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Keyline for poor farmers: buy a tractor or starve?

 
Greg Amos
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Hi Darren, I'm one of your old students (Greece 2010) and very happy I took this PDC with you.

My question is about keyline, a technique you said that works well to increase water infiltration on broad acre. A friend of yours in Latin America, Eugenio Grass, is giving keyline courses to poor farmers, and I'm wondering how relevant it is for a poor farmer to learn something as tricky to implement as a keyline system with a Yeomans' plough. Unfortunately, I have to bring swales in the discussion to make my point ("unfortunately", because I know there are kind of opposing schools).

1) Intellectual understanding. Let's face it: it is much easier to teach how to define contour lines, rather than keylines. With contour lines, you just need an A-Frame. With keyline, you need to teach topography (how to find the keypoint), then A-Frame to define the keyline, then a way to define the lines downside and upside of the keyline, parallel to it.

2) Hardware. Did you try to make keylines without a tractor? I do not think that's possible. While this is not a problem in rich countries, poor and small farmers in many regions of the world would NEVER be able to even rent a tractor to do the keyline plowing. But then, why does Grass teach in regions like rural Nicaragua (where I've been the past year)? A swale, at least small ones, can be done by hand, and if the farmer has some money, it's cheaper to hire people than a tractor.

3) Cost. I don't remember exactly the numbers, but during the PDC you said the cost for 1 m of keyline is something like 0.5 cents while 1 m of swale is 2-5 cents, meaning it's way cheaper to do keyline. What is missing, is that you build the swale once, but you have to use the yeoman's plough once a year during at least 2 years, most probably during 3 - 4, so at the end the costs are similar.

4) Ecological biodiversity. When I see images of broad acres with keyline, I miss the trees! Yes, you may increase water infiltration, yes, you may get better pasture, but at the end of the day, it's still a huge piece of land without trees... By the way I have the same issue with holistic management: huge and fertile pieces of land, but no trees on sight. The only notable exception is when you plant trees using a keyline geometry: that looks wonderful! The nice part of swales is that they are a tree growing system.

So, for all those reasons, I would not recommend keyline plowing to people who don't have money, or who have difficulties understanding abstract stuff, like how to identifiy a keypoint (and during my teacher's training, I've seen a LOT of people with a PDC but no idea about how to identify a keypoint). But maybe I'm wrong, and I'm looking forward to hearing your comments

all the best,

greg
 
Darren J Doherty
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Location: Bendigo Region, Victoria, Australia
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Thanks Greg, Good to hear from you again.

Please find following my reply to your query:


Author Message
Greg Amos
Post Today 2:32:25 PM Subject: Keyline for poor farmers: buy a tractor or starve?
Hi Darren, I'm one of your old students (Greece 2010) and very happy I took this PDC with you.

My question is about keyline, a technique you said that works well to increase water infiltration on broad acre. A friend of yours in Latin America, Eugenio Grass, is giving keyline courses to poor farmers, and I'm wondering how relevant it is for a poor farmer to learn something as tricky to implement as a keyline system with a Yeomans' plough. Unfortunately, I have to bring swales in the discussion to make my point ("unfortunately", because I know there are kind of opposing schools).

CONTEXT Greg is everything as is design process and due diligence. So nothing is necessary until you determine it to be so - that applies to any tools available.

1) Intellectual understanding. Let's face it: it is much easier to teach how to define contour lines, rather than keylines. With contour lines, you just need an A-Frame. With keyline, you need to teach topography (how to find the keypoint), then A-Frame to define the keyline, then a way to define the lines downside and upside of the keyline, parallel to it.

That's not entirely true Greg. With Keyline all you need in many cases is an A-frame too. Sure there is a bit more to it but you still mark contours and then work with them. Without going into too much detail you can layout Keyline geometry very easily by following these two very simple instructions:

a. Valley Contours (concave) - run lines (rows/plows etc.) parallel BELOW the marked contour
b. Ridge Contours (convex) - run lines parallel ABOVE the marked contour

2) Hardware. Did you try to make keylines without a tractor? I do not think that's possible. While this is not a problem in rich countries, poor and small farmers in many regions of the world would NEVER be able to even rent a tractor to do the keyline plowing. But then, why does Grass teach in regions like rural Nicaragua (where I've been the past year)? A swale, at least small ones, can be done by hand, and if the farmer has some money, it's cheaper to hire people than a tractor.

Horses and oxen were used to draught subsoilers well before the era of the tractor and I know that MasHumus have had a play in this arena.

Otherwise the optimum means by which to improve your water cycle is to manage 100% ground cover 100% of the time with a mixed sward of annuals and perennial species. If you are still experiencing high levels of runoff then start to look at swales or adapting SALT (Sloping Agricultural Land Technology) with Keyline oriented dense tree rows and so on.

3) Cost. I don't remember exactly the numbers, but during the PDC you said the cost for 1 m of keyline is something like 0.5 cents while 1 m of swale is 2-5 cents, meaning it's way cheaper to do keyline. What is missing, is that you build the swale once, but you have to use the yeoman's plough once a year during at least 2 years, most probably during 3 - 4, so at the end the costs are similar.

Shepherding is the most cost effective means of restoring the water and mineral cycle. Then using electric fencing, then installing flexible stock water systems then Keyline is only good if you have a plow yes (you can use a chisel plow by the way), if you don't have these then swales or SALT systems both of which can follow Keyline geometry.

4) Ecological biodiversity. When I see images of broad acres with keyline, I miss the trees! Yes, you may increase water infiltration, yes, you may get better pasture, but at the end of the day, it's still a huge piece of land without trees... By the way I have the same issue with holistic management: huge and fertile pieces of land, but no trees on sight. The only notable exception is when you plant trees using a keyline geometry: that looks wonderful! The nice part of swales is that they are a tree growing system.

Trees are typically installed in all of our systems, though again ultimately this is down to the context of the client. If I had my way then 20+% of any production landscape would be in some kind of forestry system. With adequate ground preparation successful tree establishment in most climates does not require a swale. We've proved this time and time again however if you are a quick fix then swales may help.

So, for all those reasons, I would not recommend keyline plowing to people who don't have money, or who have difficulties understanding abstract stuff, like how to identifiy a keypoint (and during my teacher's training, I've seen a LOT of people with a PDC but no idea about how to identify a keypoint). But maybe I'm wrong, and I'm looking forward to hearing your comments

Sure, and again I would start with the Holistic Context and a thorough assessment of the land treatment options available. Its called a due diligent design process and this is the basis behind our development of the Regrarians Platform.

Thanks and all the best, Darren

all the best,

greg


 
Greg Amos
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Thanks Darren

Indeed, context is everything. Good to hear it again and again.

Keep on regenerating!
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