The Azores are an archipelago of nine islands located in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, and I have been living here for the last 18 months. We are 850 miles (1365 km) off the coast of mainland Europe, and the island is a mix of modern and traditional. Kids are walking around glued to their smartphones, but each morning, I see men milking the dairy cows out in the fields. Almost once a week, I get caught in what my kids call a “cow jam”. The dairy cows need to be moved from one field to the next, and the farmers use the roads to do this. All traffic comes to a standstill until the row of cows slowly amble past. The Summers in the islands are beautiful… long sunny days that are warm with a cool ocean breeze. It is not surprising that the Azores are a popular vacation spot. The Winters, however, are another story… short rainy days with lots of strong winds, and everything is damp and cold. It is also not surprising that there are almost no tourists in the Winter.
Due to the distance from the mainland and their isolation, especially in the Winter, the Azoreans have had to be very resilient and self-sufficient. In fact, I think there are few populations in the world that are as self-sufficient as the Azoreans. If all communication, travel, and trade suddenly stopped, the day to day life for most Azoreans would not be much different. The current youth are very connected to the outside world, but the older generation has little need or use for the world outside of the Azores. While the Azores do import foods, textiles, and other products from around the world, very little of these things are really needed. They make life nicer for some, but just one or two generations ago, the islands met almost all their own needs.
This self-sufficiency did not occur overnight. The islands were “officially” discovered in 1431, and was settled in 1444. There have been some interesting discoveries in the last few months of cave paintings nearby and a pyramid-type structure being found right off the coast of my island that may suggest inhabitation much earlier… some are suggesting a possible Atlantis-type scenario (http://www.azores-pyramid.org/). Either way, over the next 600 years, the Azoreans developed systems that had to be sustainable. While the Portuguese were accomplished sailors, the people living on the islands truly had no guarantee when the next ship would come, or if a ship on the horizon was a friend or foe. Although the history of the Azores is a fascinating story, my goal for this article is to highlight one of the Azoreans’ proven sustainable systems: Azorean-Style Rotational Grazing.
The first time I caught sight of the Azores was through a window from a plane. I was moving here after living in the Middle East (Turkey) for two years. The first thing I noticed was how green everything was… lush and verdant. The second thing I noticed was that the island was checkered with stone walls… like a patchwork quilt. After spending some time on the island, I learned that the walls are constructed of volcanic rock and date back for hundreds of years. Most of the walls are built with no mortar. They are just stacked and held in place with gravity. The skill required to build these walls is much greater than most people realize. These walls divide the grazing fields into small paddocks. The cattle are rotated through the paddocks on roughly a daily basis. Some fields are larger than others and some herds are smaller than others, so the cattle are rotated based on the condition of the pasture. The cattle are only given supplementary feed a few times a year, usually in Winter, when the pastures are less productive and need more recovery time before being grazed again. This is a classic example of intensive, rotational grazing (also known as Mob Grazing). It has only been in the last few decades that intensive rotational grazing has become popular in sustainable and regenerative agriculture, but the Azoreans have been practicing this for hundreds of years!
I will point out that the Azoreans do not stock their paddocks at as high a density as some modern intensive grazers, but the concept is still identical. I will also point out that if I was designing the entire island from a Permaculture perspective, I would make a few changes. First, the paddocks do encompass some very steep hillsides. I would prefer to plant this to trees to avoid erosion. I know that my island has seen a number of flash floods that have destroyed many homes and caused a number of deaths. This is very tragic, and I do think that this risk could be mitigated with a bit better design. Second, the wind during the Winter can be brutal. The large expanses of paddocks could probably benefit from windbreaks. There are some farmers who seem to have caught on to this idea, but it is not very widespread at this point.
Overall, I think the Azores offers a unique perspective on sustainability out of necessity. If you would like some more information on intensive/mob-grazing, I have written a couple of articles on the subject:
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