Friday, August 24, 2007

Stone terraces and water logging

Building stone terraces on sloping and hilly areas of a farm serve three main functions. One, conserve precious top soil and organic matter like decomposing and dried leaves and branches, from unmitigated erosion. Two, conserve water and minimize water run-off during strong rains, reduce flash floods, as rain water seep into the soft ground, even recharging the water table underground. And three, help beautify the farm.

Through time, with continued building of stone terraces – whether raising higher or moving backwards existing ones -- low-lying areas will be rising and uneven areas become flatter. In addition, it is possible that spring water can develop later at the bottom of high terraces as more rain water are deposited deep in the new soil created by the rising land. If the farmer is entrepreneurial enough, he can develop his farm into an eco-tourism resort with those spring waters and beautiful, high, and plentiful terraces around the farm.

So the terraces and the land become higher. One big question that will bug the farmer is whether to cement those stone terraces, or leave those stones as they are?

The advantage of cemented stone terraces is that the structures become more stable and more permanent. Like the various rice terraces in the Cordillera mountains in north Philippines, particularly the Banaue rice terraces in Ifugao. These terraces were “cemented” using special clay and strengthened by small and rough stones that fill in large spaces in-between the large stones. The terraces have been in existence for more than 1,000 years and they have withstood minor earthquakes.

There are three big disadvantages though. One, new layers of organic farm waste like rice straws, dried leaves and branches of trees, can no longer be accommodated by the terraces because the stones are no longer movables. So upland farmers just burn the rice straw every year, the same practice being done by lowland rice farmers. Two, water logging can be a real problem if there are not enough outlet. So that either the big volume of water trapped behind those terraces will destroy the structure through time, or the roots will be suffocated as water will fill in tine air spaces underneath. And three, if there are big trees near the cemented terraces, the roots show their hatred to cement by bulging wide and high, eventually destroying the structure.

Terraces that are not cemented and continuously adjusted upwards and/or backwards, have the disadvantage of being less stable, especially if they are not constructed well. But they have the advantages of avoiding the 3 pitfalls of cemented terraces mentioned above. In particular, the terraces are porous, water can come out anytime on thousands of spaces between the stones, so that probability of water logging is small. Except of course during very heavy rainfall where flash floods are occurring anywhere.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Urban flooding and the cement jungle

Metro Manila and many big urban sprawls around the world are more susceptible to large-scale flash flooding than those in their counterpart rural areas. And such flooding is highlighted in broadcast media like TV, radio, newspapers and the web. Well, majority of those media centers are based in the big cities, that’s why.

But there are certain characteristics of urban areas that make them more susceptible to wide flooding than those in rural areas, on per hectare or per square kilometer comparison. I see a number of reasons for this.

One, with a few exception, big cities and urban sprawls are located in the lowlands like mouth of seas, bays and big rivers. Hence, by the simple law of gravity, all rain water runoff will pass by these big cities until it gets out onto the seas.

Two, construction and repair of drainage and canals sometimes lag behind structural developments surrounding these waterways. For instance, space (like width and depth) for canals can be sacrificed when buildings and other structures are maximizing each square meter of land that it can develop.

And three, the cement jungle. Most rain water, especially if the rain is not strong, are supposed to seep down the soil and not drain onto canals, if the land surface is not cemented. But with all those houses and buildings, schools and malls, roads and sidewalks, parking lots and other open areas that are cemented, the volume of rainwater that go into canals and drainage becomes big. And the heavier the rains, some canals and drainage can overflow, resulting in ever bigger and deeper flood.

But growing urbanization and the desire of people to get rid of mud and slippery surface when these get wet makes the cement jungle expand ever wider.

One solution to this problem is to have more open spaces and non-cemented land in cities and communities. Examples are community parks and gardens, urban forest parks, and golf courses. Many environmentalists will not like or realize this, but the open space for grass and trees of those golf courses help absorb huge volume of rain water to seep into the soil and not fall into drainage and canals. Although it's true that during the dry season, these golf courses also use huge amount of water to irrigate those grasses to keep them healthy. But it's the trade off if we want to have more open spaces that absorb rain water, not to mention recharge the underground water table.

Another solution, a minor one, is that in constructing open parking spaces, the surface should not be cemented, and use crushed stones to prevent the surface from getting muddy while allowing the rainwater to seep below the ground.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Farming and government support

My friend from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, Nguyen Chi Trung, also a batchmate from SUS 2003 seminar on "sustainable agriculture" held in Sweden, commented on my earlier posting re. government support on farming. He wrote,

"Dear Nonoy and friends, I completely agree with you that farmers should not expect so much from support and subsidy in any form. However, at least in this stage, the number of independent farmers like yourself is not much, and remember that farming is your moonlight play, not the main livelihood. For most farmers, subsidy is still playing an important role. Generally speaking, most farmers could not attend my lectures, if I were not paid by the state or a project. Similarly, I could have never been attended the SUS 2003 training without the kind sponsor from SIDA."

