Stories from the Field

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Agroecological farming practices restore ecosystem function, safeguard biodiversity, reduce soil erosion, protect public health, produce high-quality foods, fiber and medicine, sustain rural communities and regional food economies... but what does this all look like on the ground? A few examples from around the world show the power of agroecology at work.

Crop rotation: Fumigant-free strawberries

California:: Organic strawberry farmer Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm has been growing strawberries in the central coast of California for nearly thirty  years. He does not use dangerous fumigant pesticides like cancer-causing methyl iodide or ozone-depleting methyl bromide. Instead he uses agroecological methods of pest management.

One of the largest threats to strawberry farmers like Jim is a plant fungus, Verticillium dahliae. The fungus can survive 10 years or more in soil without a host. When a susceptible crop like strawberries is planted, the fungus causes a disease that chokes strawberry plants of water and nutrients, resulting in wilting of the plant and even death. While conventional farmers use methyl bromide or methyl iodide to kill off soil organisms, organic farmers have found a safer more natural approach: a fruit-vegetable crop rotation.Planting broccoli in the off-season after strawberries suppresses the fungal disease, helps organic strawberry yields remain competitive and safeguards the health of farmworkers, rural communities and the environment. 

It turns out that one of the compounds in broccoli (the same substance that is responsible for the pungent flavor of mustard and horseradish) has a suppressive effect on soil-borne pests and diseases. This appears to be the mechanism that reduces the Verticillium wilt disease in strawberries. Broccoli also greatly increases the overall diversity of bacteria in the soil. Just as in any ecosystem, a healthy soil environment is teaming with life, so that no one bacteria is dominant over all the others. Other microrganisms in the soil keep Verticillium dahliae in check, so that there is never a large outbreak of the disease in the strawberry crop. Either way, broccoli is the key in mitigating the spread of the disease. A rotational planting schedule can be employed so that broccoli is planted in the winter to limit the Verticillium dahliae population through out the year, and then harvested to supplement the strawberry farmers’ income in the off-season. When strawberry season approaches, the broccoli plants can simply be cut down where they stand to become ‘green manure’ for newly planted strawberries; the broccoli’s disease deterrent properties are in this way integrated into the soil.

Ecological pest management

Push Pull systemAfrica :: The push-pull system (PDF) of ecological pest management is transforming small farms in Africa. It illustrates agroecology's ingenuity, as well as the many economic, food security, health and environmental benefits of this approach.

Kenyan maize farmers have tripled their yields by intercropping maize with plants that repel pests, support natural pest predators and suppress weeds. One of the plants, desmodium, is a nitrogen-fixing legume that is also used as fodder for animals. The inclusion of these plants in the farming system reduces synthetic pesticide use and augments livestock feed, providing families with additional milk and meat for consumption or sale. Additional benefits include reduced run-off and soil erosion, enhanced soil fertility, improved food security and family nutrition, and increased household income. More than 12,000 farmers across eastern Africa have adopted the technology, with another 100,000 expected to do so over the next three years.

Native hedgerows & pollinator habitat

California :: Singing Frogs Farm is an island of biodiversity in a sea of grape monoculture. Paul Kaiser, the farmer, grows fruits and vegetables for the 110 members of his Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Throughout his fields, Paul has planted flowering hedgerows, comprising thousands of native perennials from several dozen species, selected to ensure blooms year round that provide forage for honeybees and native pollinators.

Singing Frogs Farm receives support from the USDA Pollinator Campaign, an initiative designed to assist farmers who diversify their landscapes and restore native pollinator habitat. Watch the film below to learn more about this and other agroecological practices on Singing Frogs Farm:

Surviving hurricanes with soil intact

Central America :: Hurricane Mitch was the most powerful hurricane of the 1998 Atlantic season. The hurricane unleashed gale-force winds and dumped tremendous amounts of rain on Central America, resulting in catastrophic flooding in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The floods claimed over 10,000 lives, displaced 3 million people, and caused $6.7 billion in damages.

