Rethinking agriculture for small-scale farmers – one plot at a time

As world population recently leapt over the 7 billion mark, global concern about how to feed that many people is growing, especially with cropland diminishing in quantity and degraded – even depleted – soil in many places.

“Farmers everywhere are seeing the need to rethink how we do agriculture,” said Dan Wiens, water and food production coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). “It’s critically important.”

Conservation agriculture is one method that shows great promise as a way to revitalize soil and increase crop yields. In some African countries, Wiens said, farmers are achieving yield increases of more than 300 percent within two years of implementing conservation agriculture techniques.

A success story

After attended a Growing Nations workshop in 2009, Salemane Khutliso, a landless resident in a remote area of Lesotho’s mountainous terrain, returned home and asked the owner of a barren plot – 0.4 hectare (1.1 acre) in size – if he could sharecrop it.

Khutliso’s neighbors thought he was crazy to waste his time on land that had not produced anything for years. The land was so hard-baked that digging the first planting holes required major effort, as did finding and gathering sufficient vegetative matter with which to cover the soil.

But two years later, Khutliso harvested corn and beans that will feed his family for a year, with enough left to share with friends and the landowner. Khutliso, who has a primary education, used to support his family from the proceeds of goats he raises and sells. He continues to graze goats on common land, but the money he now earns from his goats can be used for family needs other than food.

“Salemane loves in his fields because of the success he’s experiencing,” said William Masilo, the organization’s project manager and a 2009–2010 participant of MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program. “His neighbors are very surprised with his results.”

Khutliso deals with his neighbours’ jealousy by offering to teach them the techniques, and he recently gathered friends and neighbours for a Growing Nations training session in Ha-Mootsinyane.

Conservation agriculture for food security

MCC is encouraging the use of conservation agriculture throughout its global food security programs. Already used by MCC and its partners in eight African countries and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), conservation agriculture projects are about to begin in Bolivia, Brazil, Honduras, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and the West Bank, Wiens said.

Conservation agriculture relies on three practices: minimal soil disturbance, rotating crops, and keeping the soil covered with mulch. Healthy soil is at its core. This is in contrast to conventional agriculture’s emphasis on synthetic inputs – fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides – to feed and chemically shield plants.

“To build food security, we have to start with the soil,” Wiens said. “Each teaspoon of soil has billions of microorganisms, both plant and animal, and we’ve been hard on soil’s organisms with our synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”

Soil health depends on as little tillage or digging as possible, according to Wiens. Turning over soil, whether by tractor, animal-drawn plow, or even vigorous hoeing, injures soil. It compacts it, disturbs or kills its beneficial organisms, and allows erosion to occur. Farmers who practice conservation agriculture sow seeds directly into untilled soil that retains residue from the previous crop.

“Healthy, nutrient-rich soil equals healthy, strong plants, which equals more resistance to disease and injurious forms of insects,” said James Alty, a member of Crossroads MB Church, Winnipeg, and a proponent of conservation agriculture in South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland, where he is an MCC representative with his wife, Joan.

Rotation also reduces insect pests, while a mulch cover keeps soil cooler and helps retain water. “Mulch acts like a sponge,” said Alty. Formerly employed as logistics manager for Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Alty also is a certified trainer in conservation agriculture methodology.

MCC partner Growing Nations Trust is a small, faith-based nonprofit in Lesotho dedicated to conservation agriculture. Lesotho farmers using Growing Nations’ techniques produced a surplus of 7 metric tons of corn in 2007 and about 30 metric tons in 2008. The U.N. World Food Programme bought the surplus to distribute to hungry people elsewhere in the country, saving on transportation costs and providing income to the farmers.

Growing Nations Trust director August Basson has begun a 10-hectare (24.7-acre) demonstration plot in Maphutseng Valley, once the country’s breadbasket but now a food importer.

The difference between the demonstration plot and other farms is obvious.

“When you see the beautiful tall crop, a full canopy of dense green compared to the plot next to it, on which you can almost count the stalks on one hand, it’s stunning,” Alty said. “In the Maphutseng Valley, they’re harvesting 7 metric tons of corn per hectare (2.83 metric tons per acre) with conservation agriculture versus 800 kilograms per hectare (0.32 metric tons per acre) using conventional farming.” That’s almost nine times more.

Key to encouraging subsistence farmers to become more self-sufficient is empowering them with knowledge of plants, soils, and the many factors that determine timeliness in agriculture – day length, rainfall, temperature and disease and insect cycles, Alty said.

While conservation agriculture (or at least no-tillage, if not the whole package) has been taking root in the commercial agriculture sector worldwide – Brazil is a leader – poorer farmers – without leeway for failure – are less inclined to take risks to experiment with new methods.

MCC efforts, through partners like Growing Nations, are dedicated to small scale, often impoverished, farmers. Due to Growing Nations’ success in Lesotho, as well as similar achievements by partner agencies in other African countries, MCC is encouraging food-security partners elsewhere to consider this approach.

“Wherever MCC implements conservation agriculture,” Wiens said, “it brings hope for feeding the world’s growing number of inhabitants, one small plot at a time.”

Emily Will is a freelance writer from Frederick, Md.

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