For almost 17 years, my family lived in the steep, sloping foothills of the tallest mountain in the Philippines, Mt. Apo (which, incidentally, is a dormant volcano). We worked with farmers and farming communities in the surrounding areas that have had to contend with the steep grade of their land for lifetimes. Some had to literally tie themselves to an anchor point and “swing” off the mountainside to plant and harvest their fields.
Most farmers had about one or two acres of sloping land to farm. Most had used the “slash and burn” farming technique, in which the above ground vegetation is slashed before the start of the rainy season, the stubble is burned off and seeds are sewn directly into the hillside. It’s a rather common technique used around the world, and if a farmer has places to rotate from year to year, it can be quite effective. However, in this area, farmers don’t have multiple plots of land to rotate. The harsh farming technique combined with increasing population density has wreaked havoc on their land through soil erosion and land degradation.
The very system that helps them produce their food also begins to rob them of their future and the future of their children. The vulnerable mountainside soil is exposed to the elements, and heavy tropical rains washes away the top soil. It’s a no-win situation. The farmers have to plant for food and income, but their method makes it a doomed system.
During our years in the Philippines, alongside the leadership and staff at the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), we helped develop a hillside farming system known as Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT). It was a way for rural, poor farmers to produce good food and income from their mountainous lands without losing their topsoil. It was simple in that it taught the farmers to plant and grow their food along the contour of the land, thus reducing surface water flow and the washing away of their topsoil. It also taught them how to grow their food without having to burn the vegetation or plow their land through the use of natural, no-tillage farming.
The best thing about the SALT farming system is that local farmers could replicate it with the resources they already had! It simply took some knowledge of contour farming (easily taught and demonstrated), use of locally available nitrogen-fixing trees/shrubs to help stabilize the soil and give good fertilizer back to their crops, and some basic crop rotation schemes to ensure better soil fertility management and disease prevention.
If you are working with tropical upland farmers/farm communities and would like to learn more about the details of SALT farming, please contact us. We would be happy to send you a simple “how to” manual explaining how it is done!