What could be more challenging than farming at the top of a mountain?
Some farms in Claveria, Misamis Oriental do just that. Farmers here tend plants in steep slopes with erosion-prone and acidic soils while rainfall serves as main source of water.
But these obstacles do not bother them. Their ally? The trees – which are beneficial to rice and other crops.
Myth about trees
Some farmers think that planting trees near rice is not a good practice. There would be less grains as trees would block energy from the sun. This could be linked to the concept of photosynthesis wherein plants convert light energy into chemical energy that fuels the plants’ growth.
Dr. Agustin Mercado Jr, research manager of the World Agroforestry Center-Philippines, said trees and crops can complement each other toward mutual advantage. “In planting trees with rice, farmers should consider its economic, environmental, and social benefits.”
Mercado advised farmers to plant trees 20-25 meters apart between rows and 3 meters apart between trees to avoid light energy competition with crops.
”Trees maintain soil organic matters such as leaves and root decays. They improve vegetable productivity by reducing windspeed and increasing relative humidity and soil moisture at the surface,” Mercado added.
Trees also help prevent soil erosion through their deep roots that serve as contour hedges.
In a 2005 report to the World Bank, Dr. Roehlano M. Briones of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies pointed out that the country has over 12.2 million ha of sloping land, 17% of which are very steep and 66% are steep slopes making them prone to erosion. This condition causes loss of nutrients in land, and inability to hold water that can lead to flooding downhill.
Landslides can also be minimized with trees. Most of the upland areas fetch more than 2,500 mm of rainfall per year. Mercado encourages farmers to plant trees that can also be sold for additional income.
Crops plus trees and other organisms
In a study of Mercado’s team, the integration of rubber tree and upland rice normally yields the best result. While rubber trees prevent soil erosion, upland rice is aerobic and does not emit methane gas unlike flooded rice. Methane contributes to global warming and climate change.
Planting trees and vegetables in the upland diversifies beneficial organisms. This concept is called “ecological engineering” which is grounded on cultural techniques to increase the population of such organisms that feed and live on trees and vegetables. In return, beneficial insects such as spiders, coccinilids, damselflies, and others attack 90% of pests in rice.
“Integration of rice and rubber tree is a good option to increase rice production, food, and economic security of the country while mitigating climate change,” Mercado said.
The shrub Arachis pintoi (mani-mani) planted under the trees is used as live mulch in the uplands, which maintains the moisture of the soil. The plant suppresses weeds and controls erosion as well. Pigs, cattle, and goats eat the shrub, too.
Mercado has worked for several decades with the Center, an international leader in agroforestry R&D. It aims to grow more food and lessen gas emissions by converting degraded grasslands into highly productive farmlands and sequestering more carbon in trees.
Rainwater is the only source of irrigation in the hilly farming areas of Claveria. Mercado’s team put up ponds that store water. “With these ponds, we need not worry during dry spells or whenever it is time to water the plants. We also culture fish that farmers eat and sell. Fish also adds nutrients in the water, making it beneficial to the growth of the crops it irrigates,” Mercado explained.
Undoubtedly, climate change aggravates to the ultimate challenge that upland farming brings to farmers. But with trees proving their worth to climate change adaptation and mitigation, agroforestry practices should be adopted to complement the needs of crops and animals. After all, farmers are expected to produce food while standing resilient despite the changing climate.