New Land - Now what?

We have purchased 5 acres in the highlands area of northern Panama near Boquete. We purchased here because we are connected with several families that are interested in pooling resources to create a self sustaining community. Our land has about 1200 coffee plants on it along with a couple of dozen banana trees and quite a bit of Taro. There is plenty of good clean water nearby
My question is how to get started in picking plants and developing the land with a view of self sustainability? There is so much excellent information here it’s a bit overwhelming.

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Good to hear of your initiative Lawrence. I would advise to start with a long period of observation without attachment to implementing anything. Observation both of the land (in terms of soil, water, landscape, biodiversity, etc.) and yourselves in terms of your vision(s), goal(s), resources & constraints. (for resources look up 8 forms of Capital by Ethan Roland/Gregory Landua, 2011, though I call it 8+1 as Health & Well being is omitted from the 8!) Also observation of neighbours & local communities. This will all help to come up with a realistic design and implementation plan. Generating ideas can also be part of visioning & observation, just don’t be attached to keeping/implementing them (yet). Maybe identify what skills you have & what you need & research courses to do/sources of info. Maybe do a permaculture design course to help bring it all together.
Good luck!

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I believe this needs some back-and-forth discussion starting with your goals. I have always believed sustainability is a low goal. Are you willing to discuss a little twist of that goal to something like sustained expansion or maximally blessing others so you have front-and-center expansion of resources to accomplish your goals? It was very smart of you to start a discussion here in ECHO and it is likely if you put your goals in the right place you will all be a greater and greater blessing to not only those you are in the community with but even to the local people and beyond as you figure out best management practices and hone them toward your goals. I grew up on a very successful farm focusing on high-value cropping. Income was important but not the all-consuming factor. I wonder how important your goals are and if you have considered working backward from a budget of what you need and what you would like to do if you could develop a reasonable plan for an even higher income. Also, you can work in the other direction from figuring out what are the highest income opportunities and what might be possible with that income if you used best management practices to grow them. Bananas, coffee, and taro are likely not the highest income opportunities. Coffee depends a lot on world market prices and if you can achieve a good return on investment to follow the value chain–drying, removing pulp, packaging, maybe infusing, marketing, agri-tourism, etc. How old is the coffee plantation and do they need renewal, more fertilizer, and shade? Can you intercrop a high-value crop such as a type of fruit tree in between the coffee? Your location puts you at around 4000 ft. Just about anything can be grown at that elevation. Market research should show you what is in demand in the local market and if there is opportunities to attract tourists. Can you do something unique in terms of value added with the coffee that would attract tourists or create a better market? You may want to diversify to berries or vegetables or specialize in value addition or specialty juices from the wide range of small and large fruits and even some varieties in the Solanaceous family that will produce unique juices that do well at that elevation. I spent time in Piendamo, Colombia which is a little higher elevation and saw many potential opportunities. Taro has a great market if made into chips and the best market would be vacuum fried which is more healthy but the equipment can be a little expensive and perhaps you might custom process for others to make the best profit. You could use the same equipment to make banana chips and again custom processing may help you make the equipment pay. Sweet potatoes and squash would go with the same type of frying. Purple varieties of sweet potatoes are going to be unique and more healthy (or a mix of colors for variety in the package). My email is if you ever want to talk directly but here is a place others can learn from our conversation. Also taro is a great fit for really wet areas with less drainage.

I wanted to personally reach out and thank you all for your generous replies. I’m the newbie to the community in Panama so I have the least knowledge of the local flora. Currently I split my time between Panama and South Florida but I’m trying to push that balance toward Panama as quickly as possible. I want to put more thought into what you have written but desired to get a reply out there to communicate how much I appreciate your input.

The properties are right at 4000 feet as you mentioned. We have no specific interest in coffee and bananas - other than keeping a few, we want to expand on the basic staples everyone has in the area and see what else is marketable and sustainable at our elevation / micro-climate.
The macro objectives are:

  1. To create a (I think the term folks use now is) “perma culture” that is self-sustaining from our community standpoint (the families participating in this endeavor) and provide a modest income from marketable fruits and vegetables and a low impact meat source (many already have chickens but looking at Muscovy Ducks also).

  2. A number in our groups have ongoing outreaches and deeper relationships to the indigenous in the area. These groups commonly suffer from malnutrition and are generally used as support labor on the larger coffee plantations. We hope to model how to use the land to supplement their food supply and how it can provide them with additional income.
    My personal email is

