The Vetiver Network International

The Role of Vetiver Grass Technology for Sustainable Agriculture and Soil Health

The Vetiver Grass Technology has impacted tens of thousands of small, and often poor, farmers in many parts of the tropical and semi-arid regions of the world.

Vetiver hedgerows can create change over a very short period. ….  Quote from Kenya (2023) … “I did not expect in my wildest imagination that it would turn out to be what it is today. A section that had a laterite surface and not fit for farming has become rich in topsoil. We planted millet there and the expected harvest is plenty. Steep sections are gently levelling out. Water is seeping into the soil instead of carrying away the topsoil …”. We hear this sort of response from almost all farmers using vetiver.

In the late 1980s, John Greenfield, with my support, introduced Vetiver grass hedgerows to farms on some World Bank watershed projects in India. At that time our focus was on soil and water conservation – the hedgerows being just so much more effective and cheaper with multiple benefits, than costly and difficult to maintain engineered structures.

Indian supported research confirmed the high level of erosion control (up to 90%) and soil moisture conservation (up to 70% reduction in rainfall runoff) attributable to those hedgerows. Farmers using vetiver were better drought proofed and protected against extreme weather events (both wet and dry). In fact, vetiver provides excellent insurance against potential climate induced crop losses. As such the many organizations supporting farmers should give serious consideration to including Vetiver Grass Technology as part of their support.

Over the past 35 years many more vetiver applications have been developed.  The late Diti Hengchaovanich (Thailand), together with Dr. P.K.Yoon (Malaysia, and first recipient of the King of Thailand Vetiver Award) pioneered the use of vetiver for stabilizing shallow soils on steep highway slopes. This was followed by Dr. Paul Truong’s (Australia) research on the phytoremedial action of vetiver for treatment of contaminated soil and water.  Their work resulted in a significant expansion in global vetiver relating to the application and science of what is now known as the “Vetiver System”.

“Climate Change” induced extreme weather events and increasing decline in soil health, due to poor cropping practices and overuse of agricultural chemicals, has led to some very difficult and bad situations for many farmers that must be corrected.

Why is Vetiver Grass Technology important for sustainable and regenerative agriculture?

  • … When planting a vetiver hedgerow, the farmer gets a lot more than just erosion control –Hedgerows retain soil and increases Soil Organic Carbon, the latter is essential for soil health and plant growth. The improved soil moisture and huge amounts of organic matter present in vetiver’s leaf and root biomass provides large amounts of soil organic matter for soil micro fauna and flora to flourish, delivering the nutrients and moisture needed for crop growth.
  • … These same hedgerows and microbes capture, and, in some cases, break down toxic residues from agricultural chemicals. Those hedges help assure biodiversity by providing habitat for a wide range of wildlife including beneficial predator insects that can help control crop pests. The hedge functions as a dead-end trap plant for stem borers of rice and maize, reducing the need for pesticides.
  • … Vietnamese farmers are following some Thai practices of interplanting vetiver into their vegetable and perennial crops to: improve moisture, increase soil organic matter, reduce soil temperatures and weeding by “chop and drop” mulching, and most importantly to reduce the use of fertilizer and the costs that go with it.
  • ….. In India and Kenya vetiver provides an essential component for the development of food forests.  Coffee farmers in Ethiopia and Colombia are incorporating vetiver into their coffee management practices. They are also using vetiver to create wetlands for treating effluent from coffee pulping “factories” – resulting in cleaner river water.
  • …. Vetiver provides protection for farm assets such as farm ponds, building sites and homes, farm roads and pathways, drains, irrigation channels, stream banks, spring heads, and treatment of on farm point source pollution (effluent from piggeries and dairies).
  • …. Farm hedgerows improve ground water recharge including sustainable well water levels, slowdown storm water discharge, and reduce farm sediment discharge — all to the benefit of downstream/basin populations.
  • … Off farm community applications of vetiver enable at low cost (1) the protection and stabilization of infrastructure and landslips (often the source of major sediment flows); and (2) the treatment of polluted wastewater to improve water quality and human health.
  •  ….. Vetiver biproducts are being increasingly used as thatch, forage, source stock for handicrafts, as well as for the more traditional medicinal and perfumery uses.
  • ….. Every vetiver slip that is planted is superior to most other plants in the capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide and converting it into Soil Organic Carbon – stored deep in the soil profile.

The late Criss Juliard, an experienced and respected development manager, presented a paper at ICV2 (2000) about a program in Madagascar – quote.

..  If vetiver grass technology is so simple, inexpensive and good for the health of the soil, why isn’t it promoted more broadly on a national scale in the same way vaccinations are promoted to preserve an individual’s health?

The answer is not related to the attractiveness of the technology, but to the challenge of dissemination …… including people and organizations committed to vetiver, reliable and timely supply of vetiver plants, and applying vetiver technology according to site-specific needs.

The approach needs to be low cost, with information campaigns, demonstration sites, and use of research and applications developed in other countries.

Success can be attributed in part to close relationships with the four target groups in the vetiver communications and implementation plan: (a) village associations, (b) private producers, (c) local elected officials, and (d) professional organizations, ministries and donor” … End quote.

We need to act now to accelerate knowledge transfer and provide incentives to induce potential users to apply vetiver grass technology.

I believe that we must make much greater use of the private sector. Compared to 30 years ago there are many vetiver users who have built up VGT skills that could be used to assist others.

We should find a way of using them. Some of these experienced people could develop private vetiver service businesses to service the farming community.  Such services might include: planning and surveying the placement of vetiver hedgerows; using their own farms as demonstration sites for others; managing simple training workshops; provision of initial plant material; occasional follow up to assure quality applications; and providing guidance to local user networks injecting new ideas and shared experiences.  None of this is rocket science – it is practice orientated carried out by practical people in the community. Some of this is currently being done with success.

To support such private initiatives, governments should consider policies that would move from passive (talk) support to active support.

Such support might include cash (grants) incentives to farmers to plant and maintain vetiver hedgerow layouts providing adequate soil and water conservation (skeletal) requirements. Support should be given to selected existing farmers to develop Vetiver Service Businesses (VSB).

This support might include funding to guarantee the sale of nursery propagated vetiver for say three years, and the initial first year hiring of one or two vetiver field technicians (Visiting Agents – VAs) to train and interact with the farmers. Area of influence of a VSB might initially be confined to sub-watersheds that are sized to fit the walking/cycling distances of the VA (3-5km radius).

The case for such approach is that (1) its locally orientated and operated, (2) its low cost and service focused, (3) it benefits the farmer, the VSB, and the down watershed communities, and (4) it could be the fastest way of meeting the Climate Change challenge at community level.

We all need to actively support and demand new efforts to accelerate the improvement of soil health and improving the wellbeing of the land and its people. We need to aggressively find additional and more effective methods to accomplish this need. Vetiver grass technology is not the silver bullet, but that it is indeed a unique multipurpose plant-based tool that can be used along with other technologies to achieve today’s objective of restoring health to our land and soils.

Dick Grimshaw – July 2023

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