Jatropha for Dummies – Part 2 – The Farming

Part 1 – The future is non-toxic

We have seen in the last segment of this series: Jatropha has a future which will be non-toxic. I pointed out that high yielding planting material will become available rather sooner than later to make JcL ready for commercial success as a feedstock for high revenue energy products and animal feed. But with the right planting material available, what will the ideal farm look like when we get there?

Looking for the proper farming concepts we should first understand that JcL is a tree crop (or rather a bush or shrub). Traditionally it was planted in hedges which primarily had a living fence function to separate cattle from farmed fields. Obviously Jatropha was doing well in such a planting pattern where mono cropping is not an issue which in JcL brings along problems like heavy pest attacks and scarcity of water and nutrients. Therefore the good old hedges planted alongside roads and fields with superior modern planting material can become a great way for the traditional small African farmer to make himself some extra income while fully sticking to his original farming practices.

Freshly pruned JcL double alleys

Freshly pruned Jatropha double alleys

But, as a completely different playing field we also have to look deeper into large scale commercial farming. At Bionic Palm we have run an extensive Jatropha test farming project on more than 100 ha for many years to study the best agronomic methods. Very early we understood that true sustainability can never be accomplished with a mono cropping system. Thus, over a series of intermediary steps, we arrived at our optimal solution: double alleys with a minimum of 10 m in between for permanent intercropping with the most convenient annual crops.

The double alley approach has numerous advantages especially in semi arid climates. The hedges offer protection from soil erosion through wind and rain. They can also improve soil quality in many ways operating as a nutrient pump from deeper levels, adding carbon to the soil by shedding their leaves and by supporting and maintaining microorganisms added to the soil like mycorrhiza.

If irrigation is part of the farming strategy permanent piping can be installed in between the double hedges giving them good protection.

While many annual crops (maize, soy, beans, ground nut just to name a few) can be planted together with JcL hedges we actually prefer high value vegetable crops in combination with a no-till system, be it glyphosate (round-up) or cover crop based. Only these crops really bring the enormous profitability potential of an agroforestry concept built on non-toxic JcL backbones into reality.

Adding a comprehensive soil development and management concept utilizing biochar and organic fertilizer can help turning very difficult environmental conditions like in former mining areas around.