Parrot Hill Farm in Belize, Central America, is a living example that sustainable agriculture can work – even on "poor" land, and at a commercial scale of operations. Parrot Hill now thrives on land which in 1980 was typical of the devastation left behind after tropical forests are destroyed, except that this land had been cleared many years ago.
Even after lying undisturbed for decades, the landscape was nearly barren – only sparse, rank growth, a few pine trees and palmettos, a little tough, worthless grass. The soil, if such it could be called, was dusty yellow sand overlying weathered clay subsoil. There was no topsoil whatsoever. Only five years after adopting sustainable methods, however, black, crumbly topsoil is building rapidly, in places to a depth of six inches or more, and healthy citrus, papaya and cashew trees are growing.
No informed developer would have ever bought this land in the first place. Tropical soils are notoriously bad. Most successful commercial farms are on river bottomland, or they are the temporary establishments of large-scale slash and burn techniques. There is no other commercial farm in Belize on land like this, despite the availability of vast acreage of similarly degraded soil at little cost. We were the only ones with so little knowledge and foresight as to think that we could build a successful farm on 8500 acres of savannah pine ridge land.
We planted crops that failed and died using standard commercial methods, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We had to learn a different technique or lose the whole investment. We learned.
Sustainable agriculture works in the humid tropics just like it works anywhere else, but faster. In a year-round warm climate with a hundred inches or more of rain annually, plants can grow fast in the right conditions. We did some preliminary dirt work with bulldozers to open drainage and ease the waterlogged conditions which were our first obstacle. We also rolled up low, rounded planting ridges to keep the base of our trees out of standing water after heavy rains. Then we planted a perennial legume ground cover. We tried clover and alfalfa, all the familiar staples of the temperate zone, but none of them did well in our hot climate. Finally, knowing that we had to start getting organic material into our soil no matter what, we planted kudzu, knowing full well its reputation as a virulent pest.
The kudzu did the trick. Where it grew well, we mowed it regularly and simply left it lying in the fields as mulch. There was just too much labor involved to gather it up for compost and then spread it out again. But we found that in our hot and humid conditions it decomposed very rapidly anyway, and we don’t think we lose as much of its nitrogen content to the air as one would expect in a dryer climate. Of course the kudzu vines climbed into the trees and required regular maintenance to pull them out, an extra cost which would be unnecessary if we could find a vigorous non-vining legume.
As it turned out, our needs were met by an abandoned Belizean government field trial of a forage plant on land adjoining ours. We found a legume growing there in a dense stand, despite years of total neglect. We inquired at the government research farm and were told that the plant was a variety of desmodium which had been planted for trial as cattle forage. The funding for the project had been withdrawn and the researchers had left the project and not returned. We received permission to gather seed from the plot, and began to distribute it in our orchards. The desmodium soon became a great success. It is both drought resistant and capable of remaining healthy in overly wet conditions. It builds a close network of stems crisscrossing the ground and stitching to it at every node with a powerful root system which utterly stops erosion and traps organic debris. It is more or less a wonder plant for the purpose we were seeking.
Our protein rich ground cover now provides an abundant food supply for the entire food chain of living creatures, from the microorganisms which are the basis of the new-found fertility of the soil all the way up to tapirs, armadillos and jaguars.
On Parrot Hill, our trees and our growing system are still too young to demonstrate the high yields commercial growers look for, but our trees are starting to bear fruit, and it is remarkably sweet and juicy. The topsoil is there where it didn’t exist just a few short years ago, and it gets darker and deeper all the time.
Those whose concern is only for the recovery and preservation of the environment need to provide this information to those who will otherwise continue to raze the forests. Tropical agribusiness needs to be disabused of some outdated and invalid assumptions about the need for chemical inputs. Agriculture is cheaper and more productive when it’s sustainable. There is no room for enemies in the struggle for a healthy planet. Agribusiness provides food for a lot of people. We don’t need to stop it, we need to make it work for the lasting benefit of mankind.
Since Jean submitted this article to us last fall, a drought from January until June and serious brush fires in April destroyed 150 acres of citrus trees. Jean remains inspired and inspiring nonetheless: "This is an opportunity. We now feel that our 400 acres of citrus was too much monoculture, anyway. We’ll be using that land to further diversify our crops." Jean and her husband, Glenn Huff, operate Parrot Hill Farm under the auspices of START NOW, a non-profit corporation, PO Box 507, Eau Claire, WI 54702.