Agroforestry: Productive, flexible and cost saving

Timber tree collection at Jinko Vanilla Agroforestry Farm.

With more logging activities and commercial crop plantations emerging, the number of natural forests has been dwindling, and the impact of climate change is expected to worsen. However, farmers believe that there is still hope in agroforestry, which will not only help the environment, but also cut down on the cost of using fertilisers and pesticides, through the studies of nutrients.

Providing substantial benefits both economically and environmentally

Ang Tze Kang, owner of Jinko Vanilla Agroforestry Farm.

As part of Earth’s inhabitants, each of us has a role in the ecosystem — even the trees and the animals that live in forests are all part of the balance. Believing in this sentiment is what agroforestry is about. Agro farmers believed that each organism served a purpose other than survival.

That ignited Ang Tze Kang’s interest in starting his own research on farming methods. The “Jinko Vanilla Agroforestry Farm” owner believed that each plant complements the other to provide nutrients without relying on human-made fertilisers and pesticides to grow.

What piqued his interest was how much money commercial farmers would spend on chemicals to ensure their crops thrived. “In my opinion, there is something wrong if we have to spend a lot on fertilisers annually. With agroforestry, the benefits are there. By incorporating timber and fruit trees together with crops, we will see the system flourish. “

The future of farming

Over time, as farmers became more dependent to the use of chemicals to grow crops, the effects of it can be detrimental to nature. Agroforestry, on the other hand, is a more holistic approach to farming. “It is a system that is not only human-centric but also includes everything in the system. From humans, insects, and wild animals altogether — to create a balance the whole ecosystem.

“According to Ang, an agro-farmer grows food crops together with the forest. “When we look at a primary forest, it comprises different plants that grow together. Some vines, some timber, some climbers and nobody to care for them. Yet, they still flourished. The system works in balance, and you can hardly find any problems inside it. So how do they work together?”

By understanding the system, farmers can apply the same concept to their plantations. “We are not solving one problem at a time. Problems will arise from different angles and will come together at once. Through agroforestry, we are solving different problems all at the same time.”

Ang elaborated on the concept, saying that agro-farmers focus on replicating a primary forest. “On a commercial farm, if we exclude trees and only grow leafy crops, the root system will be shallow. The roots cannot absorb the minerals and nutrients from the soil; they only work at surface level. After numerous growing and harvest cycles, the nutrients will deplete.

“After that, you can see the soil starts to harden and become acidic. The plants will then become weak, and bugs and insects are prone to attacking it,” added the former engineer.

A reason for everything

When asked about the alternative to fertilisers, Ang said that farmers should understand the concept. “What exactly are fertilisers? The contents of fertilisers exist inside the very soil we step on. It is a mixture of nitrogen, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. These are just common elements that exist everywhere.”

Giving an example, Ang explained that to enhance the nitrogen levels in the soil, a farmer can grow peanut plants, ice-cream beans (inga edulis), and others. “These specific plants can help enhance the nutrients of the soil, thus benefiting the other crops around them.”

Sharing on carbon nutrients, Ang said that trees need these nutrients in order to grow. “When I prune tree branches, I will put them back in the soil. Termites, microbes, or earthworms will eat these rotten branches, and the carbon becomes a part of themselves.”

He explained that this is how nature complements itself: by converting different elements into one another. “That is why we must appreciate everything we see. Everything has its own function and role in the system. For example, I would usually let the scorpion or centipede be. I wouldn’t kill them. They are a natural predator for something much more harmful. “

Back to the original question on the use of chemicals, Ang said that the consequences would bite us back in the end. “You are not only killing insects but also beneficial microbes in the soil. At the same time, you will pollute the water surface, which eventually becomes a water source for us. What’s the point?”

Helping the environment

Ang added that the practise of agroforestry can help the environment. “When the world is talking about climate change, agroforestry is one of the major solutions to mitigate the problem. Trees are being chopped down regularly to plant commercial crops. Once a tree is cut down, the roots can no longer hold onto the soil. This can cause landslides, and rivers will become muddy during heavy downpours.

“But once we plant new trees back in the area, we are playing our role in the environment, even though it can take decades.”

Nowadays, with the common practise of monoculture, Ang said this will only create more problem. “Monoculture here means one plantation is only reserved for one type of crop to maximise production. Say if you’re planting cacao trees as a commercial crop. Without taller trees in the vicinity to provide shading, the cacao trees would not thrive. People don’t realise that these trees need shade. Production will be lower.”

Ang also added, “If the environment could only be sustained with one kind of crop, then the whole world would only have banana trees.”

Understanding all of these environmental factors, Ang applied all the knowledge he learned as an agro farmer at his farm in order to make it sustainable.

“My farm in Batu Kawah originally has agaru trees. Since trees are important, I let them be. I just need to prune them regularly and even then, I put the rotten branches back into the soil. In the last three years, I could see how the quality of the soil had improved.”

Apart from that, Ang also planted cacao trees, vanilla trees, and coffee beans. He said that his efforts to study the agrofarming system three years ago bore more fruits compared to when he started farming five years ago. As a firm believer in agroforestry, Ang encourages many to adopt the practise as well.

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