Polyculture is an agricultural method also known as mixed cropping. In adopting polyculture, the farmer dedicates agricultural land to multiple crops or animals at once. This method can be used on a farm with crops or in a simple garden. This agricultural method has many benefits, as well as downsides, when it is applied.
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Before polyculture, most farming was monoculture, meaning one plot of land was dedicated to one crop. For example, corn would only grow with corn crops and tomatoes would only grow within a tomato crop. The problem with this system is a farmer would often need large amounts of land to separate the crops. The farmer would also need a much more complex irrigation system to feed crops water over a larger span of land. With polyculture, one plot of land has all the crops in one place. A farmer can have a smaller unit of land with the same output of crops and have a more efficient irrigation system.
When soil is used for multiple crops, plants tend to grow stronger. This might seem counter-intuitive since it could be argued that nutrients are being eaten up faster by more plants. But the plants engage in a sort of competition over the soil. The roots of plants and vegetables tend to grow thicker and out more, trying to incorporate as much soil as possible. This allows the plants to grow more and give out a higher yield. With more plants near each other, the immune systems for the plants also increase. Studies have shown that plants that grow near other species of plants are able to fight off bacteria quicker than plants in monoculture land plots.
The central downside of polyculture is the number of control issues a farmer has over the crops. Unlike a single plot of land where one crop would grow, polyculture has one plot of land where multiple plants could grow. The result, however, is that the farmer must work in a more compact space with multiple types of plants growing at once. A farmer could only have one tomato patch as a monoculture and know how to work with that one monoculture well. But, with one plot of land that is a polyculture, the farmer must deal with the special needs of each plant within the single land plot.
Some polyculture requires an investment in specific equipment to help manage the plot of land. This is seen more in the polyculture application with fish farms, but this can be applied with agricultural polyculture. Basically, a farmer needs to invest in the time and infrastructure to have a polyculture plot of land work. The plot of land needs to be big enough, have an appropriate irrigation system for the number of plants on the plot, and physical or chemical products are needed to help sustain the plants. For example, if two species of crops are going to be overgrown against each other and sap each other's resources, the farmer needs to either physically plant the crops far enough away from each other or have some sort of root separator in the soil. Either way, time-consuming planning and possible equipment purchases are one downside to polyculture.