Live barriers and associated organic amendments mitigate land degradation and improve crop productivity in hillside agricultural systems of the Ecuadorian Andes

Caulfield, Mark; Groot, Jeroen C.J.; Fonte, Steven J.; Sherwood, Stephen; Oyarzun, Pedro; Borja, Ross Mary; Dumble, Sam; Tittonell, Pablo


Land degradation caused by erosion and nutrient depletion in the Andes poses serious existential threats to small-scale farming. Although the potential of hedgerows to decrease water erosion is well recognised, their potential dual-use as a source of organic amendments to supplement farmer inputs is much less studied. The objective of this investigation was therefore to explore locally developed options for hedgerows that address these twin challenges. Experimental plots were installed to assess water erosion control by hedgerows and the effect of organic amendments harvested from the hedgerows on soil productivity, soil moisture, and soil fertility over the course of 2 years and three crop cycles (two of barley and one of rye). The experiment was conducted in two sites within the community at distinct elevations and associated biophysical contexts. At each site, four treatments were established, comparing a control treatment versus three types of hedgerows: (a) Andean alder, (b) canary grass strips, and (c) mixed canary grass and Andean alder. Results demonstrated that hedgerows and associated organic inputs comprised canary grass, and mixed canary grass and Andean alder reduced water erosion by 50–60% and increased biomass production by up to 1.1 Mg ha−1 and grain yield by up to 0.5 Mg ha−1. We conclude that although hedgerows are unlikely to produce sufficient quantities of organic resources to satisfy all nutrient input requirements, their potential to decrease erosion and supplement existing organic matter inputs indicates that they should be strongly considered as an option for improved agricultural management within this and similar resource constrained contexts.