Well, Trung is right. Before I get misinterpreted, let me say that I am not advocating zero government support in agriculture. One government support that I see is very helpful to farmers, are farm-to-market roads and bridges, and irrigation. Good roads support not only farmers but also their children who go to school, their spouses who go the public markets, etc. But beyond infrastructure support, the impact of most government support to farmers are little. Like price support and credit support.

Many agricultural economists and consultants propose that governments should focus on "production support", not "price support", like government buying "high" from farmers and selling "low" to consumers. In this kind of scheme, a lot of waste and corruption are happening.

For the "independent farmers", they are driven more by bigger profit when they harvest their crops and fruits, and less of any subsidy that they can get from government. For mango producers like Cocor Soriano (SUS 2006) and me, there are almost zero government support for mango production, but we continue producing because the price of mango is good very often, not to mention that our families and friends get to taste our very sweet mangos.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Weeds, drought and soil conservation

My friend from Morocco, Nahid Elbezzaz, my former batchmate in an international training on “Sustainable Agriculture in an Environmental Perspective” in 2003, held in Sweden and sponsored by SIDA, wrote the following comments to my earlier posting, “Weeds and Herbicides”. She said,

“Hi Nonoy, Your article is interesting and can provide some good solutions to some problems encountered by some farmers in some areas worldwide as you said. But in my opinion, it is quite simplistic because the problem is different from one part of the world to another. In some areas, it is compulsory to use herbicides and (-cides) in order to have a good yield. The production is the target and it is essential to do the maximum of work in a very small lap of time. However, in other areas, the farmers can use the manual work to remove weeds because they are more close to their lands and also they don't have the same perspectives than other farmers under others skies. Each area has its own characteristics and conditions.”

Yes, Nahid is right that there should be different applications to different problems and situations, there should be more approaches to more and varied situations, no single approach will work everywhere. My point of view when I wrote that short paper was how to accumulate lots of organic materials for mulching, organic fertilizers production, soil and water conservation, and over the long-term, higher yield for crops. It's one of several approaches in the cycle of deplete-replace- deplete-replace. .. of rich soil for the crops.

What also prompted me to write that paper is after my short readings on banana culture and production from some materials available on the web. A number of the papers I read say that application of herbicides is necessary for bananas. But then I also read that bananas when their fruits are maturing, need around 2.5 kilos of NPK fertilizers per banana to support the fruits. That's a big amount and should be expensive for the farmers.

In addition, a new (or maybe old) development that I have read is "no tillage" farming. Which means not disturbing the soil's current compactness and hence, minimize if not control soil erosion. Having lots of uprooted grass and weeds as mulch for the crops should be consistent with "no tillage" farming. The earthworms and other soil micro-organisms that feed on decomposing organic materials will provide the aeration of roots of the crops.

Then Nahid replied back:

“Dear Nonoy, Your analysis is very interesting regarding the use of fertilizers and it is worthy of a soil scientist if the expression is right. The point is, in our region, the Mediterranean, we have experienced the phenomena of drought since quite a long time. All the projects of development had focused on natural resources protection. If my information is right, drought has and still occurs since more than 20 years. So you can imagine that since then, many approaches are being tested and implemented.

However, they were mainly top down oriented and the managers had omitted to involve local communities and population, wasting a potential local know-how to address environmental concerns. Nowadays, the intervention is conducted with and for people. The protection of natural resources remains the main concern of numerous projects. Water and soil conservation is a one of the main component of the projects implemented. But water conservation and soil conservation are, in some cases, implemented separately and this is one of the reasons why many actions are turning to failure…”

Well, I'm no soil scientist. Just a trying-hard farmer (hehehe) who likes to touch the soil as often as possible and in the process, learn from it.

Drought means prolonged dry spell, prolonged lack of rain. So, any water that you can conserve by reducing direct evaporation from the soil to the atmosphere, can be used by the roots of crops, right? Hence, the more that farmers should practice mulching using uprooted weeds and other organic matter as soil cover. And in the process, you not only conserve soil from erosion by strong winds, but you even "create" new rich soil, with the help of earthworms and other soil micro-organisms that feed on decomposing matter.

About the practice of many government agriculture agencies or departments of "top-down" approaches, I think it applies to many if not all agri countries in the world. There is even a danger called "moral hazards" in economics, where the people, farmers in particular, become less innovative and less entrepreneurial because they expect that government assistance (local, national, and multilateral or foreign aid) -- from credit subsidy to seed and farm tractor support, etc. -- will come anyway, at no cost to them.

Farms that are sustainable and profitable, in my observation here in the Philippines, are those that rely the least assistance and dependence from government. If you wait for government assistance, you waste time and money waiting for it, following it up at the municipal or provincial or national level. And you also become indebted to the politicians, whether local or national. Farming should be an apolitical, zero politics, endeavor. And farming should be an entrepreneurial, business project where farmers and investors produce food for themselves and sell the extra output for cash and profit. When farmers have plenty of profit and savings, then they can escape from poverty.