Agroecological practices recognize the centrality of ecological systems in farming. From the bees that pollinate our food to the elaborate microorganism networks who build fertile soil, we can’t grow food sustainably without the support of healthy farm ecosystems!
Rather than attempting to eliminate uncertainty and treat nature as a static object that can be controlled with chemical inputs, farmers who value agroecology draw from local knowledge and traditions in order to work respectfully with the dynamism and natural resilience of ecological systems.
Agroecological practices include foraging, seed saving, and planting diverse native crops. Many of these practices originate from diverse Native American traditions of land stewardship which are based in reciprocal relationships with the land and its beings.
Prior to conquest and colonization, North America was a patchwork of deliberately cultivated garden beds (Dunbar-Ortiz, 28). Diverse Indigenous nations in what is now California used controlled burns to cultivate grasslands for wild elk, promote soil fertility, and maintain tanoak and black acorn groves for harvesting (source). In the Northeast, Haudenosaunee agroforesters intercropped groves of oaks, chestnuts, and hickories with blackberries (Dunbar-Ortiz, 28). While many of these relationships have been disrupted by the violent removal of Indigenous nations, autonomous city states, and communities from their land during colonization- these ways of knowing were never completely eradicated and there is a growing movement to empower keepers of place-based ways of knowing to revitalize and inspire reciprocal relationships to land through farming.
The practice of intercropping corn, squash, and beans (“three sisters” who have a symbiotic relationship) originated in Mesoamerica and traveled as far north as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (source). As the contemporary Haudenosaunee version of the “three sisters” legend goes, there were once three sisters in the field. The first sister was too young to stand, so she crawled along the ground. The middle sister loved to scamper around and wear her bright yellow dress. The eldest sister was tall and had long blonde hair and a bright green shawl. The three sisters loved and supported each other. One day a little boy appeared in the field. Curious, the first sister disappeared after him. The middle and eldest sisters missed her very much. The next night the middle sister also disappeared, and the eldest sister stood strong although she mourned her sisters. One day during harvest season, the little boy heard the eldest sister crying for her siblings and taking her into his arms carried her to his home. When she arrived at the boy’s home, the eldest sister was so delighted to see her sisters there that she began drying herself so that the family would have food for the cold winter ahead (source).
The story of the three sisters teaches us that beings within an ecosystems are connected. The three sisters- squash, beans, and corn- rely on each other to thrive, and we in turn rely on them to thrive as well. This story also teaches us to be thankful for the gifts and care land provides for us and to do our part to reciprocate care back. This is the ethos of agroecology.
Other agroecological practices were brought to the America’s by enslaved members of the African diaspora. Agroecological expertise brought by enslaved farmers included:
- Using compost, manure, and ash to enhance soil fertility
- Planting on terraces to reduce erosion
- In tropical climates, planting on mounds in order to protect crops from over-saturation
- Using trees as trellises for vines (agroforestry)
- Pruning trees
- Cover crops (using legumes to fix nitrogen in soil)
- Rotating crops to maintain soil fertility (Bandele, Myers, 24)
More recently, Black agricultural scientists like Dr. George Washington Carver and Dr. Booker T. Whatley made substantial contributions to agroecological farming. Dr. Carver advocated for cover crops, animal manure, and compost to build soil. Dr. Whatley worked to establish bee apiaries for enhanced pollination of fruits (Bandele and Myers, 35).
In order to advance the goals of agroecology, supportive structural changes are necessary. Anderson and others identify six necessary political transformations (source).
- 1. Public protection of and reparations towards equitable access to land, seeds, and water
- 2. Affirmation by educators, political leaders, and community organizers of diverse local knowledge systems as well as public investment in local leaders
- 3. Empowerment of local systems of exchange including informal markets, barter systems, and gift economies. These networks should be embedded in democratic social relations and community solidarity
- 4. Develop networks for farmers, researchers, and organizers to coordinate policy action and exchange knowledge and skills.
- 5. Promote robust public discourse about the intersections between agroecology, the environment, health, economy, and social justice specifically uplifting diverse place-based world views and cultural practices
- 6. Prioritize equity in agroecological networks and ensure greater participation and decision-making power of those who have previously been marginalized or excluded
For greater detail on this agenda, check out Food First’s “Agroecology” backgrounder.
In the United States, the voices of smallholder farmers and community networks are not adequately reflected in the federal Farm Bill. Community organizers are fighting to change that from the ground up.
At the Microfarm, we believe that agroecology makes farms more resilient to climate change, restores agro-biodiversity, employs valuable local knowledge, and empowers the smallholder farmers who know their land best. We’ve incorporated many of these methods into how we plant. Examples of agroecology at the farm include: native bee and bird friendly plants, rainwater catchment, and our “berm” (mound) and a “swale” (dip) which slow run-off and hold top soil in place. We also hope to facilitate conversations about place-based and reciprocal ways of relating with land.
Sources + more reads
Anderson, R Colin et. al. (2020). “Scaling Agroecology from the Bottom up: Six Domains of Transformation”. Food First. Retrieved from: https://foodfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/FoodFirstBackgrounderAgroecologyTransformations_Feb21.pdf
Bandele and Myers. (2017). “Black Agrarianism: Roots!” Land Justice, edited by Justine M. Williams and Eric Holt Giménez, Food First Books, pp. 24.
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston, Beacon Press.