Overstory #20 - Five Fertility Principles
Aloha Overstory readers-- This edition we have a special guest author, Roland Bunch of COSECHA, Honduras. This summary of an article by Roland describes his discoveries during the course of 12 years of work in the humid tropics. His work with farmers revealed five key principles in agriculture for sustainability, based on the natural processes of fertility found in humid tropical forest ecosystems:
- Maximize organic matter production
- Keep the soil covered
- Use zero tillage
- Maintain biological diversity
- Feed plants through the mulch
While we normally keep Overstory issues to one topic or concept, we hope you will enjoy Roland's summary of these interlinked principles.
Discovering Principles of Agriculture for the Humid Tropics
The odyssey of my colleagues and I started in 1982, the day Conrado Zavala, a Honduran villager, sheepishly showed us his experiment. Although skeptical about the value of the organic matter we had recommended, he had piled a huge quantity of compost into several rows of his maize field. There stood a field of 2 1/2 m (8 ft) maize, with the two rows he left as a control less than 40 cm (16 inches) tall. That was the day we began to realize the incredible degree to which organic matter can restore soils.
Principle #1: Maximize organic matter production
Conrado's particular approach using compost for mulch, however, was not economically feasible. The cost of using compost on basic grains exceeds the benefit. But intercropped green manure/cover crops (gm/cc's) can produce from 50 to 140 tons per hectare (22 to 62 tons/acre) (green weight) of organic matter with very little work: no transporting of material and no cutting up or layering or turning over of compost heaps. In fact, sometimes, because of the gm/cc's control of weeds, net labor costs decrease. Soil quality often improves visibly each year.
Gradually, between 1985 and 1992, we learned that villager farmers from Veracruz State in Mexico through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras were intercropping velvet beans (Mucuna pruriens), cowpeas (Vigna spp.) and jack beans (Canavalia ensiformis) with their maize and sorghum.
To our amazement, these systems, virtually all of them in the supposedly infertile humid tropics, allow farmers to plant maize every year for decades, with productivity increasing over time up to 4 T/Ha (1.8 tons/acre). In other words, these farmers have found a sustainable alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture.
Little by little, work in a dozen countries has convinced us that the vast majority of soils can be made highly fertile. How? By using our first principle: maximize organic matter production.
Principle #2: Keep the soil covered
Gm/cc mulches provide a whole series of additional benefits. They protect the soil from the heat of the tropical sun, thereby reducing burn out of organic matter. They save a tremendous amount of work; farmers can sow into the plant residue rather than tilling the soil. They keep the excess nitrogen from acidifying the upper soil horizons. And they largely prevent soil erosion, even on slopes of 40%.
Migratory agriculture is most frequently motivated by decreasing fertility, increased weed problems, or both. In the Mesoamerican gm/cc systems, nitrogen fixation and biomass recycling maintain soil fertility. Mulches of crop residues and fast-growing gm/cc's drastically reduce the weed problem. We had learned a second principle: keep the soil covered.
Principle #3: Use zero tillage
In the meantime, we had been reading Fukuoka's book, The One-Straw Revolution. However, his recommendation of zero tillage failed to convince us. After all, most of the traditional agriculture in Latin America uses zero tillage, yet is far from productive.
I then visited the work of EPAGRI in southern Brazil. Having visited over 160 agricultural development programs through the years, I found this largely unpublicized effort to be the finest of its size I had seen in Latin America. Literally tens of thousands of farmers were producing harvests approaching those in the USA--with gm/cc's and zero tillage.
EPAGRI's manager showed us that the secret to achieving productive zero tillage is applying massive amounts of organic matter to the soil. Brazilian farmers, after some four years of applying gm/cc's to the soil, are able to quit plowing. The advantages, in terms of better soil structure, reduced soil compaction, higher fertility, and decreased cost, are impressive.
The Brazilians' discovery explains why the zero tillage gm/cc systems of northern Honduras produce so well, while many traditional zero tillage systems do not. Thus we added a third principle: use zero tillage.
Principle #4: Maintain biological diversity
EPAGRI's investigation and dissemination of over 60 species of gm/cc partly to avoid diseases and insect pests, confirmed another, more widely known principle: maintain biological diversity.
Principle #5: Feed plants through the mulch
The last principle was discovered by Martha Rosemeyer, a Cornell doctoral candidate working in Costa Rica. For several years, agronomists working with a low-cost, traditional, mulched-bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) system had been trying to solve a phosphorus deficiency problem. With highly acid (pH = 4.0 to 4.5) soils, virtually all the phosphorus applied became tied up almost instantly. Farmers' harvests averaged a mere 500 kg/Ha (450 lb/acre).
Martha and a group of farmers tried broadcasting the phosphorus *on top* of the mulch. The results, since confirmed in numerous additional experiments, were astounding. Bean yields rose to between 1.5 and 2.5 T/Ha (0.66 and 1.1 tons/acre).
This phenomenon has not yet been validated with other crops. Yet it coincides with the fact that plants as diverse as maize, manioc, and tropical trees tend to develop a heavy mass of feeder roots immediately under thick mulches. Furthermore, it makes simple sense: when soils are as hostile to plant growth as are the humid tropic's acid soils, feeding plants through a mulch is a much more promising alternative. This fifth principle is undoubtedly the most unconventional: feed plants through the mulch.
Synergy of the five principles
These five principles enjoy a nice synergy. For example, if we are going to feed our plants through a mulch, we certainly cannot plow our fields. Nevertheless, the most important connection between these principles is precisely the one that took us the longest to figure out: they describe quite well the way a humid tropical forest functions. That is, all we discovered in our 12-year odyssey is something we should have guessed all along. In order for humid tropical agriculture to be both highly productive and sustainable, it must imitate the highly productive, millions-of-years-old humid tropical forest.
Three months ago, I searched the computerized agricultural data system in the United States for information on the nutrient dynamics in mulches and the feeding of crops through a mulch. I found virtually nothing. The above principles mean we are going to have to develop agricultural systems totally different from those agronomists have tried, for so many years, to "transfer" from the temperate nations. The possibilities are enormous. A study from northern Honduras shows that the gm/cc/maize system there is 30% more profitable than the high-input maize system nearby. It may well be we are just beginning to fathom the full potential of low-input agriculture in the humid tropics.
The complete original text and references for this article can be found in the ECHO Development Notes. We thank ECHO for their permission to summarize this article for you.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #29--Green Manures and Cover Crops
- The Overstory #28--Microlife
- The Overstory #22--Pioneering Difficult Sites
- The Overstory #20--Five Fertility Principles
- The Overstory #14--Diversity of Species
- The Overstory #1--Sheet Mulch