Farming always occurs within a context, and the context varies across international borders, from one region to another and from one farmer to another. Consequently there will also be a great variety of applied farming methods.
Agro ecology is about principles and direction. Agro ecological principles have evolved during a number of years through research of several hundred international scientists into concrete projects. The basic principle is to attempt to mimic ecosystems that occur naturally and use these in food production. This method of agriculture utilizes resources the farmer already has access to. This increases yields and improves food security.
An agro ecological system includes several of the following elements:
- Several different types of plants in the same field.
- Crop rotation using different types of plants.
- Covering the soil with plant material to prevent it drying out. Keeping weeds in check and increase the amount of biological matter within the soil.
- Growing legumes in order to fix nitrogen within the soil.
- Limiting the amount of soil cultivation.
- Including livestock and the use of manure as fertilizer as a natural part of the farming system.
- Planting trees that provide fruit, firewood and building materials while also providing shade, shelter and nutrients for the soil.
- Allowing insects and other useful organisms to pollinate the plants and act as natural decomposing agents.
- Limited use of industrial fertilizer and chemical pesticides.
Agro ecological farming in Nicaragua
Dona Sebastiana grows legumes that bind nitrogen within the soil so that she does not need to buy expensive fertilizer. To battle pests she uses a mixture of lemons, chillies and water which is left to infuse for a few days. This means she can avoid buying toxic pesticides. Trees provide shade for the food crops and the variety of plants work together to form a small ecosystem. In addition to this she keeps chickens, ducks, turkeys and a fish pond. Every element is connected to everything else. In the photograph she displays a kind of flat potato with the evocative name ‘’sky-potato’’. It grows on a kind of vine similar to that of grapes. Establishing this kind of system is labour intensive, but the results are amazing.
Farmers training farmers
Experience has taught us that farmers are sceptical towards training with external technical experts. We have therefore introduced a training program using lead farmers where local farmers are trained in sustainable farming methods and taught how to instruct others. This enables us to reach far more people. The concept has been adopted on a national level by the authorities in Malawi. Chidumul Nkhata (in the photo) is one of our lead farmers in Malawi.
Simple techniques provide more food
Maize is still the most important food crop in Malawi. Growing the maize in groups of 4-5 plants rather than in the traditional way of planting them in long rows works very well combined with using manure as fertilizer. This yields a larger crop from a smaller area because it preserves moisture and utilizes the nutrients in the soil more effectively.