While in Malaysia in Singapore, we found farmers and homeowners seeking to gain a further understanding of sustainable tropical agriculture and the soil building techniques that follow. Unfortunately techniques such as tilling and burning of crop residues, have gained a strong following in the tropics. While these techniques and others seen may have their place in the temperate world, they are extremely detrimental to tropical soils and systems. Throughout our travels we commonly found not enough skilled labor, soil erosion, pest problems, and financial troubles.
Thus we stepped in to give some pointers for rejuvenating the soil, planning future orchards, establishing guilds, and water harvesting techniques to name a few. We worked on several scales from small suburban holdings, medium sized commercial vegetable and fruit farm, to a 150 acre sugarcane, vegetable, and fruit farm. All the while it was quite a fun experience chatting with Asian farmers and seeing their techniques such as Mr. Ho and his traditional, village way of producing sugar from the canes on a large commercial scale.
All in all we mostly talked to farmers about farming on contour, covering the soil, not composting, alley cropping, and nitrogen fixing trees. The farms in general lack that multi-storied approach that tropical soils need to retain fertility. They differ from temperate soils with the way nutrients are held in the standing vegetation and the unrelenting sun, microbial activity, and rains. Farmers were struggling with their fertility washing away in the rainy season and so a re-orientation of the beds to more on contour while establishing and light canopy over-story of Nitrogen fixers was advised. This deflects some of the energy of the falling rain while also protecting many of hte European or temperate Asian vegetables that were relaly streessed by the tropical sun.
Furthermore returning all organic matter back to the soil was a constant theme as well. The banana circle is a great feature for that so we drew up these for our clients as well as implementing them on a random mission that you can read on the Penang, Malaysia page to the left. Another dominant theme in our conversations was trying to find ways to reduce labor hours on constant tasks. The labor on these commercial farms often times bakes in the sun while they tediously weed. Cover cropping to fill the niche of a ground covering herb after tilling was strongly advised. Also simply mulching with the organic matter that they once burned or composted reduces labor and allows for a varied daily schedule which always makes the laborers have a more pleasant work day.
Overall the farmers there seemed to be really open to suggestion from our team. They have been taking immediate action to improve crop health as many are right at the brink of soil collapse and financial meltdown. Hopefully the farmers will take this advice and improve the health of their farms immediately on many levels.