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  • Sasha Anand

Indigenous Farming Wisdom: The Art of Intercropping

By Divya Beeram


This Earth Day, we reflect on a key aspect of our lives that can either save or harm our planet: Agriculture. Agriculture is not only how our world stays alive, but how the world expresses its culture in one of the most vital ways.


The indigenous peoples of the United States possess an intricate and expansive knowledge of methods to both leverage and preserve land. Among all indigenous farming techniques, one stands out as a feasible method of reforming corporate farming: intercropping, a time-honored practice that has provided communities with food for centuries.  


Intercropping, also known as mixed cropping or polyculture, involves cultivating two or more crops simultaneously in the same field. Unlike monoculture, where a single crop dominates vast expanses of land, intercropping mimics the biodiversity found in natural ecosystems. Indigenous communities across the globe have embraced intercropping as a way to enhance soil fertility, control pests and diseases, and maximize yields without depleting natural resources.


The Iroquois and Cherokee tribes in particular use the intercropping method for the “three sisters” crops. Corn, beans, and squash thrive when planted together, preserving water and space. The ecosystem thrives when given a chance to intermingle. In a more modern lens, this may mean the preservation of land, use of fewer pesticides, and a larger food surplus. In fact, communities outside of the United States in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Georgia have continued to use this practice successfully in times of water and food scarcity. 


Intercropping embodies the holistic worldview of indigenous farming, where crops are viewed not as isolated entities but as interconnected components of a larger scale ecosystem. By cultivating a diverse range of crops, indigenous farmers mitigate the risks associated with crop failure, ensuring food security in unpredictable climates. Moreover, intercropping encourages resilience in the face of environmental challenges, as the interaction between different species buffers against pest outbreaks and chemical deficiencies in soil.


The resurgence of interest in indigenous farming techniques, including intercropping, comes at a critical juncture in the face of climate change and ecological degradation. The Colorado River water crisis specifically has come to the forefront of the media recently. As the agriculture industry grapples with the challenges of dwindling resources and environmental degradation, indigenous wisdom offers a beacon of hope and resilience. By embracing the principles of intercropping, a more sustainable food system can be cultivated that honors both the land and its stewards.


Generally speaking, intercropping bears a higher yield when pairing the right crops together, and it preserves the land that indigenous folks have valiantly fought to protect. In a world where land and resources are running out, a return to our roots might be just what we need. 


Oftentimes as Americans, we forget the traditions of those who originally lived on this land. It is our responsibility to reevaluate our approaches and recognize the travesty of indigenous erasure.


It is not only intercropping, but thousands of methods developed over years of trial and failure. It is the stories of those who came before us. We have the capacity to make this transition, but it starts with grassroots change (figuratively and literally). Through the knowledge of indigenous peoples, we can plant the way into the future. 

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