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close this book CERES No. 148 July - August 1994
close this folder Centrepiece
View the document Low-input farming : is it worth the work ?
View the document The Kofyar variations
View the document Where inventions were the mother of necessity
View the document Gender analysis has a crucial role in planning workable farming systems
View the document Labor in low-input systems: a bibliography
View the document The toilers of the field

Where inventions were the mother of necessity

By R. Remonde, L. Villamore and Erik J. Simonides

Alayon sa Banika (ALAB), a Filipino farmers' cooperative, has been experimenting for almost 12 years with organic contour farming. To estimate how much extra labor is needed for such farming compared to farming with inorganic chemicals, co-op staff studied the experiences of members in their home municipality in the mountains of Argao, on the east coast of Cebu Island.

In the early 1960s, the Philippine government started promoting the use of chemical fertilisers in the Argao region, and by the 1970s their use was well-established. High-yielding varieties were also introduced, accompanied by pesticides. Seminars were organised in which new techniques like mono cropping and calendar spraying were explained. Farmers who adopted the complete techno-package were offered loans from the Land Bank, brokered by extension workers.

Everything worked beautifully in the first years. Farmers raised bountiful harvests. But after 1980 the harvests declined rapidly and crops became heavily infested with pests, sometimes destroying entire crops. The technical solution was more fertilisers and ever-increasing amounts of pesticides. Coincidentally, the Land Bank became tougher on loans because repayment was becoming a problem. Farmers found it more and more difficult to make ends meet.

After 1980 many farmers were forced to sell their land to repay their debts. Many became tenants on what was once their own land, now bought up by well-to-do farmers and businessmen.

What to do?

A group known as an alayon, made up of seven farmers who mutually shared labor, took stock of the situation in 1983. They concluded soil nutrients had been drastically depleted and topsoil eroded in the previous 10 years, all because of excessive use or chemicals and bad land-use practices such as mono cropping. In particular limestone soils in the area proved very vulnerable.

At first the alayon decided to improve their marketing of produce through direct delivery to the city. This was to provide them with extra cash to invest in their farms, but soon proved impossible. They were unable to bypass the middlemen, and their crops were not of the quality and quantity necessary. The alayon thus decided to focus directly on soil improvement.

A friend of one of the alayon members introduced the group to an area where contour farming was already established. Most of the farms in the exposure area used napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) and ipil-ipil (Leucaena diversifolia) for the hedgerows. The grasses and ipil-ipil were used to feed livestock. The dung was used as fertiliser. Some farmers also practised compost-making. The farmers of the alayon from Argao were convinced this farming system would, by natural means, improve the soil and enhance production.

Back home, the alayon began building their own contour demonstration farm. At first villagers laughed at them for using "backward techniques." After some months, however, when the farm developed, the people came back to admire the nice look of the new fields. Some also wanted to learn contour farming and joined the alayon. Thus Alayon sa Banika was born. At present there are over 40 alayons (six to seven people each) working with ALAB.

Analysing labor needs

What are the extra labor needs for organic contour farming compared with chemical farming? Estimates are based on the ALAB demo-farm. We suppose one family (eight people), one hectare of hilly land (30-45 degree slope). In reality, in the area under discussion, the average farm size is only 0.50.75 ha. Usually there are three cropping seasons of three months each, and one dry season. The first cropping is usually maize intercropped with beans or sweet potato, the second is a cash crop of vegetables, strip-cropped rather than intercropped; the third crop is a pure stand of maize. The third season usually has less rain than the first two.

After the land has been prepared, 29 contour lines of double hedgerows (100 metres each) are drawn by placing the points of an A-frame on the contour lines and placing the cleared material in the line between the two points. As soon as the rain starts, hedgerows are planted with seeds of ipil-ipil, vetiver grass, madre de cacao (Gliricidia septum) and several legumes, all of which are prepared in advance. The planting materials are obtained free from other farms. After planting the contour lines, the soil between the hedgerows is prepared for planting crops.

Usually the contour farm is established strip by strip. The people work in alayons of six persons. The total labor required to establish a one-hectare contour farm is equivalent to 741 person-days. Based on that estimate, it would take a single alayon of six people 123.5 days to establish a one-hectare contour farm if they worked only at that. Indeed, experience has shown a well-organized alayon can establish such a farm in roughly four months-three months during the dry season and one month of the rainy season.

Maintenance of a newly established contour farm requires careful work. The farmer must check the contour lines and repair any damage immediately, replant dead plants and trees and ensure their survival. Provided weather conditions are favourable, the contour lines will develop in three months. During this period the farmer has to fertilise with compost and additional chemical fertiliser (complete, 14-14-14). This takes two person-days per week in the first three months. Once the farm is established, one person-day every two weeks will be sufficient for maintenance. Damage due to bad weather such as typhoons, creates a lot of extra repair work.

Lopping of hedgerows is done every six weeks and requires a lot of labor-64 days per annum. The biomass thus obtained is often used as fodder for animals and only sometimes as mulch. The contour hedgerows can sustain the feed demand of two to four livestock units (ruminants).

