HOW DOES CONSERVATION FARMING WORK?

The three central tenants of Conservation Farming (CF) or Conservation Agriculture (CA)  are the following:

Minimum disturbance of the soils.

Instead of over-all digging, ridging or ploughing, a farmer instead disturbs the soil only where he needs to place the seeds and inputs. Minimum Tillage is the central and non-negotiable difference between CF and conventional farming. By disturbing the soil less, the soil profile and health is protected for longer.

Retention of Residues

CF advocates for leaving crop residues in situ after harvest, and not burning or removing them. This plant matter adds to the organic carbon content of the soil, retards top soil erosion and helps to reduce water loss through evaporation.

Crop Rotation

Rotating crops breaks up pest and disease cycles and when legumes are incorporated (as prioritized), helps fix valuable nitrogen in the soil for the next crop. Those farmers who rotate and do not depend solely on crops such as maize manage to spread their risk and withstand market and environmental shocks better.

CFU spent its early years taking the large commercial scale concepts of CF from America, Australia and so forth – and making it work successfully for small scale African farmers under resource poor conditions. Here it works so well that newly adopting farmers can experience very significant (50%-100%) yield increases in the first season and sustain it in subsequent years. Most farmers notably expand their area of cultivated land following on from these successes, and their total income dramatically increases.

EXTENSION TRAINING ON CF

The CFU predominately concentrates on providing extension support and practical training on Conservation Farming/ Conservation Agriculture to farmers on the ground, through a team of Field Staff who repeatedly engage with a cohort of carefully selected Lead Farmers.

The Lead Farmers in turn work with their communities to train several groups, usually attracting about 100 individuals apiece, which tallies up to over 200,000 farmers each time in Zambia alone.

This extension system is used to deliver several modular lessons on the different aspects of CF and associated management and business skills, and is repeated 2 or 3 years in a row in any given area, at no cost to the farmers attending.

CF FOR HOE, OX AND TRACTORS

Although most of the farmers that the CFU works with are small scale, Minimum Tillage and CF can be performed by farmers across the spectrum. CF works for Hoe farmers – who dig ‘basins’ – and for farmers who have access to oxen or tractors, who use them to ‘rip’ lines in the soil.

In being able to train farmers on both tillage approaches, CFU is able to attract and accommodate farmers of different sizes or resources, and to be able to help farmers transition across as their options increase.

MECHANISATION AND TILLAGE SERVICE

PROVSION

CFU realized about a decade ago that providing different tillage entry points to CF MinTill was key. By restricting it to a hoe technology the programme effectively dissuaded those who already had access to oxen or tractors from taking it up. Recognizing also that a majority of the population did not own these assets, the CFU has since worked hard to foster a layer of farmers and businessmen who provide Tillage Services, even to those with very small landholdings. Cheaper than hiring ploughing services, it has taken off.

In tandem, the CFU works to facilitate the uptake of tractor and equipment loans, to increase the number of potential service providers out there.

BUILDING A MARKET FOR CF TO FLOURISH

The CFU has worked for years to stimulate demand for and supply of CF tools and equipment, and in the last 8 years has directly channeled $3.9m of trade through community level Agrodealer shops.

CFU also works closely with national level agro equipment and input suppliers, advising on CF tools and encouraging access to CF farmers. Similar commercial and NGO partnerships facilitate buyers to link with CF farmers, and for successful farmers to become trainers and agrodealers in their own right.