SALT: where upland farming can be sustainable
By Gina Mission

__SALT: A simple, low-cost, and timely method of farming the uplands and even the lowlands

everal miles away from the buzzing demonstrations, picket-rallies, or march protests of NGOs opposing land conversion, illegal logging, large-scale mining, and genetic engineering, is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baņos, Laguna. Scientists sit quietly in their laboratories, conducting their experiments and charting their observations. Unmindful of the cacophony of protesters in nearby Manila, they have their minds set on one goal: to develop a rice variety that will sustain the food requirement of a population which is expected to double in the next 20 years, and that will do the job using less land and lower water resources.

___Available data on the Philippines show dim prospects for farmers. From 1993-1997, a total of 43,598.45 hectares of agricultural land have been converted into golf courses, housing projects and other uses. An average of 10,000 hectares of the country’s 3.2 million hectares of rice fields are being converted into housing and business complexes every year. (It is estimated that an average of 2.8 tons or 55 sacks of rice is produced per hectare annually.) In addition, droughts, typhoons, floods, insect pests and diseases combine to wipe out a large proportion of rice and corn crops each year.

___And while the Philippine population is growing at 2.3 per cent every year, local rice production is increasing by only 1.3 per cent. Corn production on hillside farms had dropped in 10 years from 3.5 to 0.5 tons per hectare per cropping. With the total rice harvest having decreased by a whopping 14 per cent in 1997, and La Niņa destroying an estimated 426,106 hectares of rice fields, the government has had to import several times more grains than it used to.

___For the upland farmers, the scenario is even dimmer. "An example of what has happened in terms of deforestation and land degradation is what has taken place during one generation in the Philippines. It has almost 30 million hectares. In the 1950’s almost half of that (about 16 m ha) was classified as natural forest. Today, less than one million hectares of natural forest remains. In the same time period, population has almost doubled, and the marginal or ‘fragile’ lands have increased from 2 million hectares to 12 million", observed the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation in its publication, Sloping Agricultural Land Technology: A guide to how to farm your hilly land without losing your soil.

___Soil erosion, the publication added, is "the greatest problem man will encounter when forest trees are cut extensively without replanting and improper farming of fragile, sloping lands."

___Even farther away, on a marginal site in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur, upland farmers at the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) are looking at yet another approach to the food security issue. It’s not a technological solution involving the development of new crop varieties, nor a political-legal solution involving challenges to land conversion schemes.

___MBRLC is a non-profit, private volunteer organization with public concern founded by missionary-agriculturist Harold Watson in 1971. At present, MBRLC has a 19-hectare demonstration center, and the approach they’re working on is a sustainable agricultural system for sloping lands.

___The system makes use of the SALT or Sloping Land Agricultural Technology (SALT 1), and its three variations, the Simple Agro-Livestock Technology (SALT 2), Sustainable Agroforest Land Technology (SALT 3), and Small Agrofruit Livelihood Technology (SALT 4).

___SALT, according to MBRLC director Jon Jeffrey Palmer, grew out of the problems that farmers expressed to the MBRLC staff during informal meetings, as well as data gathered from actual visits. Low and declining farm yields, Palmer said, were the foremost problems mentioned by the farmers. Deforestation, soil erosion, and inappropriate farming technologies, Palmer added, were seen as the three major causes of low farm productivity.

___"Traditionally, farmers’ practices have been judged to be inadequate, and thus below standard, when measured against ‘modern’ agriculture, which relies heavily on improved varieties, commercial fertilizers, chemicals, etc.," Palmer explained. However, these same "modern" methods, even though scientifically proven, Palmer added, are often out of reach of the majority of the world’s farmers and can actually cause a decrease in productivity if not used properly.

___The guiding principles of SALT are that it must adequately control soil erosion; help restore soil structure and fertility; must be efficient in food and crop production; applicable to at least 50 per cent of hillside farms; easily duplicated by upland farmers with the use of local resources and preferably without making loans; culturally acceptable; have the small farmer as the focus and food production as the top priority; workable in a relatively short time; require minimal labor, and be economically feasible.

___In addition, MBRLC recognizes that even "poor" farmers deserve to eat nutritious food, which it believes is possible through SALT. For this purpose, the MBRLC envisions for SALT to serve as an alternative to the low-yielding or otherwise high-chemical input problems of the ordinary farmers from both upland and lowland areas.

___Simply put, SALT is an integration of soil conservation and food production strategies, involving the cultivation of complementary crops in a field where rows of nitrogen-fixing trees provide natural fertilizer and prevent soil erosion.

___The idea, according to Palmer, is to maximize the use of the "small family farm" through the "marriage" between animals, trees, crops, and other natural resources, each of which helps sustain the productivity of the other, and at the same time, preserve the soil and its fertility. SALT also includes planting of trees for timber and firewood on surrounding boundaries. Livestock such as goats, chickens, pigs are also raised on the farm.

___On a more technical level, SALT is a diversified farming system which can be considered agro-forestry since rows of permanent shrubs like coffee, cacao, citrus and other fruit trees are dispersed throughout the farm plot. The strips not occupied by permanent crops are planted alternately with cereals (corn, upland rice, etc.) and legumes (soybean, mung bean, peanut, etc.). This cyclical cropping or crop rotation provides the farmers harvests throughout the year.

___The advantages of SALT, according to MBRLC, are that it is a simple, applicable, low-cost, and timely method of farming the uplands and even the lowlands, especially in these financially and environmentally troubled times.

___Depending on their capability, farmers may use SALT and its different variations all in one setting. SALT 1 or Sloping Agricultural Land Technique is be used by farmers in upland area where it is most helpful to prevent soil erosion.

___SALT 2, or Simple Agro-Livestock Land Technology, is a small livestock-based agroforestry with a land use of 40 per cent for agriculture, 20 per cent for forestry and 40 per cent for livestock. The manure from the animals is utilized as fertilizer both for agricultural crops and the forage crops.

___SALT 3, or Sustainable Agro-forest Land Technology, is a cropping system in which farmers can incorporate food production, fruit production, and forest trees that can be marketed.

___SALT 4, or Small Agrofruit Livelihood Technology, as the name suggests, is devoted to the planting of fruit trees (which could occupy 2/3 of the land area) and food crops (1/3 of the area).

___Several studies conducted by MBRLC showed that the use of either or all techniques consequently enhanced the income of farmers. A 1995 on general comparison of production benefits of local farming practices and the SALT systems as applied in several farms in Mindanao showed the traditional farmers earning an annual average income of P6,000 and harvested 0.55 to 1.0 ton of corn per hectare.

___SALT 1 farmers who used the same size of land earned an annual average income of P14,400, and harvested 2.0 to 2.5 tons of corn per hectare. SALT 2 farmers earned P32,000, and harvested 3.0 to 4.0 tons of corn per hectare. SALT 3 farmers earned P20,000, and harvested 2.0 to 2.5 tons of corn per hectare. Data for SALT 4 farmers, however, were not available.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.04.29