Additional work for organic farming in comparison to chemical farming is hauling of compost and manure. Twenty 50-kg bags of compost, chicken droppings or manure are needed to fertilise one crop, compared with six 50-kg bags of chemical fertilisers. This additional work load adds up to four days per cropping season.

Making compost/controlling pests

The most important ingredient for organic farming is organic fertilisation: manure, chicken droppings, and compost. Most organic farms produce as much of their own compost as possible. There are basically two ways of getting compost:

• When the farm has no, or very few animals: the farmer will collect materials outside his farm to compost on-farm. In six days he is able to make 500 kg of compost every two to three months, or 24-36 person-days annually, for a total of 2 0003 000 kg of compost per year. He will have to buy another 3 000 kg off-farm, usually chicken droppings from large chicken operations.

• When the farm has livestock, say two cows, six goats and five pigs: the farmer will compost feed left-overs and manure. Every two to three months he will produce 1 000-1 500 kg of compost with a labor requirement of four person-days. This farmer still has to purchase off-farm 40 per cent of his feed needs, in cheap concentrates, and may also need to buy some organic fertiliser.

To make up for some of the above labor requirements of organic farming, the farmer saves time and money he would otherwise have to dedicate to chemical spraying of pesticides. With maize, the saving is three person-days per crop. ALAB uses traditional varieties of maize which are highly resistant to pests and never need spraying. Vegetables still require spraying every week, which means 12 person-days per crop. In the transition from chemical to organic farming, the huge demand for pest control is met with homemade herbal pesticides, which do not kill insects but drive them away. In two to three years, depending on the farm techniques of one's neighbors, a new insect balance will develop. This reduces the overall need for spraying to almost zero. During the first two years, additional work to prepare the herbal spray is six person-days per year. In a well-developed organic farm, there will be plenty of insects and there will always be leaf damage, but it is hardly at an alarming level. (See Tekei article on page 37 for positive consumer attitudes toward leaf damage on organic produce.)

Weeding in organic farming is more work. Usually the weeds grow faster and they are more plentiful than in chemical farming, but the soil is usually easier to work because of the good structure it gains from all the organic matter content. Chemical herbicides are hardly used in this area. If mulch is applied in vegetable plots (coconut leaves, banana leaves), the need for weeding is reduced by as much as 75 per cent! Mulching is advocated as a common practice in contour farming (three days/ha). In this area, it is used only on smaller vegetable plots of 0. 1-0.2 ha, because of the low availability of mulch materials. The mulch from contour hedgerows decays too fast and means almost no reduction in labor.

On a contour farm, a farmer has to harvest carefully in order not to damage the contours. This means more walking-no short cuts. Harvesting is done strip by strip. This lengthens harvest-time by one-third. Putting crop residue in the contour line is additional work. In chemical farming the farmer would let animals graze the field or simply burn the crop residue. This is impossible in contour farms.

Tough transition

Although the system of organic contour farming is now generally accepted by the farmers, only a few have implemented it fully. The main complaint is it is labor-intensive. Farmers who implement organic contour farming are either very young, with no family yet to support, or older couples whose children have left the home and now sustain themselves. Farmers with children at home cannot afford the dip in their income, unavoidable if they put all their labor to establishing contours in their own fields rather than earning off-farm income. They can't cut their daily expenses, so they can't cut their cash income. In the authors' estimate, dedicating their efforts to establishing contour fields would cost the farmer 66 per cent of his cash income in the first year.

The transition period is about three to five years, during which time alternative income must be found. ALAB is experimenting with small domestic animals, raised intensively. Broilers and layers are especially promising: 250 layers will make up for the off-farm income lost in the transition period. Initial investment is high (US$1 000) but this money is recovered after 40 weeks. If cooperatively organised, with revolving credit, it is possible to make the investment. It would, however, mean an additional work load for women or another member of the family, adding up to about two hours each day.

It takes 232 to 266 person-days per year when chemically farming in a cropping pattern of maize-vegetables-maize. The overall extra labor demand for organic contour farming, after the first two to three years, is 116 to 162 days per year. On average a family can, with the same amount of labor, obtain from a one-hectare organic contour farm about the same amount of cash income as a family farming with chemicals (US$1 440 annually). Why would a farmer put in so much labor on his farm just to earn the same that he could farming with chemicals? The explanation is that part of a chemical farmer's income is from off-farm work. An organic farmer has no time to do outside jobs. His labor is capitalised on his own farm. An organic contour farm has a higher net profit per hectare mainly because of lower production costs as chemical inputs are not needed. The cash savings add up to US$1028 per year. The need to borrow money' which has ruined so many chemical farmers, is reduced with organic farming.

A well-functioning organic contour farm involves less risk. The soil is less susceptible to dry periods. The water retaining capacity of the soil is much better than that of soils in chemical farming, and organic farms are hardly ever seriously damaged by pests. There is less chance of total crop failure. As well, in chemical farming the farmer's own health is at risk to the sprays he uses. And last but not least, the soil in organic contour farms is protected from erosion!