All around me I could see a lush forest filled with diverse plant and animal species. From afar it looked like a wild, unclaimed piece of land. However, I would soon find out it was actually a highly productive, cultivated coffee plantation. This four acre organic farm was no ordinary mono-crop coffee plantation. It was a beautiful, vibrant example of a multifaceted style of agriculture known as Agroforestry that provided a viable livelihood for a family of eleven while fostering environmental sustainability.
What is Agroforestry Anyways?
Agroforestry is a system of cultivation where tree plantations are managed alongside other food plants. The beauty of this idea is that it incorporates both traditional knowledge and modern scientific-thinking to foster ecologically-based natural resource management systems. Agroforestry is known to increase social, economic and environmental benefits.
I was able to see a firsthand example of this agricultural style while visiting an organic coffee farm on the Bolaven Plateau in Laos. A few weeks back I shared a story about learning the traditional techniques used to roast coffee in Laos and this is the second part of that story. After roasting, and tasting!, the coffee we headed out on our much anticipated farm tour. Thanks to its Agroforestry practices this farm resembled a wild, diverse forest much more than a human cultivated landscape. I was so excited to learn about the benefits of Agroforestry on the regional environment, the local economy and household food security!
Environmental: Increased Species Diversity
Mr. Vieng made it clear from the start that his farm is completely organic meaning he does not use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Organic growers can’t rely on artificial inputs to control against crop failure by pests, weather or disease, so they mitigate the risk by cultivating a plethora of different species. This increased diversity not only helps to reduce the dangers of infestations it is also more beneficial to the soil. On Mr. Vieng’s farm he grows two kinds of coffee tree grows – Arabica and Liberica. Even though the Liberica bean is less desirable he continues to cultivate them so as to maintain a high level of diversity in his coffee trees.
Another tactic common in Agroforestry is planting symbiotic plants that increase the farm’s overall diversity and provide secondary benefits. For example, Mr. Vieng grows peanut bushes below the coffee trees as these incredible nitrogen-fixing plants reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. As a bonus, he is able to provide his tour guests with delicious freshly roasted peanuts to snack on. Later he uses the empty shells as mulch between the trees to reduce weeds and encourage natural decomposition. Talk about a lot of benefits!
There are some difficulties associated with being organic of course. One extremely common and persistent pest in coffee trees are ants. These smart, resourceful creatures colonize trees by building gigantic nests between the leaves. As he chooses not to use pesticides, Mr. Vieng and his family must remove these infestations manually – by lighting them on fire! I have legitimately never seen so many ants in my life. I tried to capture a photo but they are so fast, so large and so aggressive, I mostly just ran away from the hoard! As my gag reflex mounted, Mr. Vieng mentioned that he often replaces the lemon used in Som Tum with these ants due to their citrus-y flavour! Ugh! I had to try it for myself, of course, and I can confirm that they do in fact taste lemony, but the crunchy, leggy texture is not one I’ll be adding to my salads.
Social: Increased Food Security
Mr. Vieng doesn’t only care about the productivity of his coffee trees, he also cares deeply about his farm workers and not only because they are his family members! During my visit in November 2015, there were eleven people living on the farm: Mr. Vieng, his wife, his sister, his two brothers and their wives all worked on the farm and supported two small children and two grandparents.
The farm workers need a healthy, filling diet as they maintain the coffee plantation completely by hand. They plant the seeds themselves, they prune the trees themselves, they harvest the coffee beans by hand. They even roast the coffee by hand! Luckily, Agroforestry principles encouraged Mr. Vieng to plant jackfruit, guava and mango trees grew interspersed between the coffee trees. These much larger fruit trees provided nutritious food for the family while providing much needed shade for the coffee trees.
Mr. Vieng also cultivated hot peppers, lots and lots of hot peppers! These his family uses in their home cooking and occasionally sells them at the local market. Additionally, Mr. Vieng planted cassava randomly scattered throughout the farm which he uses to feed his livestock. When he needs to fatten up a pig or motivate a buffalo to get to work, he simply walks between the coffee trees, unearths a starchy tuber with a stick and feeds it directly to his animals.
Economic: Increased Standard of Living
As we push our way through the jungle, I ask Mr. Coffee about his business. What I learned floored me. Mr Vieng explained that in an average year his farm produces approximately 1 tonne of coffee. If he were to sell this coffee in bulk to an exporter, he would get about 10 million Kipp ($1232 US). However, he spends about 5 million Kipp ($616 US) annually on maintaining the property including completing repairs, buying gas for the equipment and purchasing new seeds. If you do a quick calculation, you can see that his family would be living off of $56 US per person per year! Or said another way about $1.68 US per day for the whole family of eleven. Take a moment to absorb that.
Most farmers in central Laos live in abject poverty and must cultivate a wide variety of crops to simply have enough to eat. Knowing he wanted to provide a good life for his daughters and afford to send them to school, he changed his business model. Mr. Vieng no longer sells his coffee in bulk for export. Instead he focused on having a specialized Agroforestry farm that produces exceptionally high quality, organic coffee and acts as a tourist destination for foreign guests. Today he only sells direct to customers either as a cup of brewed coffee or as beans to take home.
I paid 40,000Kip ($4.91 US) for a cup of coffee, an hour long tour and 1 pound of coffee. Without question we each left an additional tip of 20,000Kip ($2.49). At the time this felt like a reasonable tip due to the fact that I was paying about 30,000 Kip for a room each night, but in in hindsight was not even close to enough. Mr. Vieng also has plans to create a homestay where guests can sleep overnight, share meals with the family, help on the farm and learn a little bit more about life in rural Laos.
Learning about the complex, labour-intensive growing, harvesting and roasting processes gave me an great respect for those who cultivate my favourite beverage.
This tour provided me with one of those rare moments when the idealism of food security academia is brought to life. This farm offered financial benefits to the farmer and the community, social benefits to the workers and their children, and environmental benefits to land. It is rare to see the promise of how sustainable agriculture can change people’s lives actually taking place and making the world a little bit better of a place.
Have you ever heard of Agroforestry before? Are you as excited about it’s potential benefits as I am?
Now It’s Your Turn! If you ever get a chance to visit an Agroforestry farm, I’d highly recommend it! If you can’t specifically find an example of Agroforestry in your travels, consider visiting any organic farm open to the public. Being an unconventional tourist helps give back to the local community in a direct and meaningful way.