Part of any good extension work is demonstration. Especially in the field of agriculture, nothing speaks more clearly or effectively than showing someone the concrete merits and/or downfalls of any particular practice. So, as a Peace Corps volunteer and agricultural extension agent, I have worked hard in the past few months to develop my own garden, using biointensive and permaculture techniques, as well as a demonstration plot of field crops. My demonstration plot (what the locals call my kokue’i or “little field”) is finally beginning to grow—and with it, the curiosity of my neighbors as to what I am doing.
Paraguayans are used to hand-planting small areas (less than 1 hectare or about 2.5 acres) in monocultures of staples such as mandioca, corn, beans, or sugarcane. Such small plots are worlds away from industrial monocultures, but they still contain their own set of drawbacks, albeit to a much lesser extent than typical agribusiness. While my community uses largely organic practices (in many ways the exception, not the norm for Paraguayan agriculture), farmers here engage in other activities that limit production and are harmful to the soils and the environment, such as yearly field burning and small-scale monoculture.
In my demonstration plot, I have implemented a variety of techniques while integrating local crops to hopefully show some viable alternatives in crop management. First, instead of burning off the brush to clear the land, I “chopped and dropped” all the organic material right on my field. This organic debris serves as mulch to conserve soil moisture and maintain the natural cycling of nutrients. I pushed back the mulch to clear rows for the corn and mandioca seedlings, at least until they are a little bigger, and then I plan on filling in the gaps between plants with more organic mulch.
Also, I have created a hodgepodge of intercropping. On one end, I started with alternating rows of a local variety of corn and mandioca. Between the rows I planted zucchini squash and bush beans. On the other end, I intercropped within the rows themselves, mixing corn, beans, and mandioca; these rows alternate with cucumbers and a local pumpkin-sized green squash. Where the two sections meet, I have planted a line of tobacco, which is one of the most important commercial crops, along with sugarcane.
In a separate area I have planted the traditional “three sisters.” My version combines yellow summer squash, sweet corn, and either regular peas, snap peas, or yellow beans. After digging an approximately 8-inch hole, I planted the corn in the middle, flanked on each side by a climbing variety of bean, and the squash. This is an excellent companion-planting system that conserves space, time, and labor, while benefiting crop diversity and health. I am also currently growing some sunflowers for transplant into my field in order to attract more bees and further increase plant diversity. —Mario Machado