A Version of Progressive Agriculture in the Ecuadorian Andes
“Smart, green, and powerful.”
This is what Brandon Keim of Wired Science calls the innovative agricultural practices occurring at Marsden Farm, a research farm affiliated with Iowa State University. Both Keim and food writer Mark Bittman — by way of a New York Times opinion piece — have heralded the techniques as a possible future for large-scale, sustainable agriculture.
Two USAID-funded and Virginia Tech-based programs are already practicing this progressive version of agriculture at research sites abroad in places like Ecuador, where soil erosion and deforestation have contributed to a significant degradation in the quality of arable land. The two programs, the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) and the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Collaborative Research Support Programs (CRSPs), promote their agricultural practices independently in Feed the Future countries around the world. Their collaboration in Ecuador marks the first time two CRSPs have actively combined their techniques to help farmers grow healthier, more resilient crops.
At 10,000 feet, and on an average of 12 acres, farmers in the Ecuadorian Andes grow potatoes and wheat for local markets and their own consumption. The rest of the land is grazed by cattle for meat and milk.
Before the potato growing season even begins, farmers think ahead. A year before planting potato crops, they plant wheat for family consumption, followed by oats and vetch to increase nitrogen and organic matter content. Crop rotation, similar to the rotation at Marsden Farm, reduces buildup of insect pests and plant diseases in the field, increases soil organic matter and nutrients, and can lead to a sustainable farming system.
But farmers who have been exposed to SANREM and IPM methods do even more:
- Farmers move the potato growing area
- Farmers treat seed potatoes (small potatoes planted to grow other potatoes) with a beneficial virus to control a pest that affects potatoes in storage
- Farmers also treat seed potatoes with Trichoderma, a beneficial fungus, to control a soilborne fungal disease
- Farmers dig a foot-deep trench around the field to prevent Andean potato weevil immigration from neighboring fields
- Farmers use minimum tillage on all crops
The basic principles of this system could be applied in other regions of the world with necessary modifications. Indeed, the two CRSPs regularly transfer successful techniques from one country to another, sometimes on opposite sides of the globe. When they do this, however, they are always careful to assess the increased risk a farmer must manage if he or she moves to a low-input system. If it is riskier to the farmer without increased profit, a technology has little chance of adoption. The researchers and scientists also think about how farm labor might be divided according to gender. These techniques may put more strain on women farmers, and in this case, the programs can find ways to circumvent that burden.
Both the CRSP and Marsden Farm models suggest that, even though we may call these techniques by different names in the domestic and the international milieu, pioneering agricultural techniques are already alive and well. They cut across geopolitical borders and are necessary to feed the 9 billion people projected to populate our planet by 2050.