Farming is a lot more than just the primary crops in the field, as Steven Fonte has learned over the years. Fonte, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University, has been studying the nuanced relationships in fields that aren’t being cultivated – and the border areas around agricultural fields – thanks to collaborative research with farmers in Peru, work that he presented in early November at the Soil Science Society of America’s virtual annual meeting.
Fonte was living in Colombia in 2013, working as a researcher for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, when he had the opportunity to begin studying farming practices in the Andes more closely, thanks to a grant from the McKnight Foundation.
The grant has been renewed several times since then. This has allowed Fonte, who joined the CSU faculty in 2015, to develop not only a deep understanding of the area, but also an unusually long-term ability to build on previous research – and to support local farmers.
“The farmers we’ve worked with in Peru are especially engaged, and they recognize that some of the farming systems are really susceptible to erosion and degradation,” Fonte said. Through collaborative research and conversations, they have been able to work together to find new solutions and improve the land.
Smarter fallows and better borders
As part of their ongoing McKnight Foundation-funded work, Fonte and his collaborators have conducted local surveys of farmers in several Andean regions of Peru to understand their most pressing needs and concerns. One of the top issues was that fields were being farmed more and more intensively. What used to be a roughly nine-year crop rotation (cycling through staples of potato, corn, barley, and beans before being left to naturally regenerate with at least five years of fallow) was being accelerated to less than six years by reducing fallow time to fewer than three years.
This intensification was leading to poorer soil health and land degradation. At the same time, there was also less forage available to feed local livestock; the longer natural fallows had previously provided more forage.
So, in collaboration with Fonte and his colleagues, local farmers helped develop a set of experiments that would investigate putting those remaining fallow years to more productive – and restorative – use. The group decided to try planting 58 experimental fallow fields with more productive and improved fallows, based on crops such as alfalfa, oats, ryegrass, and clover, that could be used for animal forage while also restoring nutrients to the soil. They then observed these fields for three years, measuring crop outcomes, soil health, and forage production.
The farmers ultimately selected an alfalfa-based cover crop as the best, according to research published this September in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment by Fonte and his colleagues.
“By having these improved fallows, they’re planting more productive perennial species, which is a key means to restore soil health – and provide forage, which is really needed in the community,” Fonte said.
In a subsequent study, which also emerged from conversations with farmers, Fonte and collaborators worked with local farmers to see how the plants at the edge of typical potato fields, which are usually less than an acre, were impacting the crops. They compared 20 fields, 10 bordered by alder trees and 10 bordered by eucalyptus. As described in an August paper, also published in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, they found that alder borders provided unique ecosystem benefits, including better soil quality, soil biodiversity and improved control of common pests that cause extensive damage to potatoes in the region.
The results indicated that “more intentional organization of the landscape could go a long way toward enhancing the provision of multiple ecosystem services to benefit key crops,” Fonte said.
Having been able to work in the same area for more than seven years has allowed Fonte and his colleagues to not only see the positive impacts of this research, but also to build on successes.
“While with most grants it’s three to five years then you’re done, this long-term support from the McKnight Foundation has been a key reason for success in this project,” he said. “That sort of thing doesn’t happen very often in the world of research.” Additionally, local NGOs, such as Grupo Yanapai – members of which also contributed to the published papers – have been invaluable in facilitating meaningful relationships with famers.
Other tangible results of these long-term relationships go beyond single study findings. For instance, he said, the study of border plantings grew out of conversations with farmers as they were discussing results of the fallow investigation.
Getting to know the communities has also allowed the researchers to develop nuanced approaches in their collaborations. For example, for conversations with local farming families about fallow and forage crops, they often relied on separate voting for women and men, who brought different perspectives and goals: women usually being in charge of livestock, and men often responsible for the cash crops. As a result, the outcomes of the work proved a benefit to women – adding much-needed animal forage – and to men – improving the health of soil for key crop growth – and their families overall.
“The other key thing about this kind of participatory research is that it builds capacity among farmers in terms of doing their own research,” Fonte said. “It gives them ideas and encouragement, and we’ve seen a lot of recent farmer-led experimentation on fallows in the area that we’re not involved with. They will walk us around and say: ‘Here I’m trying this, and over here I’m trying that.’ Farmers really want to engage and are open to developing new practices.”
There are also some key lessons from the work that Fonte and his colleagues are already putting to use in Colorado. For example, in southwest Colorado, farmers who grow dry wheat have typically left fields to fallow with bare soil for 14 months after one season of wheat. “It’s a really inefficient system and is leading to a lot of soil degradation,” Fonte said.
“Our work in Peru has influenced my thinking about those rotations here in Colorado and the potential for cover crops or perennial forages, like alfalfa, and having even longer fallows,” he said. “We’re looking for windows of opportunity within these cropping systems where you can insert forage crops and better integrate livestock.”
Fonte plans to continue his work in the Andes. In Colorado, where farms tend to be much larger – on the scale of 500 acres – he said many studies can realistically only work with about 10 farmers at a time.
“But in Peru where farmers work much smaller plots, we have trials going with more than 100 different families, which means we could be impacting 500 to 1,000 people with one study,” Fonte said. “There’s a real potential for impact, improving soil health as well as livelihoods.”