History of the Conservation Farming Unit – Zambia

1. Origins of the CFU

What became the CFU was conceived in 1995, during a phone call between Peter Aagaard and Ron Landless a leading commercial farmer in Zambia with a keen interest in small-scale agriculture and close connections with Brian Oldrieve and Richard Winkfield of the Agricultural Research Trust in Zimbabwe, both Min-Till pioneers.

A decade earlier Brian had been shocked by the soil erosion and degradation caused by the burning of crop residues and deep ploughing on a large commercial farm he was asked to manage in northern Zimbabwe. Over time he converted the farm to Min-Till, returned it to profit and began considering how the principles he had applied could also benefit small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe.

Equally significant was the research done by Richard Winkfield of the ART on mechanized Min and Zero Till systems and Henry Elwell whose scientific studies of soil erosion on commercial and communally farm lands in Zimbabwe during the 1980’s predicted that large tracts of productive land would be severely degraded within 30 to 50 years unless the constant upheaval of soil associated with conventional farming practices was reversed.

Ron Landless’ determination to get the promotion of CF going in Zambia was ably supported by Chaim Helman of the World Bank Regional Office in South Africa who had established close contacts with Brian Oldreive and Henry Elwell after the disastrous regional drought of 1991. Also we can’t forget Ed Voss of the EU office in Lusaka who bypassed piles of red tape and provided Dutch Gibson and I with the support to flesh out the idea of a lean and independent organization to promote CF.

In April 1996, with the assistance of George Grey and Ben Kapita of the Zambia National Farmers Union, we presented the idea of establishing an organization dedicated to the promotion of CF in Zambia to a group of Donors including Norway, Sweden and Finland and as a result the CFU was born, starting with a pigeonhole office in Dutch and Barbara Gibson’s house in Lusaka, 6 field staff and 60 on-farm demonstrations in the 1996/7 season.

2. Origins of Min Till and Conservation Farming

Soil is a living medium and the intervention of farming can either sustain or destroy its ability to produce healthy plants. Estimates of soil depletion and land degradation in Africa range from alarming to catastrophic and are difficult to verify. Some suggest that 70% of agricultural land suited for raising livestock and crops is already severely degraded. Whatever the facts, any astute observer travelling across the continent cannot but notice the injurious treatment of soil on a massive scale. Compared with temperate soils, African soils are in general fragile, relatively infertile and prone to rapid deterioration when farmed.

Looking much further back, we must pay credit where it is due and recognize that there is nothing new about Min-Till which in its modern form is the bedrock of CF. Well before the introduction of the plough by European settlers at the turn of the century, Min-Till was the most common practice applied by African subsistence farmers. Toward the end of the dry season families would burn off any trash, then after the onset of the rains dig holes in the undisturbed soil to plant staples like Maize, Sorghum and Peal Millet and later would fill gaps with Cowpeas, Beans, Pumpkins, Gourds and other annuals. In many parts of Africa famers still do this.

In recent history, the starkest example of the consequences of excessive disturbance of fragile soils combined with persistent droughts was the disastrous American Dust Bowl of the mid 1930’s.

‘And then the dispossessed were drawn west from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do, to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food and most of all for land’. John Steinbeck from "The Grapes of Wrath"

From this devastating experience, the principles and practices of CF gradually emerged and to this day are the subject of continuous refinement. Here we must recognize the invaluable contributions of Hugh Bennett of Dust Bowl fame, Edward Faulkner, Albert Howard, Walter Lowdermilk, George McKibben, Shirley Phillips, Herbert Bartz, Rolph Derpsh, Ademir Calegari, Monsanto, ICI, John Deere one of the first manufacturers of Zero Till planters and many others who have dedicated their lives to the development and promotion of what we call CF.

3. Where we are today

From modest beginnings, the CFU has come a long way and we have accumulated a huge amount of practical hands on experience. In Zambia there are many thousands of families farming from 1 hectare to 30 and above who will vouch that the adoption of CF and the practices associated with it have improved and even transformed their lives.

The CFU now reaches over 200,000 farmers each year in Zambia, providing them with practical, quality training on CF and regular support through its network of over 2,000 Lead Farmers, spread over 4 main Provinces. It was able to reach this scale with the enormous and critical support of the Royal Norwegian Embassy between 1996 and 2016, and is now able to continue this programmatic scope through the equally important support provided by the aid of the British People. This funding is anticipated to carry through to 2021 and result in the adoption of  some form of Min-Till by a further 188,000 farming households, over and above the 217,000 already utilising the practices in the areas that the CFU has worked to date.

4. A word of caution

Since the experiences of the Dust Bowl the earlier and more precise descriptions of Minimum Tillage and Residue Tillage have been broadened to include increasingly generic and all-encompassing descriptions such as Conservation Farming, Conservation Agriculture, Evergreen Agriculture and Climate Smart Agriculture.

The application of modern versions of reduced tillage whether by hoe, ox or tractor, is primarily what separates adopters from the rest and alongside it brings numerous benefits that are relevant to farmers such as: more precise and efficient use of on and off farm resources including seeds, fertilizers, lime and manures; the reduction of labour inputs and costs associated with land preparation; in combination with the effective use of herbicides, the reduction of labour required for hand weeding (in Zambia alone families spend 40 to 60 million man days a year hoeing weeds); the crucial ability to plant on time; the elimination of compaction and more effective rainwater harvesting. Together these benefits lead immediately to increased yields, improved food security and profits, in short to what all farmers strive for – enhanced productivity.

The majority of farmers are unlikely to pay attention to agronomists and enthusiasts who promote technologies that are beyond their reach or are utterly impractical such as strict forms of organic farming, the digging of large pits or the importation of grass and other biomass to mulch their fields. And they are unlikely to listen to pronouncements that suggest CF should be practiced because the fertility of their soils will improve at some distant point in the future, or because the climate is changing for the worse. Their needs are too immediate to heed such predictions.

Hard pressed farmers want to see immediate benefits and CF can deliver these. But what is equally exciting about CF when properly applied is that it also increases the resilience of crops to extended dry spells, in time improves soil fertility and by reducing unnecessary costs should enable farmers to intensify production and abandon the extractive practices that lead to soil exhaustion, migration and the encroachment of forests.

P.J Aagaard CFU – Zambia


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