Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 15: Sustainable Farming

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 15: Sustainable Farming

A happy woman sits with her baby beneath a tree as others farm in nearby fields.

Sustainable farming means farming for the long-term health of people and the land. Farmers who use sustainable methods try to meet the needs of their families and communities for nutritious food while also conserving water, improving soil, and saving seeds for the future.

Most food comes from the land. But many people do not have enough land, or any land at all, to meet their needs for healthy food. Sustainable farming, cooperative food marketing, and fair distribution of food can help to overcome these difficulties.

Farmers are caretakers of the land, and they are experts at what they do. Farmers develop methods of sustainable farming, and change and adapt these methods to serve the needs of their communities and the conditions of the land they work. Sustainable farming in cities and towns, or in areas that have been farmed for generations, helps solve problems of hunger, migration, loss of valuable soil, and contamination of water supplies.

Sustainable farming methods are not only for farmers. They are also valuable for home gardeners, health and development workers, and anyone who wants to begin a community garden or a city farm to improve nutrition, food security, and community health.

Juan, Pedro, and Hurricane Mitch

A man speaks.

Juan’s grandfather once grew plenty of food in the valley where he lived in Honduras, Central America. But when a fruit company bought his land, he moved up into the hills. There he taught his son, Juan’s father Aurelio, how to clear the hillside of trees, and burn out the stumps. After each harvest, they burned the cornstalks and bean vines to make more ash to fertilize the soil.

Aurelio taught Juan to farm in the same way. But by the time Juan was a young man, the soil was tired and the harvests were poor. Juan could not clear new land because other farmers, fruit companies, and cattle ranchers owned all the nearby land.

Juan cut down all the trees on the hillside and planted as much corn, beans, and vegetables as he could. But the corn gave only one small ear and insects damaged the beans. Like many of his neighbors, Juan bought chemical fertilizer to help his crops grow, and sprayed pesticides to kill the insects. Finding the money for these was hard, especially when the land still produced barely enough to feed his family.

When a big storm brought 4 days of hard rain and strong winds, hillsides became rivers of mud and houses fell down all over the countryside. Juan’s crops were ruined. His soil washed away, leaving behind nothing but rocks. His farm was destroyed, and he had to start all over.

Juan’s neighbor Pedro survived the storm better. Pedro grows his corn, beans and vegetables between trees that produce fruit, shade, and fodder for his animals. Pedro does not burn his cornstalks and bean vines, but chops them up after the harvest and leaves them on top of the soil. Pedro also planted live barriers of agave cactus and other plants to keep soil from washing off his fields. After the storm, tree roots held most of the soil in place, and the barriers he made collected the rest.

“The different plants help each other and make the soil rich,” Pedro says. “You would not even know we had a storm here. The water just soaked in better because my soil is like the soil in the forest.”

With help from Pedro, Juan began to restore his field. He began by planting a bean crop as a green manure to restore soil fertility. He also planted live barriers and a variety of trees. Soon, other neighbors began trying these methods as well. Juan and the other farmers in the area have hope these sustainable methods of farming will help their families survive future storms.

As he watches his young plants and trees grow, Juan thinks of his children who will use this small piece of land to support their children for many years to come.