Terrance farming is an ancient technique common in mountainous terrain common in Asian, the Mediterranean, and South America (especially the Andes Mountains of Peru). This method of sustainable agriculture allows otherwise infertile regions to be productive for sustainable farming.
Terrace farms and their methods have largely been replaced by ‘conventional farming’ that favors flat-land, large machinery, synthetically fertilizer and mono-crops; the anthesis of sustainable farming.
In the Americas, terrace farming was mastered by the Andean Empire (Wari and Inca) approximately 1,500 years ago and continues to be a sustainable agricultural practice in Modern Peru. Potatoes, corn, and other heirloom crops were grown and continue to be grown using this method.
Stunning agricultural terraces at Machu Picchu
Terrance farming is more than simply carving out steps from a mountainside. It is an ingenuous engineering system that retains the heat energy from the sun through the night, utilizes a gravity fed watering system to ensure proper drainage and adequate watering of all crops, and helps control erosion and surface runoff.
The ancient site of Machu Picchu, among other Incan sites, epitomizes the ancient Peruvian style terrace farming as a sustainable practice. The Incans cut into the steep mountainside and then rock retaining walls (some nearly 8 feet tall) to hold layers of gravel and sand which was then topped with soil.
The stone retaining walls act like raised garden beds but also had the added advantage of retaining the heat from the sun through the frigid nights protecting the plants from frost. The multiple layers of gravel ensured proper drainage down to the next terrace step; this is especially important in a region which averages more than 76 inches of rain per year.
Modern Peruvians continue to use the terrace farming system that their ancestors developed. Unfortunately, official estimates state that 30% of farming land has greatly lost its productivity due to the lack of maintenance on terraces and the lack of composting and crop rotation. As with most agricultural systems, routine maintenance is required in order to ensure nutrient rich soil and sustainable arming. These terraces can be revitalized by simply returning to ancient techniques and practices of composting, crop rotation, and companion planting.
Some residents of the Peruvian highlands continue the sustainable farming practices of their ancestors. They rotate their crops and generally grow up to sixteen different varieties of crops including maize, beans, potatoes, barley and quinoa.
Despite its novelty in the US and western countries, terrace farming continues to be a technique adopted by other countries and regions to overcome environmental and geographic difficulties of a mountainous and high elevation region. This system of terrace farming can be adopted elsewhere in areas not normally thought be agricultural or garden landscapes.