“SALT” can sweeten upland farming

By Henrylito D. Tacio


Global food supply is sufficient, but 850 million are undernourished and go hungry, points out the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in its recent report.  Use of chemical agricultural inputs is increasing; yet grain productivity is dwindling to seriously low levels.  


“Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades,” FAO admits.  “Industrialized food systems cause deaths through pesticide poisonings and high numbers of farmers have committed suicides, while millions of jobs have been lost in rural areas.”


Such is the paradox of modern farming.  The solution to the current problem: organic farming.  Organic agriculture is the answer,” points out Jessica Reyes-Cantos said of the Manila-based Rice Watch and Action Network.   “It won’t only retain soil productivity but it can make farming viable.”


FAO official Nadia Scialabba defines organic farming as “a holistic production management system that avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and genetically modified organisms, minimizes pollution of air, soil and water, and optimizes the health and productivity of plants, animals and people.”


Perhaps one of the most well-known organic farming technologies developed for the uplands today is the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT), which the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc. is heavily promoting. 


The uplands are rolling to steep areas where both agriculture and forestry are practiced on slopes ranging upward from 18 percent.  The sloping uplands occupy about55 percent of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares.


“SALT is basically a method of growing field and permanent crops in three-meter to five-meter wide bands between contoured rows of nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs (NFT/S),” explains Roy C. Alimoane, the MBRLC director.


Organic fertilizer


In SALT farming, the use of commercial fertilizer is no longer needed.  The NFT/S are thickly planted in double rows to make hedgerows.  When a hedge is 1.5 to two meters tall, it is cut down to about 40 centimeters and the cuttings (tops) are placed in alleyways to serve as organic fertilizers.


When the technology was still in its developing stage, the MBRLC used the leaves of ipil-ipil (Leucaena leucocephala) as its main source of fertilizer for the crops grown in the farm.  Every year, ipil-ipil produced 36,080 kilograms of green leaves and stem per hectare with the following NPK equivalents: 258.5, 120.2, and 90.1.


But in the late 1980s, ipil-ipil suffered from the attack of psyllid (Heteropsylla cubana).  With this infestation, the MBRLC started intensive testing the different nitrogen-fixing species which they had collected through the years.  Among those that have the same as that of ipil-ipil are Flemingia macrophylla, Desmodium rensonii, and Indigofera anil.  Alimoane recommends planting all three instead of just one species.   “As in organic concept, the more species, the better,” he says.


Diversified farming


If the recommended species are not available, farmers can still use ipil-ipil but should be planted with other local species available in their area like kakawate.


SALT is sort of a diversified farming system.  Rows of permanent crops like cacao, coffee, citrus and other fruit trees are dispersed throughout the farm.  The strips not occupied by permanent crops are planted alternately to cereals (corn, upland rice, sorghum, etc.) or other crops (sweet potato, melon, pineapple, etc.) and legumes (soybean, mung bean, peanut, pigeon pea, and winged bean, among others).


“This cyclical cropping provides the farmer some harvest throughout the year,” Alimoane says.  In addition, the practice also discourages pest infestations.  As crops are healthier and sturdy, they don’t use pesticides in their SALT farm.


Soil erosion


The thin layer of earth we call topsoil is essential to land’s fertility.  Typically, only some 15 centimeters deep, topsoil is a rich medium containing organic matter, minerals, nutrients, insects, microbes, worms and other elements needed to provide a nurturing environment for plants. “It takes thousands of years to build one inch of topsoil but only good strong rain to remove one inch from unprotected soil on the slopes of mountains,” Alimoane claims.


A six-year study conducted at the MBRLC farm showed that an upland farm tilled in the traditional manner erodes at the rate of 1,163.4 metric tons per hectare per year.  A SALT farm erodes at the rate of only 20.2 metric tons per hectare per year in the same period.


Computed, the rate of soil loss in a SALT farm is 3.4 metric tons per hectare per year, which is within the tolerable range.  Most soil scientists place acceptable soil loss limits for tropical countries like the Philippines range of 10 to 12 metric tons per hectare per year.  In comparison, the non-SALT farm has an annual soil loss rate of 194.3 metric tons per hectare per year.


“As a sustainable farming system, SALT replaces ugly eroded and denuded slopes with the luxuriant beauty of abundant vegetation,” points out Alimoane.


Three variants


The success of SALT has given birth to three more systems: Simple Agro-Livestock Technology (SALT 2), a system which integrates livestock raising (particularly goats) into the SALT system; Sustainable Agroforest Land Technology (SALT 3), a combination of food-wood production; and Small Agrofruit Livelihood Technology (SALT 4), where fruits and crops are planted together in the same area.


In Mindanao, some farmers are now adopting SALT in their farms.  One of them is Glicerio “Onyok” Gabais, Jr. from Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat, whose story was featured in Philippine Recommends for Agroforestry as a case study.


His farm in barangay Sewod was planted mainly to corn.   But after attending an intensive training on SALT systems at MBRLC, he started adopting the system by establishing contour hedgerows in some portion of his farm using Flemingia and Desmodium.  He still planted corn but this time with some fruit trees.  Later on, he added goats, which were the source of milk that sustained his two children who were still growing up at that time.  He planted the boundaries of his farm with various trees.  On the banks of the creek that runs through a portion of his farm, he planted ipil-ipil.


His income increased considerably.  Today, Onyok is one of the farmer-leaders in his barangay.  His farm has also become a favored destination of farmers from other areas doing cross farm visits.


SALT is known not only in the Philippines but in other parts of the world as well.  Danny Blank, farmer manager of the Florida-based Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), wrote: “In 2001, we implemented SALT on ECHO’s demonstration farm.  I liked the success we experienced with legume tree hedgerows.  But it was not until I visited Rancho Ebenezer in Nicaragua in 2004 and 2007 and saw SALT being used on a large scale that I became convinced that this is one of the better methods for sustaining and improving agriculture production on hillsides.”


SALT farms can also be found in Asian countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam.   


Three out of four farmers in developing countries farm in the ecologically-fragile uplands, which are susceptible to erosion.  “If SALT were applied in all the tropical uplands damaged by soil erosion, the lives of half a billion poor people could be improved,” Alimoane says. — ###


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