Harvesting ancient farming

  Western agriculture is a risky business. Even if crops survive the frequent summer droughts, their soil can be washed away by fast and furious monsoon rains. Brook LeVan, co-director of the nonprofit Sustainable Settings in Aspen, Colo., wants to help farmers avoid this annual double jeopardy. This summer, with the help of two teachers and a group of workshop students, LeVan has established the region's first alley-cropping demonstration project.

Alley cropping, an agricultural system dating back to ancient societies in China and South America, involves growing annual agricultural crops in alleys between rows of perennial tree crops. The annuals - which in Sustainable Settings' plan include potatoes, quinoa, rye and beans - generate income while the perennials mature.

Swales, or ditches dug according to the contours of the land, are key to the system. Swales distribute water evenly among the crops and help control soil erosion, even in the event of heavy storms.

"We're teaching people how to harvest what does fall from the sky," says LeVan. "By controlling erosion and distributing water, we get into productive use." LeVan hopes that the system, if successful, will be adopted by other Western farmers frustrated with the longer, drier summers and diminishing snowpack levels.

For more information, contact Sustainable Settings at 970/923-1366, [email protected], or visit www.sustainablesettings.org.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Catherine Lutz

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