Going back to the basics

Second of Three Parts

“Organic agriculture is the answer,” pointed out Jessica Reyes-Cantos of the Manila-based Rice Watch and Action Network.  “It won’t only retain soil productivity but it can make farming viable.  If farmers will have additional income from their land they will continue to plant rice.”

That’s not the only reason why organic farming is becoming popular these days.  “The fear of pesticide residues in foods is a common environmental concern,” notes a primer published by the Cotabato Agriculture and Resources Research and Development Consortium (CARRDEC).

“Organically-grown foods taste better and are more healthy and nutritious.  Moreover, they are more resistant to insects and diseases.  Organically grown means grains, vegetables, or fruits were grown without commercial fertilizer and synthetic pesticides,” the primer adds.

That is what the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc. in barangay Kinuskusan in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, is busy promoting since it opened to the public in the 1970s yet.

“We want people who come to the center to know that we are promoting organic farming,” says MBRLC Director Roy C. Alimoane.  “Once, they return back to their respective places, they have learned something which they could use in their own farms.”

Some people may find their technologies backward but those are what the center is noted for.  Take the case of Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT), a farming technique that arrests soil erosion and restores soil fertility.   It has been promoting the scheme since the 1980s,

“The principle of SALT is the same as that used by the Ifugao tribes in Mountain Province,” Alimoane explains. “All we are doing is suggesting using different nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs instead of rocks.”

Examples of nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs are “kakawate” (Gliricidia sepium), “ipil-ipil” (Leucaena leucocephala) and the introduced species Flemingia macrophylla, Desmodium rensonii, and Indigofera anil. These are thickly planted in double rows to form hedgerows. When a hedge is one-and-half to two meters tall, it is cut back to a height of 40 centimeters and the cuttings are placed in the strips between the hedgerows to serve as organic fertilizer.

The SALT scheme requires careful management of the space between the hedgerows. A combination of permanent, semi-permanent, and annual crops is recommended so as to rebuild the ecosystem and maximize yields while enabling farmers to organize their work time efficiently.

“The nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs help control erosion,” Alimoane says.  A study conducted at the MBRLC farm showed the rate of soil loss in a SALT farm is 3.4 metric tons per hectare per year, which is within the tolerable range.

Most soil scientists place acceptable soil loss limits for tropical countries within the range of 10 to 12 metric tons per hectare per year.  The non-SALT farm has an annual soil loss rate of 194.3 metric tons per hectare per year.

MBRLC studies showed that soil erosion makes farmlands infertile.  Alimoane cites some studies which said that loss of a few centimeters of topsoil can reduce the productivity of good soils by 40% and poor soils by 60%.

Chemical fertilizers are getting more expensive.  As a result, farmers who are growing rice are discouraged to apply the recommended amounts to get the optimum yield in their farms.  At times, they just simply raise their crops without using any chemical fertilizers and hope that there are still available nutrients in the soil that would sustain the plant’s productive growth.

“Filipino rice farmers should not be hopeless,” Alimoane points out. “They could still increase their rice production by using azolla, a small water fern usually found in waterlogged areas.”

What is special about azolla is that it contains a blue-green algae called scientifically Anabaena azollae, which has the ability to convert or “fix” nitrogen from the air, as much as 30-40 kilograms per hectare.

Azolla also grows fast, doubling its weight in three to five days. “Farmers who grow azolla are actually growing their own fertilizer,” says Alimoane.  Azolla contains 4% nitrogen on a dry weight basis (dry weight is 5% of fresh weight); 0.5%-0.9% phosphorus; and 2%-4.5%  potassium.

For only three hours, Alimoane says, a farmer can grow adequate azolla to increase yields equivalent to that produced by 30 to 60 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare.  Residual soil nitrogen is enriched.  (Protein content of the grain is also hiked.)

“Any rice plant, modern or traditional, requires one kilogram of nitrogen to produce 15 to 20 kilograms of grain,” explained a soil microbiologist from the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).  “Most tropical soils imbibe sufficient nitrogen natural to grow about one ton or 1.5 tons of rice per year.  To augment yields above that, nitrogen must be provided.”

But rice is not the only crop that needs fertilizer – even vegetables.  “For vegetables and other crops, we recommend vermicompost,” says Alimoane.  Vermicompost is the product or process of composting using earthworms, particularly the African nigthcrawlers.

In the past, earthworms were regarded as pests in the garden and were only good for the birds. It was not until Charles Darwin, the Father of Evolution, that earthworms were given importance.

Studies on the use of vermicompost for crop production show that application of chemical fertilizers can be reduced up to 100% for certain vegetables and corn.  A field experiment using vermicompost with corn at 5 tons per hectare increased ear lengths of plants by 114%, with the total yield comparable to that of plants fertilized at the recommended rate of inorganic fertilizer.

Fertilizers are not the only inputs used to increase yield.  Farmers also use chemicals to kill pests and diseases.  Some studies showed that insecticides had become one of the major expenses of farmers that account for about 40% of total production cost.

Pesticides are toxic materials and extremely hazardous to the health of people.  The Geneva-based World Health Organization reports that three people are poisoned by pesticides every minute around the world.  All in all, about 10,000 die annually to pesticides.

At the MBRLC, people are using botanicals to drive away pests.  “Natural pest controls like the botanicals are safer to the user and the environment because they break down into harmless compounds within hours or days in the presence of sunlight,” wrote Eric Vinje of Planet Natural.  “They are also very close chemically to those plants from which they are derived, so they are easily decomposed by a variety of microbes common in most soils.”

Two of MBRLC’s most popular concoctions are made from hot pepper and garlic.  In preparing the hot pepper spray, one teaspoon of liquid dish soap is mixed in one liter of water.  A pinch of dried and grounded hot pepper is placed into the water.  The mixture is immediately used. Indications: useful against aphids and scale insects.

Here’s how to prepare the garlic spray: To one liter of water, two mashed garlic cloves are steeped for 24 hours. The water is filtered but not diluted.  The mixture is sprayed on plants, no more than twice a week.  Indications: control of aphids, spider mites, and scales.

Aside from botanical pesticides, a farmer can resort to other means of pest control, according to Alimoane.  These include tilling (which exposes pests that live in the soil and increases soil aeration), crop rotation (it stops the build-up of microorganisms around plant roots), crop combination, and companion planting. (To be concluded)