you studied about plants *a lot* you’d never even know that the stuff I’m growing is food. After society collapses I’m going to be doing just fine; meanwhile everyone else will be running around shooting each other over that least dried up bit of mustard stuck at the bottom of the bottle.

        Oh you poor, unprepared people.

  5. Aquifer

    Wonder what the “big company” that his vacation spot client needed to reduce his “stress” from does ..

    In any case = what do folks think of John Todd’s “Living Machines” ideas in the good ole USA?

    Making those ponds “with his own hands made all the difference” – yes, indeed – another aspect of offshoring that is too often overlooked – the intimate, immediate feedback, not just from interdependent systems, but between the “designer/builder” and his/her “creation”, between the mind that envisions and the hand that builds – there is, IMO, no way the benefits of that interaction can be recreated or even adequately simulated on a computer …

  6. Aquifer

    Methinks Wangari Matthei’s Green Belt movement was/is an African version, and the work Vandana Shiva is doing, an Indian application …

  7. different clue

    Mark Shepherd has been researching and working on mainstreaming permaculture here in America. He was interviewed in the most recent issue of Acres USA.
    Here is a link-or-two to what he is doing.

    Mark Shepherd would like to see “imitation oak-prairie savanah” multi-story woody perennial polyculture become the mainstream agri-bulk commodity production system over a few hundred thousand square miles of American farmland. That would require a change in basic American eating habits of course.

  8. Maju

    This guy is pretty impressive. I watched another documentary on him at TV years ago and it was very stimulating and interesting (not so focused on water only but getting pigs to plough the land and so on).

    Permaculture is fascinating. And it works. The main problem is that it is not a simple straightforward method but a kind of “wisdom” that you can only get (at least partly) through continuous work with the land itself. The conditions of Austrian mountains for example are not the same as, say in the African Sahel, etc. Each location has its own uniqueness and that’s not something you an pack and sell standardized in big numbers.

    It is artistic to some extent. Art and science combined ecological and hlistically to make production and harmony.

    I hope we do learn this kind of wisdom, at least a little bit.

  9. Crazy Horse

    Very valuable insights for living in a natural world after the human population collapses back to about 1 billion. Although it will be much more difficult to create a pondscape with draft horses or slaves than with a backhoe and petroleum based plastic piping—.

    Assuming the world needs to feed several billion people after the banksters and other dysfunctional species aberrations die off, a technology like aquaponics merits more examination.

    Aquaponics, at least in the full ecosystem version, consists of a closed cycle biosphere solar energy collector whose output is fish protein and edible plants. By using passive solar greenhouse design and duckweed/algae farming for fish food an aquaponics system can minimize (but not eliminate) outside energy inputs.

    About 4,000 sq. ft of greenhouse will generate the entire protein and vegetable supply for a family of four. Water usage is on the order of 10% that of best practice conventional agriculture.

    If there is a future on the planet for 7-10 billion people living a technological lifestyle (highly questionable assumption) a large portion of the food will need to be grown this way. And it will have to be complemented by a high density energy alternative to fossil fuels. Solar and other renewables simply lack the energy density and resultant EROI to support the current level of human population. The only potential candidate that is more than vaporware is the Liquid Floride Thorium Reactor.
    (my apologies for skimming over two absolutely key technologies for a technological future, but there is enough information available for the curious to at least begin research if you so choose.)

    1. Newtownian

      Since you are trying to do energy balance you really should have a close relook at your thorium argument.

      1. According to the USGS there are only about 1.3 Mtonnes of reserves available globally. While this is a lot of energy its not infinite – its about 80 years supply assuming a 20 TWe primary energy economy (current is about 16 TW) driven by fission electricity/hydrogen. A lot but not sustainable.

      2. Photovoltaics and solar thermal increases in efficiency and reduced cost really are changing the game – and its for the life of the solar system and completely scalable.

      3. There have been plenty of thorium developmental scale reactors but somehow it has never taken off despite the problems with ordinary Uranium. You really have to ask why – probably something to do with the witches cauldron reactors needed plus a massive industry of industrial ceramics as structural material and the ferociously gamma radioactive byproducts which mitigate against the material’s use in weapons.

  10. American Slave

    Its always wonderful to see reports and videos like this that make you learn and think. My hope is that someday people learn about and continue one program we used to have in the Soviet Union (Where that dumb fk Gorbachev canceled it) where we almost were able to feed the world buy growing Spurluna (or how ever you spell it) which is an edible bacteria but its more like algae in my opinion, but one thing I have lots of experience with is and if scaled up I can get more than 100lbs per acre per day and probably more which I can use to make biogas (same as natural gas) or ethanol the same way its made with corn and use the distillers grains to make beer flavored bread so nothing is wasted but im a true believer Duckweed can save the world its an amazing plant.

    1. different clue

      Are there links to articles about the multi-species hi-density gardening done by ordinary Russians/Ukrainians/etc. on their small plots and yards? I always had the feeling they (you?) did a lot of effective food growing but it was never studied here because it just isn’t “romantic” or “exotic” enough to interest people searching for “alternatives”.

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