Nature of small-scale tropical agriculture
The scale of agriculture in the tropics ranges from the small household farm to very large farms. Tropical agriculture is usually labor-intensive, seldom machinery-intensive. Large farms, sometimes called plantations, are often concerned with production of crops that can be exported. Large and medium-sized farms are always concerned with sales and making a profit.
On the other hand, small-scale agriculture has a double purpose: subsistence (feeding the family) and marketing (cash or barter). Food which is produced on the subsistence farm is itself a savings in that income need not be expended. However, subsistence is more than just a way of life. It is often the only alternative that a family has. The food produced on the small farm is often not just a financial matter, but also a matter of life or death. This is the reason that some small farmers seem to follow traditions rigidly and resist change. The price of a mistake may be too high.
The crops grown on the small tropical farm are usually basic subsistence crops: grains, legumes, roots and tubers. These crops often are the best crops to grow to sell, for they are the crops used in great amounts by others. Often very little attention is paid to fruits and vegetables. Fruits are often neglected because they are so abundantly produced, at least during their season, that they are available to most and surpluses are difficult to sell. Their value in the diet, chiefly in terms of vitamins but sometimes carbohydrates and oils, is seldom appreciated. Vegetables, as known in the temperate zone, are produced even less than fruits, but there are many exceptions to this rule. European vegetables are often unadapted, but can be produced in the highlands, during the cool season, or when varieties adapted to heat or other specific conditions are available.
There are many tropical vegetables that are seldom if ever seen in the temperate zone. Newcomers to the tropics do not recognize them and may wrongly assume that the local people do not grow vegetables. Many of these are the young and tender leaves of shrubs and trees. Some are wild but protected, and others are conscientiously planted. Any one of them is likely to be many times more nutritious than civilized lettuce. Some tropical vegetables have many edible parts including young leaves, shoot tips, flowers, tender pods, immature seeds, dried seeds, and roots or tubers. People often know these other uses of local vegetables, while they may be unaware of many uses of introduced plants.
When starting out, experimentation with very obscure tropical plants is not advisable. The properties of most plants that have a great deal of potential for the small farm are known and described somewhere (though often in hard-to-find publications). The first place to start is always by learning from local people. Then you may also look for plants which may be unknown in your location, but are important in other parts of the world. You can learn about many of these plants through ECHO Development Notes, and seeds for many of them are available from ECHO's seedbank. But remember, learning from local people is always the best way to start.
Small-scale tropical agriculture is also characterized by small amounts of available resources, especially purchased inputs. While labor tends to be abundant, it might be committed to other tasks. Purchased fertilizer or pesticides might be out of the reach of the small farmer. Some small farmers may lack even the most elementary hand tools. Techniques you introduce should ideally be capable of reaching the people with few resources, and yet afford opportunity to those who can take advantage of more advanced technology.
It is appropriate here to discuss what some consider a resource: credit. Indeed, there are many places where agriculture is deemed impossible without credit. As a general rule, the larger the farm, the more easily credit can be obtained. Yet, credit implies an obligation. Farmers, small or large, assume an obligation every time they accept credit. The obligation is hard and absolute, while the ability to pay is soft and full of risks. Small farmers are usually better off when they do not resort to borrowing. Without borrowing the farming risk is the same, or less, and the profit is the same or greater. You must decide whether credit is a resource or liability.
Tropical agriculture on a small scale is an adaptation. In many respects it is the result of an evolutionary process, the growth and change of small farmers in response to the physical and social environments they face. Change is a never-ending process. Agriculture may need to change rapidly sometimes, or not at all at other times. The techniques of small-scale agriculture should not be considered primitive, but as adaptations to reality. They should not be considered sacred and unchangeable either, because change is inevitable. Change represents opportunity: for innovation, for experimentation, for winning cooperation, and for bettering life physically and spiritually.
Finally, small-scale tropical agriculture represents an integration. In the sense used here, integration is the use of one resource to stimulate the production of an "unrelated" output. As simple examples, integration might be the use of crop residues to increase animal production, and the use of manures to increase crop production. Integration is a way of maximizing outputs (food for the family, farm products for sale, etc.) and minimizing inputs (purchase, labor). Integration on small tropical farms is often lacking even when possible. Integrating is one of the easiest ways to contribute to the welfare of the farm family, and may cost no more than some thought and discussion or demonstration.
Some ideas for integrating activities include:
1. Use of moveable cages where animals might feed on and destroy weeds, scratch the soil, and deposit manure in garden areas. This can be done with moveable cages on tethers.
2. Restraining chickens from household gardens.
3. Use of crop residues as litter in animal cages, and subsequent use as compost.
4. Weed control with mulches that are later incorporated into the soil as compost.
5. Off-season green manuring with appropriate species.
6. Disposal of human waste in deep pits, later planted to trees.
7. Use of crop residues as fuel, as building material (roofing, etc.), and as clothes.
8. Use of animal furs or skins as clothes and shoes.
9. Location of small animal cages and outbuildings under fruit trees.
10.Use of ashes as fertilizer and in soap making.
11.Use of trees with edible products as fence posts. Rat control with poisonous seeds of fence trees (Gliricidia sepium).
12.Uses of crop plants for a variety of compatible uses.
13.Location of farming facilities to permit labor saving.
14.Planting crops taking into account the amount of family labor that will be available later.
In most cases farmers have integrated many aspects of their operations. However, on almost all farms there are still opportunities to be discovered. Integration cannot be practiced until all elements of the farmers' systems are understood!
[Ukrainian] [English] [Russian]