"What crops can I grow?" Consultants in tropical agriculture often receive letters from Peace Corps volunteers, teachers, missionaries, students, and those who have followed their careers to the tropics, with the question, "What crops can I grow?" Leaders and literate farmers often look for new alternatives to basic crops that do not bring in the income desired and write, "What other crops can I grow?" Conscientious persons from the developing world, and even from academic institutions in the United States ask the same question. Choosing the right crop or crops for a particular place is a common problem, and the information necessary for answering the question is not widely available or easily found. Knowledge of agriculture tends to accumulate in regional pockets that represent ecological zones. While the majority of those that write may understand their own area quite well, they are much less familiar with the broader situation or the whole of the tropics and subtropics.
Improvement of Local Agriculture. Quantity and quality of agricultural produce, and usually the diversity as well, can always be improved. However, it is a mistake to assume in any situation that improvements are easy. Agricultural systems represent biological, socio- economic, and technical evolutionary adaptations to particular ecological systems. Agricultural systems are followed because they work under the local circumstances, or at least they work better than easily visualized alternatives.
It is sometimes relatively simple to improve the technology of third world agriculture, yet investigators are often puzzled why the technology is not readily adopted by farmers. Usually the answer is in the socio-economic aspects of the system, which are frequently overlooked. In highly technical systems, yields and quality might already be high. Improving such agriculture is like shooting at a moving target, hard to achieve a hit.
Traditional approaches to answering the question. The most obvious and useful technique to answering the question, "What crops can be grown?" is to observe and talk with local farmers. They are wealthy in appropriate technology with deep and sometimes almost poetic understanding of their particular crops and production systems. Following farmers' techniques, especially those of farmer-leaders or farmer-innovators, one is practically assured of a crop. Yet, farmers have their roots in tradition. Even excellent farmers may be unaware of what farmers do in an adjacent valley or region. They may not know of improved varieties or technological advances. They will seldom be aware of the world situation, or at times even the local market, and how it affects their crops. Thus, the expertise of farmers is valuable but limited.
A second source of information is that of agricultural statistics. While few countries have as extensive a system as that found in the United States, all countries maintain some records of production, and these clearly show what crops are grown, and usually what acreage and what yield. If a crop is already grown in substantial quantity in a region, then you can be sure it is a crop that not only can be grown, but that can also make money-and that it can be improved.
A third technique is to talk to the local agricultural agent, or, if possible, the nearest agricultural extension office or experiment station. The structure of the system developed to help local agriculture varies, but these people have some knowledge of the crops of the region. They will know which crops the government emphasizes (usually the money makers) and often the improved varieties and technology. Do not underrate them and their potential answers to your queries. While the above traditional sources of information may not be adequate, it would be foolish to start any serious long-term endeavor without consulting these sources.
A fourth technique is to observe the wild plants on the land as an indication of what crops can be successfully produced. This technique has not been developed to the extent that it would be a useful tool, and has as a disadvantage the requirement of special knowledge of the flora. Furthermore, in some regions the original native flora has been destroyed.
An integrated approach. This kind of approach tries to use local, national, and internationally available information to answer the question. The ecological situation is emphasized here. If one can learn to distinguish ecological zones and learns the ecological requirements and preferences of crops of the world, then one can match crops with zones with a high degree of confidence that a given crop can be grown in a given locality. But, even so, always remember that there are other questions to be asked.
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