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About Sustainable Agriculture

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Why do we need sustainable agriculture?

Agriculture provides products we need to survive, like food to eat and cotton for clothing. But some crops can also cause long-term damage to the soil. In addition, pesticides and poor irrigation techniques can harm the land and the food that people eat.

Like Maria Luz in The Good Garden, many farmers’ lands lose their goodness through years of planting crops that use up all the soil’s nutrients. Simple techniques used by Don Pedro in The Good Garden, however, can restore the soil’s nutrients and keep it healthy for many years. For example, composting, terracing, natural insect repellents, and cover-cropping are techniques that can ensure many generations of farmers will be able to use and enjoy traditional lands.

How can compost increase food security?

In The Good Garden, Don Pedro teaches Maria Luz how to compost using old leaves, corn husks, and bean pods. With the help of worms and grubs, these otherwise unwanted plant materials can be broken down to their essential nutrients and mixed with soil to help young plants grow. Decomposition – the breaking down of these organic materials – happens all the time in the world which allows all kinds of plants and organisms to grow without the help of farmers or people. This natural method of giving nutrients to the soil is part of the “circle of life,” making it a sustainable choice for farmers looking to improve the quality of their land and their harvests.

For more information about composting, visit: http://www.howtocompost.org

How can I make compost?

Making compost for your garden is a great way to maintain healthy soil in your yard.

A good mix of materials for compositing should include 50% “Brown materials” (like dead leaves) and 50% “Green materials,” (like grass cuttings). Brown materials have more carbon whereas green materials have more nitrogen – both of which are present in all organic materials and both of which are necessary nutrients for happy, healthy plants.

Some more examples of Brown materials are:
• Wood
• Corn husks
• Shredded newspaper
• Pine needles
• Fruit remains

Some more examples of Green materials are:
• Clover
• Coffee grounds
• Hay
• Lawn weeds
• Seaweed

To make good compost, follow these steps:
1. Use a composting bin to mix the brown and green organic materials
2. Make sure the bin is in a place outside that gets sun and warmth, and cover it with plastic to increase temperature of materials inside.
3. Add some red worms to speed up decomposition
4. Turn, or stir, the mixture up as frequently as you can to allow air in and mix all the materials
5. Make sure to add a little bit of water to keep the mixture moist, but be careful not to get the materials very wet.

Decomposition can take several months to fully complete, but you’ll know the compost is done when it’s a very dark brown color, crumbles easily in your hands and you can’t tell anymore that it was made of old leaves and vegetable matter!

To learn more about making compost, visit: http://www.composting101.com

Why does terracing improve crop production?

In mountainous regions, farming becomes more difficult because it is not easy for farmers to plant on the steep slopes and rains wash the soil downhill.

Creating terraces like giant steps against the sides of the mountains allows farmers to plant on flat surfaces and water to stay in place on those flat surface “steps” instead of causing erosion.

Terraces are not a new technique, and have actually been used for centuries. The ancient Incas of Peru used terraces, too!

To make terraces, you can use grasses and vines, whose roots are dense and will hold the soil together. Some people also use rocks to make the walls stay in place.

How can one plant protect another?

A plant is exposed to many hazards as it transforms itself from a small seed to a full-grown plant. Insects are just one hazard that a small plant faces as it grows. Over the years, farmers have understood that there are some plants that repel dangerous organisms. The idea is that – like a friend – different plants can help each other in their time of need.

For example, in The Good Garden Don Pedro uses marigolds to repel insects from his crops. Other farmers may use plants that attract insects to them and away from the crop they are planting. Some examples of plants that prevent a farmer’s main crops from being attacked by pests are:

• Marigolds
• Nasturtium
• Rosemary
• Mint
• Basil
The idea of protector plants makes sense since all around us plants grow randomly and in different combinations. Different plants have different strengths that can make up for another’s weakness.

What is cover cropping and how does it work?

Like young children, plants need lots of nutrients and food to grow. The soil provides this food – and plants will generally eat up as much as they can so they can grow big and tall. With more and more planting, you can imagine that a given soil’s once-rich nutrients would get depleted. Fortunately, there are also plants that produce and give nutrients back to the earth. Cover crops do just this – they feed the soil with nutrients that other plants need to grow.

Don Pedro uses beans because they are “nitrogen fixers”, replacing a lot of the nitrogen that other crops, such as corn, use. A particularly effective cover crop in Honduras is the “velvet bean,” which not only fixed nitrogen, but also can be roasted and made into a medicinal drink. Most plants in the bean family, called legumes, make great nitrogen fixers, but other plants, such as clover, work as well.

Mixing cover crops that fix nitrogen in the soil with crops like corn that absorb nitrogen, is a way to keep the soil’s nutrients in balance. In The Good Garden, the Duarte family experiments with planting their corn seeds and bean seeds together, and they get a bumper crop!

Those plants that can give the earth some of their nitrogen are called “green matter” and are also used in the production of compost.

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