In the aftermath of the storm, farmers and scientists measured the hurricane's impacts on 1,804  conventional and agroecological farms, managed by over 15,000 Central American farmers. Guatemalan, Honduran and Nicaraguan farmers who had been planting diverse crops along hillside contours and building soil organic matter retained more topsoil, field moisture and vegetation, and faced fewer economic losses than did conventional farmers in the area.

Agroecological methods used included contour cropping (planting against the slope of hillsides), planting leguminous cover crops, agroforestry (planting trees on farmland for food, fuel, fodder, and timber), and integrated pest management. These farms proved more resistant to hurricane damage than conventionally managed, monoculture plots in the same area. Field research demonstrated that the agroecological farms retained 20-40% more topsoil, had greater soil moisture content, experienced less erosion, and had lower economic losses than neighboring conventional plots. Because of crop diversification, agroecological farms in Nicaragua recorded net profits, despite the hurricane. By the conclusion of the study, 90% of the conventional farmers who had participated in the assessment indicated that they would like to adopt agroecological methods going forward.

Agroecological farms protect soil, reduce erosion and thereby prevent waterways from silting. Had these practices been more widely adopted across the hurricane-prone region, they could have reduced flooding and mitigated the scale of the disaster. The study provides empirical evidence in support of a region-wide transition towards ecologically-resilient agroecological farming systems that can better resist hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Pesticide-free & profitable corn and soy farming

Minnesota :: Carmen Fernholz has grown organic corn and soybean on his 450 acres near Madison, Minnesota, since before there was a market for them. Initially motivated by his aversion to chemical pesticides, his goal was to prove that his organic fields could match the productivity and profitability of his neighbors’ conventional cornfields.

To achieve the long-term productivity he sought, he employed agroecological strategies like cover cropping and crop rotation to build soil and soil fertility and to diversify his crops and landscape.

For four decades, his enterprise — A-Frame Farm — has proven remarkably resilient. This is in part because Carmen relies on human resources rather than capital inputs that are vulnerable to price swings and erode soil and water quality and other essential farm resources. His knowledge- and labor-intensive organic system prevented the indebtedness that typically accompanies over-expansion.

Meanwhile, the organic premium on his crops — including flax and alfalfa — has grown faster than the price of their conventional counterparts. Carmen says his highest benchmark of success came ten years ago when a neighbor stopped by and asked him if he would help him transition to organic. “In your own neighborhood, you’re never an expert,” Carmen said. “I thought that after that many years, if people who have seen my system and watched me over time were willing to sit down and try it themselves, that to me was the beginning of what I felt was a success story.”

Feeding people, building community

Brazil :: Belo Horizonte’s award-winning participatory Food Security Program links urban consumers to small-scale farmers through municipal procurement of food from local farmers for public schools, daycares and a large network of the traditional Brazilian “Popular Restaurants” (serving mostly low and very low income citizens, but also including students and a mix of middle class customers). The program, which also supports farmers’ market stands for small-scale farmers located throughout the city, has achieved dramatic decreases in infant mortality, improved health and nutrition of schoolchildren; increased profits and income stability for small-scale and organic farmers; and advances in both rural and urban community resilience.

Surviving market swings with dignity

Rice in handPhilippines :: The Oray family (PDF) managed to transform its farm from an ecologically degraded monoculture of sugarcane, vulnerable to global commodity price swings, into an integrated and diversified farm with a variety of animal and plant components. The shift enabled them to survive the collapse of world sugar prices in the mid-1980s, when thousands of seasonal sugar workers lost their jobs and a famine followed. The family developed skills by experimenting with drought-resistant indigenous species, nutrient cycles, soil fertility, ecological pest management, integrated crop-livestock systems and other ecological methods to improve resilience and mitigate effects of climate change and water scarcity. The family helped establish a local farmers’ organization that subsequently tapped into MASIPAG, a national farmer-led network that promotes sustainable use and management of biodiversity, while emphasizing people’s control over the natural resources they need to farm.