By Fred Bahnson
Fred Bahnson, co-founder of Anathoth Community Garden in North Carolina, is working on a book, Soil & Sacrament: Four Seasons Among the Keepers of the Earth, forthcoming from Free Press. This article first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning and I am standing at the base of perhaps the only mountain in southwest Florida. Actually, it’s more of a hill. According to the plaque in front of me, this 50-foot-high, bulldozer-built mound is called the Tropical Highlands. The plaque’s description reads: “Steep land subject to severe eroding.”
Joel Wildasin is the intern in charge of this part of the Global Farm, part of the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, or ECHO. He points uphill to the right to several terraces, a good method to slow erosion, but on the hill’s left side is a better system. It’s called SALT: Sloping Agricultural Land Technology, an intercropping pattern that alternates perennial hedgerows with annual cash crops. According to the folks here at ECHO, the SALT system outperforms terraces when growing crops on steep tropical hillsides.
I carefully study the left-hand slope. At first the overall effect is one of contained chaos; there are just too many different kinds of plants here to make sense of. Then I begin to see. There are three hedgerows roughly 75 feet long and spaced at intervals of 12 feet, each hugging the slope’s contour. Within the hedgerows are at least four or five species of shrubs and trees. As perennial polycultures the hedgerows serve many purposes. They keep soil and water on the slope. They attract insect-eating birds. Some of the hedgerow plants fix nitrogen. Others, such as fish-poison bean (tephrosia) and neem tree, have insecticidal uses. With these hedgerows you’re growing both your own fertilizer and your own insecticides, cash crops in between. Wildasin points out the demonstration plots of strawberries nestled comfortably among the hedgerows on the 20-degree slope. This SALT plot is a carefully designed system, one that mimics a natural ecosystem’s polyculture, where each interlinking part supports and enhances its neighbor.