About Conservation Farming
Conservation Farming (CF) more recently referred to as Conservation Agriculture (CA) is generally defined as a management system based on three principles that should be applied in unison in a mutually reinforcing manner: minimum physical soil disturbance, permanent soil cover with live or dead plant material (e.g crop residues), and crop diversification, (e.g crop rotations, cover crops or intercrops with legumes).
Because of its origins in the US Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the technologies that comprise CF are too often presented as a package of indivisible measures designed to arrest the widespread deterioration of soils. This is undoubtedly an extremely important aspect of CF and most farmers are familiar with the depletion of the soils and the negative consequences, but it is not central to their concerns.
Farmers in Africa have far more pressing needs. They want to increase yields, ensure food security, drive down costs, reduce the burden of laborious tasks, produce saleable surpluses, make money, survive adverse climatic conditions, ride out the crest and troughs of market turbulence, have ready access to sound technical advice and be linked to input suppliers, other agricultural services.
It stands to reason that when urged by promoters to comply with a blueprint to improve soil fertility, farmers will prioritise those elements of CF which in their circumstances are attainable, deliver rapid productivity gains and in doing so have a positive impact on their livelihoods i.e those which address their most pressing needs but do not necessarily in the short term deliver the restoration of soils.
In mono modal rainfall regions including Zambia where most soil types if properly managed are adequate for crop farming but are by no means as productive as those in many parts of East Africa, the replenishment of fertility is extremely challenging and even for comprehensive CF adopters, take many reasons to be reflected in improved crop health and yield gains.
The emphasis on soils has also led to the commonly held misconception that the benefits of CF rest entirely on their improvement and therefore take years to materialise.
In our experience it is the components of CF that in short order deliver food security, productivity gains and financial benefits which in the first place attract farmers and are essential if they are to be persuaded to consider more advanced practices that offer additional benefits in the medium to long term.
The two most important components that differentiate adopters from the universal turning and churning of soils with hoes, oxen or tractors we see across Africa is conversion to Minimum Tillage (MT) and the second to Conservation Tillage (CT), where to the extent possible, crop residues are preserved.
The third, rotating or intercropping with legumes while highly desirable is an age old concept and the extent of adoption is determined by the availability of markets, prevailing prices, and in Zambia’s case, the scope of government interventions in the provision of subsidised inputs and price incentives to encourage farmers to grow Maize.
Careful observation of conventional small scale agriculture in its various forms, revels that highly significant value leakages occur in the production chain from land preparation through to harvest. In essence MT and CT deleiver immediate productivity gains because the systems enable farmers to reduce the incremental accumulation of those losses which individually may have a marginally negative impact on yield but in combination become highly significant.
The extent of these losses depend on local circumstances and vary considerably from farm to farm and from region to region, but for the most part their minimisation or elimination fall within most farmer’s control to resolve.
The practice enables most farmers in most seasons to: Plant earlier (a crucial benefit), apply on-farm or purchased nutrients more accurately, achieve better emergence and more optimal populations, harvest rainfall more effectively, reduce labour inputs and costs, reduce crop stress in dry spells and make better use of whatever inputs they can afford to purchase.
It is these advantages which deliver the immediate results which make farmers more amenable to adopting the more advanced practices recommended by field staff and farmer trainers.
In turn they deliver higher yields, food security and surplus income which in Zambia is driving demand for agricultural inputs, farmer to farmer service provision and significant investments by agricultural companies who now recognise that small scale agriculture offers substantial potential for growth.
Because CF is perceived as an inflexible package it is often proposed that ‘local adaptation’ will be required if it is to take off in diferent agro-regions and countries, that blanket recommendations are dangerous and much more research is needed.
This idea confuses ‘tillage’ with ‘cropping’. ‘On the ground’ must be separated form ‘above the ground’. The vast majority of smallholder farmers apply conventional tillage systems which involve overall soil disturbance to establish their crops.
Min-Till or Zero-Till is the basis on which CF is built and provides a foundation that can accommodate a wide range of agronomic practices, planting configurations, crops and cropping systems suited to local conditions including rotations, intercrops, relays and agroforestry trees.
Today tens of thousands of farming families have adopted the core stepping stones of CF with most applying MT and CT and as to be expected we also see excellent, good and poor examples of both.
Nevertheless, when visited the majority of farming families will tell you how the simple practical methods have improved their nutrition and livelihoods whether they cultivate very small or larger areas, and have produced better crop yields in dry years than they had previously achieved in normal years.
Among them, many thousands will also show new houses they have built, explain that they can for the first time afford to send their children to school, purchase the items that make life more comfortable and that in the process they have become far more self reliant.
There are of course numerous challenges but this is what CF is all about.