My bias based on my highly diversified farm background and work in Africa (10 years), Colombia mid and high elevation 3.5 months and having visited higher elevation in Honduras is that Westerners focus too much on staples. I recommend if you want to lift people out of poverty they have to see examples of high value cropping, otherwise all they are seeing is continuing to keep them stuck in the rut of low income and the more of that you can demonstrate on your farm the more likely they will see something that they can do. I have found that often they do a pretty good job of producing staples and helping them increase their yield of staples may tie up more of their time with little improvement in livelihood and this is particularly true of those with small amounts of land and little or low mechanization both of which are not at a good fit for staples production. If you want to get people away from low pay labor and making money on their own properties the pathway is through putting as much of their land into high-value crop production, and cooperative value addition, packaging or distribution/marketing. Panama was influenced by the Latifundia/o system and suffers as a result with best land distributed to land barons: El problema de la tierra en Panamá, un secreto a voces Most Latin American countries have this problem. I wonder what you mean by low-impact meat production. Is that due to concerns about climate/methane or the efficiency of land use? I am an agroforester so I know about Permaculture. Permaculture seems to have adopted an aura of New Age by most authors and I don’t see that as a good thing but it has its merits which are an almost complete overlap with agroforestry. But both of these systems can be over-promoted when you have irrigation which causes them to be relatively less important as more land is irrigated. And why set goals on “modest income”? The more income you generate the more efficient you can become and offer opportunities for value addition to others. Value addition opportunities often done through the church or a cooperative are extremely important and they cost a lot of money to set up in the most efficient systems so it behooves you to try for maximal income so you can do that and maximally bless others with opportunities. I do commend you on groups having outreaches to the indigenous–really awesome. So as I have worked around the world the problem has generally not been lack of food but more specifically lack of income. Income opens the door for just about anything beneficial and covers education, health care, emergency fund, casting vision for communally solving root problems for/by community, investing in a savings group that shields the savings from predatory mutchers (friends, neighbors, family that always seem to have more need of your earnings than you). That is why I suggested berries or juices, even pastries with jams/jellies. And if you can do something special value addition with the meat that is great also. There is a lot of tourism there so set the example of how to draw in the tourist and subcontract to the local community, do custom work with machinery for the community, set up exchanges with the community of all types. I can train you in the wide range of exchanges that are possible. I do this training all the time. We can talk value addition/following the value chain to its ultimate.

just to add in to this again - Dan obviously has huge experience in high value and niche crops/markets, processing etc. and that is going to be important for your sustainability and resilience. Staple are also important, however, and just because they are relatively low income doesn’t exclude them from regenerative farm systems. Someone has to grow them! So best it’s done locally, and regeneratively/sustainably. The model of shifting to high value and away from staples has historically encouraged the latter to be produced by mega farms with increasing external/fossil fuel inputs, as they can be grown using economies of scale to overcome their low relative value. To me it’s both/and, not either/or - regeneratively grown staples and high value crops can be part of an integrated farm design. They are both needed, imo.
Speaking as a permaculture-trained and inspired farmer I would clarify that as it’s a design system - a way of designing - using ecological, indigenous and modern/scientific patterns and approaches - so I would (and do) design my agroforestry using permaculture design principles and process, for example - they are not the same thing, one is a way of achieving the other. In this way, a biointensive, organic, regenerative, biodynamic, syntropic, keyline, or whatever farming system can be designed in the same way, as can a business, an educational system, a cooperative or indeed a governance system.

Hi There,

Recently I asked a question about Tree Gardens through the ECHO Community and was directed to these two utubes

Forests Food

If you go to the end of the video, there is a link to Andrew Millison’s video on the 4 year plan for Tree Gardens. After watching Andrew Millison (who is a permaculture expert teaching permaculture design courses at Oregon State University and has multiple utubes on permaculture) I learned about Trees for the Future that works with farmers and trains them. Their website notes the different locations they are working in around the world. This looks like a good resource for my work in Africa.

My point, more diversity means more resilience for families. When a crop fails, families aren’t devasted because they have perennial plants in place producing fruit trees and vegetables, as well as providing this incredible micro-climate making it a comfortable place to be outside in the shade. You will notice in the videos they are planting both for nutrition and their family needs, as well as cash crops.

Unfortunately I can’t speak to Panama’s environment. I’m still learning about Africa’s climate where they experience extreme drought and monsoon rains. I am passionate about permaculture, because I’ve seen it heal the earth and care for the people with no harm to the land.

I wish you abundance and prosperity!

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I agree with Chris. When it comes to growing things, trees in particular, its better to know what you already have in detail by observing for at least one year to know what times of the year you will have specific threats (fires, droughts, cows, pests, etc.) and what parts of the year you will have opportunities (stable rainfall, lack of extreme temps, available labor, etc.)

If you haven’t done this already, I would start making a list of all the things you see others growing. It would be good to ask people why they grow certain things and if you don’t see something you think you should see, ask them why they don’t grow that. It could be because its too difficult for many different (return on investment isn’t good) reasons, or it could just be they aren’t familiar with it. For all of the things people grow, it would be good to note what time of year it fruits/produces. There could be many things that aren’t available during different parts of the year, once again for a lot of different reasons. Some of those may be easily overcome without too much effort, others may be uneconomical. This all gets complicated pretty quickly so keeping good notes organized is critical.

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Thank you for these… the videos were quite helpful…