“It is the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not to venture all his eggs in one basket."
-Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Part One of "Don Quixote" (1605).
Agro-ecology is a term that can be utilized in numerous ways. It can be thought of as a political and socio-economic and/or political movement, a field of scientific study, and as a farming methodology. Generally defined, agro-ecology is the examination of how agriculture fits into our modern society. More precisely, it is the analysis of how cropping systems interact with the natural environment. Within this structure, agriculture cannot endure in an island of thought and practice. However, it can exist within a larger scaffold of ecology. More, it demands its followers to approach it from an interdisciplinary perspective. In agro-ecology, philosophies that govern Earth's biogeochemical cycles are synergistically fused with modern agricultural practices.
Numerous elements of the food system such as economic sustainability, environmental restoration, social and political stability are embodied in agro-ecology when interactions between plants, water, soil, animals, humans and the micro-environments within frameworks of agriculture are studied. As such, repairing soil health is of utmost importance to an agro-ecologist because it improves numerous biological processes that occur in the soil. Without healthy soil, the ecosystem and trophic levels above it cannot flourish. In most soils that are of poor quality, soil organic matter is the most lacking component. Degraded soils are also often accompanied by poor biological diversity. Worse, monocultures systems don't provide meaningful and adequate labor because between harvest and planting intervals, less employment is needed. When a crop assortment is implemented, all targets of agro-ecology can be hit.
Soil quality or soil health according to the USDA-NRCS, can be defined as "fitness for use" and "the capacity of a soil to function." The soil ecological services it employs are maintaining biotic variety, activity, and production. In addition, the soil controls water and nutrient movement. It plays a vital role in erosion control, buffering erratic changes, digesting organic and inorganic matter, straining of solutes, and detoxifying compounds in the soil. Furthermore, a healthy soil stores and cycles nutrients and provides physical stability and support for the rest of the biome. Some of these parameters can be measured with the following tests; aggregate stability, available water capacity, bulk density, earthworm presence, water infiltration, potential mineralized nitrogen, soil nitrate, slaking, soil electrical conductivity (salinity), soil enzymes, soil pH, soil respiration, and soil organic matter. However, a healthy soil for one crop is not necessarily of good quality for all crops. To determine if a soil is ideal for a crop it must be grown in field conditions with marketable yield and quality being quantified.
Polycultures in agro-ecology are a vital tool that act as a form of insurance and assure that native, constant, and varied food production is achieved all year. When monocultures are avoided, a-synchronization in both space and time can disrupt pest cycles and act as beneficial biocontrol agent banks. A common American proverb states "don't put all your eggs in one basket" because the proverbial fox may steal all your assets in one flail swoop. Likewise, agro-ecology endorses crop rotations and diversification of crops within in a cropping season that serve to shelter the grower from risk caused by biotic and abiotic factors that could ordinarily decimate an agricultural operation in conventional agricultural systems. The Irish Potato Famine is a prime example of the need for biological diversification.
The use of cover crops can achieve the fundamental objectives of agro-ecology. A properly designed agro-ecosystem uses a mixture of economic crops and cover crops that build resistance to pests, mitigates abiotic factors, suppresses weed pressure, reduces compaction, attracts beneficial biocontrol agents, increases water infiltration, and improves soil water holding capacity. In addition, certain cover crop mixes create symbiotic relationships among fauna and flora which allows them to absorb and excrete nutrients and exudates from one another while simultaneously recycling soil organic matter. Moreover, the agro-ecology system as a single unit will be more efficient as it prevents soil erosion and soil degradation when proper blends are planted. The use of cover crops can also provide labor for workers in between the planting and harvesting of the crops being grown for profit which attains the socio-economic and political goals of agro-ecology. Therefore, one of the aims of this project is to increase biological diversity, preserve the environment, improve soil health, provide year around labor, and boost marketable yields and quality of economic crops with the management of various cover crop mixes.
Agro-ecology encompasses the relationship between agricultural production systems and ecological processes. It includes all the techniques that allow agricultural practices to be more respectful of the environment and its ecological specificities. Agro-ecology is an interdisciplinary combination of agronomy, agriculture, scientific ecology, economics, and social sciences. It integrates practices such as organic farming, regenerative agriculture, aspects of permaculture, conventional cultivation and therefore contributes to sustainable development.