Thursday, 17 January 2013

Ecology Meets Agriculture

This weekend, on our way back from the Galeta Marine Lab, we took a side trip across the Gatun Locks to a polyculture farm where they grow plantains and rice, as well as corn. What's special about this farm is their understanding of the life histories of plantains and rice and how they use it to minimize their pesticide use while increasing crop yield.

Ships waiting to leave the canal for the Caribbean

Walking to the plantation

Step 1: In the dry season, plant plantains.

Ready for planting

Step 2: Wait until the plantains are about a foot tall, then burn the field! Although this may sound crazy, the fire won’t damage the seeds under the ground, and when the plantains grow back they will have significantly less pathogens.

Step 3: Wait a bit, then plant the rice.

This staggering allows the plantains, which would naturally be outcompeted by rice, to grow large enough that they aren’t outcompeted. As well, the plantain leaves provide a shade canopy over the rice plants during the short dry spell around May [veranico?] which would cause considerable damage to unshaded rice plants. The biodiversity in the polyculture, especially since it is bordered by and occasionally interspersed with natural forest, also helps to reduce pathogen loads of each crop.

Thus, by simply understanding the life histories, yield is increased without harmful chemicals.

In the plantation learning its secrets

The view from the cornfield

Additionally: by rotating crops, and including legumes and other nitrogen fixers between rotations, the soil retains nutrients with minimal chemical fertilizers (such as in monoculture).

Harvested rice

The rice produced is primarily for the owner and workers, and sold to community members; but a proportion (~30%) is sold in a market. The rice seed gathered each year is also used primarily by the farm for the following year, but often sold to friends and other community members.

And in the nearby town of Achiote (where we stopped for lunch), we took the time to visit a coffee museum and try out the traditional method of processing coffee beans!

Coffee tree

Removing the husks
Coffee beans drying

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