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Agroforestry helps Tajikistan farmers overcome resource pressures

Cabbages grown in an alley cropping agroforestry system in Tajikistan. Photo by Daniyar Serikov for Mongabay.

  • Tajikistan is a dry and mountainous country where agroforestry is helping to stabilize soils degraded by decades of monoculture farming during the Soviet era, while growing food and providing cover for wildlife.
  • “Alley cropping” is an agroforestry technique being increasingly used in the Fergana Valley, in which vegetable crops or grains are grown between rows of fruit or nut trees that shield the tender annuals from incessant wind and sun.
  • Farm sizes are generally small and the population is increasing, but farmers visited by Mongabay report multiple harvests annually with alley cropping and other environmentally friendly techniques.
  • Agroforestry also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in the woody trunks and limbs of trees and vines: it’s estimated that there are currently 45 gigatons of carbon sequestered by these agricultural systems worldwide.

ISFARA, Tajikistan — Ayubhudja Yahyehudjaev stands between rows of fruit trees in the hills above town, glad and proud that this agroforestry test garden of nearly 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres) created by the local farmers is providing promising yields.

“Here we grow plums, apples, cherries, merry [or bird cherries, Cerasus avium], apricots, pears. We also use [spaces between the tree] rows to plant cabbages, tomatoes, pumpkins, red peppers,” the agricultural cooperative chairman says. “Annually we get about two or three thousand grafts of apples and apricots, which we sell to other farmers that want to grow these gardens, and receive sound income of about two to three thousand dollars from every row. It is a good earning, hard work, but good income.”

The Isfara area is arid and surrounded by tall dry hills. Photo by Daniyar Serikov for Mongabay.

Isfara borders Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the valley of Fergana, and arable land is scarce here due to the high population density. As a result, some of the area’s young people migrate to Russia and Kazakhstan, but many remain and make a living through low-paid manual labor.

To use the limited land more effectively and in an environmentally friendly way, some Isfara farmers are adopting the agroforestry practice of “alley cropping,” where vegetables or forage crops are grown between alternating rows of fruit trees, allowing for doubled harvests. This results in better use of scarce water resources and cuts soil erosion and wind damage to tender vegetables.

The experimental garden has been cultivated for five years, yielding plums by its third year. This year it provided the first harvest of merry.

“Now we gather about 4,000 kilos of plums per hectare,” or about 3,600 pounds an acre, Yahyehudjaev told Mongabay. “The yield is increasing year by year. Starting from the seventh year, we expect very good profits from this garden.

“Here we have five rows of plums, four rows of apples, three rows of merry, one row of cherries, two rows of pears and one row of quinces apart from the hay,” he added.

Farmers’ cooperative head Ayubhudja Yahyehudjaev amid his alley cropping system that produces sugar beets between the fruit trees. Photo by Daniyar Serikov for Mongabay

The same group of farmers cultivates another plot, spanning 2 hectares (5 acres) in the lower, flatter part of the valley. There they grow hay and pears, as well as Kyrgyz varieties of corn called Alatau and Manas, and the Chinese variety 919. Half of the corn that’s harvested is sold, and the rest kept for animal feed.

There’s sometimes a shortage of water in the spring, according to Yahyehudjaev, and this year hail destroyed 30 percent of the crops. But the farmers replanted, thanks to state support, and drew a good harvest this past autumn. Some of them get about 10 tons per hectare (4 tons per acre) of corn and about half as much of wheat.

“We plant primary and secondary seeds of wheat varieties like Krasnodar-99, Jemchujina, Vassa, Aivina,” Yahyehudjaev said, adding that wheat yields could almost double with the Starshina variety.

Before collecting the corn in October, the farmers plant beans and wheat to boost harvests and protect the crops from pests and illnesses via rotation. They typically don’t use very much pesticide, applying it only once or twice at most during the season. Wasps from the Habrobracon and Trichogramma genera, grown in local labs, are frequently released to prey on the pests. It’s an effective solution, and one that provides an ecologically cleaner outcome.

