Intercropping: is two better than one? Which two?

Research trials look at different intercrop pairings to determine which combinations grow best and produce profits

SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. — Few farmers have tried it, but Lana Shaw of the South East Research Farm at Redvers, Sask., said the time is right for intercropping to assert itself.

Shaw said during an organic field day at the Agriculture Canada Swift Current Research Centre Aug. 9 that that one day intercropping can be scaled up to enable commercial agriculture to include hundreds of thousands of acres of intercrop systems.

“I think this is something that’s going to take off.”

At present, Shaw surmises that 10,000 to 20,000 acres in Saskatchewan are being used for inter-cropping, which has seen rapid growth from 2,000 to 3,000 acres a few years ago.

Intercropping has been regularly practiced in labour intensive production areas around the globe for centuries.

However, adapting it to large-scale, mechanized agriculture has proven elusive on the Prairies.

Shaw said the practice can present a good option for organic and conventional producers looking to expand net income on a finite land base.

“Farmers are under this crunch of rising input, and demands that you have to use more and more inputs with slimmer and slimmer margins,” she said.

“People are getting off the treadmill and saying, I’m going to find a completely different way of trying to make my limited land base pay my bills and try to have less aggravation while doing it.

“The only thing that will convince a sufficient number of farmers to adapt the complicated practice like intercropping is cash in their pockets.”

Shaw’s research for adapting large scale prairie agriculture began in 2012. It focused on identifying compatible intercrops with good market potential.

It looks for weak partners like chickpea and flax because both crops are non-competitive with relatively small acreages and have high commodity value. It appears the combination of growing the two together carries benefits, and that’s the key to making inter-cropping profitable.

However, she said there’s no one ideal intercrop and each region must develop individualized intercrops that work in their particular soil type and climate.

“For example, comparing yield of mono crop chickpeas in Redvers with intercrop chickpea-flax has its limitations due to the fact that chickpeas are not adapted to Redvers as a mono crop,” she said.

“The more relevant comparison is: how does it compete with a canola mono crop?

Can you make more money growing chickpea-flax than you can mono crop canola?”

The research centre is evaluating 17 intercrop pairings, including fababeans, dry beans and various peas with brassicas, as well as Clearfield canola and lentil pairings.

“We’ve seen good results in our research trials and anecdotally from the farmers. They’re saying they’re getting about 120 to 130 percent of the crops that they would have grown individually,” she said.

“They’re doing it because they’re able to harvest faster, they’re saving money on inputs and they’re making more money.”

She said organic producers have been no quicker to take up intercropping than large-scale commercial operations.

One reason is the lack of solid information because Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. does not specifically insure intercrops.

She said for insurance purposes only one of the intercrops is chosen and the yield is converted and submitted as one crop.

“Basically, the system had not been designed to collect this kind of information so it hasn’t been. Any intercrop acres that were insured were being reported as though they were mono crops,” she said.

“At this point, maybe we need to come up with a better plan.”

Shaw is attempting to address this through more research, but she also encourages connections between farmers, who are the fastest drivers for intercrop innovation.

“The ones that have been doing this have a lot of information and experience that they’re usually willing to share with people.”

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