What are the advantages of intercropping? Why would a farmer switch from monoculture cultivation to intercropping? And how does one avoid some of the main disadvantages of this farming method?
On the most recent episode of Food For Mzansi’s weekly Gather To Grow interactive discussion on Twitter, farmer Gugulethu Mahlangu and Food For Mzansi editor for audience and engagement, Dawn Noemdoe, unpacked the dos and don’ts of intercropping with leading experts.
Joining them as expert panellists were:
- Nelly Kompane, who coordinates food gardens at 20 schools in the Free State,
- Bertie Coetzee, a regenerative and organic farmer from Lowerland Farm on the Orange River near Prieska in the Northern Cape,
- Siphiwe Sithole, who runs African Marmalde, an organic farming enterprise based in Laezonia in Pretoria, and
- Mpho Ramathe, farmer and co-director of Sustainable Abundance Permaculture.
Did you miss the live session? You can listen to the recording here. Meanwhile, here are some of the highlights from the lively discussion:
What is intercropping?
Coetzee explained that, from a regenerative and organic farmer’s point of view, they deal with the cropping side of intercropping. This means that they plant more than one cash crop row at once.
“For instance, planting maize and soybeans and skipping one or two rows in-between. You can also do relay cropping where you plant two different cash crops, also in an intercropping style, but in different seasons so you literally harvest one crop on top of another,” explained Coetzee.
Ramathe said that intercropping is a broad discussion and can be as simple as mixing two crops or combining various plants into what is called a food forest, which is where there are seven layers of production.
He also says that, from a permaculture perspective, they look at what the situation requires and what needs their clients need to fulfil. Then they design a system around that.
“Your intercropping will be anything as simple as the ‘three sisters’, where we use squash, maize and corn together, all of them performing multiple functions and working with each other, as opposed to having to put in inputs. Then we yield from that, from the planting across time, you have multiple yields staggered across your season. Or you can just have one planting with multiple crops.”
Why would a farmer switch from monocropping to intercropping?
The one question that most farmers have is why they should make the switch from monocropping to intercropping. Ramathe said that planting certain crops together benefits the soil and benefits the next generation of plants. It will also help the farmer reduce input costs.
Sithole said that intercropping can be cost effective and versatile.
“If you have a couple of square metres you are going to be able to put in three or four different types of produce in that space, unlike in monocropping. You have crops that will grow underground, so should a hailstorm come, it will only hit the crops on the top.
“It also makes sense because you are able to feed people. You cannot feed someone from only one kind of crop. With intercropping I have everything from grains, to spuds to beans and greens,” Sithole said.
How profitable is intercropping?
Coetzee referred to this as the most crucial question. He said that the challenge is to go out and see how much you can get from one hectare per year or per season from different crops and then see how that impacts your soil and your inputs.
“It is very difficult to make those sums in one season; you have to take so many things into account. You have to look at the bigger picture over three or four seasons to really see the gains you get from intercropping.”
Cons of intercropping
Although the pros of intercropping could not be denied, a very important question was if there are any downsides to intercropping. Sithole said that a con for her was that she could not make use of mechanised harvesters because she would have to harvest each type of produce separately.
Komape, who also compiles curriculums to integrate gardening into teaching and learning activities, said that knowing which plants are good companions can save farmers from costly setbacks. “If we know that from the beginning, we can avoid many mistakes,” she said.
Don’t forget to join the Gather To Grow live sessions, hosted on @foodformzansi on Twitter every Wednesday at 18:00. Next week our experts are discussing “How to deal with crop damage and livestock theft”.
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