Agroforestry: Spreading the Word

How many of you reading this know how to sustainably grow corn, beans and tomatoes? Can you do so without going to a garden center or buying expensive and sometimes dangerous pesticides, fertilizers and equipment? And even if you just answered “yes” and “yes,” did you learn to do so from your parents and their parents before them?

An EcoLogic community member in Northern Guatemala stands in a recently established agroforestry plot.

An EcoLogic community member in Northern Guatemala stands in a recently established agroforestry plot.

In an era when more and more people worldwide would say “no” to these questions, where much of the traditional knowledge about sustainable agricultural practices has been lost, and where food production or “food security” for rural communities remains inadequate, it is all the more important that affordable, effective, and sustainable agricultural solutions be promoted that will also conserve the natural systems needed for long-term environmental and human wellbeing.

Since the late 1990s, EcoLogic has been working with Central American farmers to help them transition to a farming practice known as agroforestry. At its simplest agroforestry means growing crops with trees so that farming is easier and less damaging to the soil and ecosystem, and so that crops can be replanted in the same place year after year. When done correctly, crop yields are as robust as those found in typical open fields, there is no loss of soil thanks to the protection of the tree root systems—even in times of heavy rains—and soil fertility can even improve thanks to leaf litter and the nitrogen fixing properties of some tree species. Inga (inga edulis)—known in Spanish by a variety of names including guama,pacay or cuaniquil—is one such beneficial tree. Another is Andean Alder (Alnus acuminate), a species that grows particularly well at higher altitudes and so is best suited for communities located in mountainous regions.

Having now helped farmers establish more than a hundred agroforestry plots, EcoLogic is now focusing on how to better monitor and maximize our positive results. Since early June of this year, two recent Harvard University graduates, Julian Moll-Rocek and Jane D’Ambrosia, have been visiting our agroforestry plots in Guatemala and Honduras to observe, gather data, and provide “tips and tricks” to our EcoLogic field technicians and community farmers on ways to measure and track the progress of their agroforestry efforts. Both Julian and Jane have degrees in organismic and evolutionary biology, which looks at the function, evolution and interaction of organisms—or in this instance, how crops and trees can work together and integrate beneficially into the broader natural ecosystem. They are also showing our field staff techniques to use new technology (GPS) to create more accurate maps and georeference the agroforestry plots of the farmers we work with.

Julian and Janie’s work will contribute to EcoLogic’s identification of how best to scale up our efforts so that more farmers will learn from their fellow farmers, and communities will more quickly adopt this effective, safe and sustainable agricultural method. As we expand and develop our agroforestry program in the next year, we hope you will continue to follow our progress (stay tuned for upcoming blog posts by Julian and Janie), ask us questions, and find new ways to support this important answer to the unsustainable slash and burn and chemically-intensive methodologies so many farmers still have no alternative but to follow. Help us make a difference for them and the natural ecosystems where they live.