Local farmers usually apply mineral fertilizers to the soil, since potassium and phosphate are scarce. Some also produce organic fertilizers from livestock manure. The ample supply of cheap labor also means it’s more effective to pull weeds out by hand than to apply herbicides. Some farmers still apply chemicals 20 to 25 days before harvesting, Yahyehudjaev said.

Drying maize harvested from alley crop systems. Photo by Daniyar Serikov for Mongabay.

In early October, the women work the fields around Isfara, collecting corn for silage. They’re paid the equivalent of $3.70 for a day’s labor, which goes toward supplementing their household finances in this low-income economy.

The lack of machines to work the land means less strain on the environment. Consequently, the area around Isfara is heavily populated with foxes and rabbits. Wolves descend from the nearby mountains two or three times each winter to attack sheep and calves, according to residents. The rural landscape is also home to magpies, while white storks also sometimes nest here.

Najmedin Isamadinov, 63, said he loved to work the land for the sake of his health. Now retired as a tractor operator, he continues to farm to help feed his family of 28. He specializes in dried apricots, tomatoes, wheat and carrots, for which he’s allocated up to 1 hectare (2.5 acres) each. The apricot varieties grown are called Hurmoya, Tojiboi and Binegorim. Isamadinov grows the wheat for his family’s consumption, and sells some of the tomatoes and grains at the local bazaar. Last year, he grew corn and sunflowers, crops that were more common during Soviet times.

“After the wheat I cannot seed anything else. I have enough strength, but we have problems with water. I have artesian water, but no natural flow,” he said.

Isamadinov manages the local pumping system, which is crumbling due to a lack of investment. “I am satisfied with the income: my family, apart from two children in Russia, will live here. We also have sheep and cows,” he said. He added the village was stalked by golden jackals, which sometimes attack the livestock. In packs, he said, they can even kill and eat a donkey.

Isfara-area farmer Mohamed Sattarov in one of his alleys growing “sainfoin,” a leguminous forage crop. Photo by Daniyar Serikov for Mongabay.

Irrigation in the heavily populated valley is expensive. Muzafar Magomin, a farmer, pays about 10 U.S. cents per cubic meter for the pumped water, about 38 cents per 1,000 gallons. Still, he has to wait in line for days before he can water the hectare of land he rents for $106 a year. Water is key for the wheat, potatoes and tomatoes he rotates with beans, peas and shell beans. Doves and magpies often raid the crops, but Magomin said he never retaliated against them.

The birds nest in nearby shrubs that protect the soil from the wind, including mulberries that border almost 20 hectares (50 acres). The mulberry leaves are fed to silkmoths, whose cocoons are processed for high-quality silk, said Narzullo Parikov, a former collective farm chairman during Soviet times and now the deputy manager of a local resort, Zumrad.

“On these 20 hectares we collect our harvest and [bring] it to the bunker silo, salt it and use for feeding our cows during the winter,” Parikov told Mongabay. “This is our first year on this land plot. Next year we plan to grow different fruit trees, corn for feeding poultry, tomatoes and cabbages for the resort. We have two harvests a year. Now we get the wheat, about 4.7 tons per hectare, and barley. In the middle of the year we gather and plant corn once again to feed the animals on our farm.”

The culture of farming changed in Isfara with the disbanding of collective farms and land distribution. Monocultures of corn were planted during the Soviet era, but now farmers are discovering new grain varieties from Russia, China and Kazakhstan, and new ways of growing them, like alley cropping. Regular rotation of potatoes, peppers, cabbages, summer squashes and eggplants also keeps pest populations low.

Pomegranates also grow in the agroforestry alleys of Isfara. Photo by Daniyar Serikov for Mongabay.

“This area has been cultivated for a thousand years,” Parikov said. “We don’t have [negative] interactions with the environment, don’t harm it.”

With attitudes like this, and harmonious practices like agroforestry advancing, food could be grown here for another thousand years.

This article is part of Mongabay’s ongoing series on agroforestry worldwide.

Banner image: Cabbages grown in an alley cropping agroforestry system in Tajikistan. Photo by Daniyar Serikov for Mongabay.

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