Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Some Introductory Notes on Conservation Farming

Agriculture in Zambia: no 2. About conservation farming and conservation agriculture.  The need to broaden concept and practice to ecologically sound farming, and to join the IT revolution.

In the text below and its sequels I would like to comment on some agricultural practices propagated by the Conservation Farming Unit (CFU) of the Zambia National Farmers Union. These practices are known as conservation farming (CF) and conservation agriculture (CA).
The CFU runs a well organised programme supported internationally (Norway), the Zambian government (GRZ) and the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU). According to CFU information some 180,000 farmers practice CF in Zambia. Farmers, actually, often develop their own variety of CF and CA, or perhaps incorporate only some of its elements in their farming practice.
Conservation farming is a concept and a practice seeking to “conserve” and enhance the (natural) fertility of the soil. Soil should not be ploughed but cultivated by ripping (only the strips which are to be planted) or by digging basins (minimum tillage) or should not be tilled at all (zero tillage); crop rotation should be practiced including minimally 30% legumes planted surface; timely soil preparation (before the rains) is stressed; and liming and proper fertilisation are amongst the essential elements of the CF package.
Conservation farming is an extension of CF in which certain plants and trees are included. Notably the musangu (Faidherbia albida) and Jatropha; there is also cassava and the idea to have a few fruit trees is mentioned.
Some of the conservation practices, such as crop rotation or liming when chemical fertiliser is used, are sound practices which can be implemented in a simple manner. The need for timely planting of crops and soil preparation before the onset of the rains is clearly put forward – and so is in general the need for soil husbandry as opposed to soil exploitation. There is also some laudable emphasis on intelligent farming – using the brain and not just the hands.
Other measures may sound simple but in practice may not be so simple to implement and possibly are not even that sound. I am listing some topics for discussion below, in random order:
  1. The cultivation of the Jatropha tree
  2. The cultivation of the Musangu tree (Accacia Albensis or Faidherbia albida).
  3. Weeding and the use of herbicides
  4. The shaka hoe
  5. Ripping or basins vs. ploughing
You may expect more topics to come up as we go along.Topics discussed you’ll find in the booklet Conservation Farming & Conservation Agriculture by the Conservation Farming Unit of the ZNFU. This very useful booklet is available at the ZNFU offices. It exists in a variety for hoe and for ox farmers, and distinguishes several agricultural regions. You'll find it on the Internet

CFU handbook
Now, before we discuss some elements of conservation farming/agriculture, smaller or larger, that may require some thinking and rethinking, I’d like to lay down my main observation regarding conservation farming/agriculture.

I strongly believe that the principles of conservation farming/agriculture should be incorporated in a much broader approach to agriculture resulting in an “integrated approach towards ecologically sound farming.” By “integrated” I mean first of all that the elements of a farming practice “hang together,” supporting each other, and secondly tie in with the broader setting in which the agriculture is situated. The farmer must produce healthy, good food that is needed by society in an economically viable manner. By ecologically sound farming I mean a way of farming that respects our natural endowment and works with nature rather than against it.
Examples of agricultural topics that would broaden CF / CA into a more comprehensive system of agriculture, together working towards a way of life (culture) rather than a list of techniques, are:

·         Trees to grow for fire wood, charcoal or construction and how to go about it.
·         Models and possibilities of mixed farming (life stock + crops; using crops to feed life stock and manure to enhance soil fertility; options to thus reduce dependence on chemical fertilisers).
·         Listing “friendly” pesticides, fungicides and herbicides and how to apply them; possibilities of home growing those plants or trees with proven effectity.
·         Use and cultivation of moringa and neem trees.
·         Growing of vegetables (beyond rape, onion and tomato!) – if not for the market then at least for the household.
·         Introduction/sustenance of natural (“wild”) vegetation for medicine, fruits, biodiversity, birds & other life, and beauty.
·         Bees and beekeeping.
·         Mulching.
·         Composting.
·         Storage of crops.
·         Crop/Food processing (for the household and the market).
·         Social and cultural restraints in agricultural development.
·         Suppliers
·         Accessing markets and buyers

Needless to say that this list can be extended a very long way! What about pan brick and quarry tile making, water conservation and rain water harvesting, wind mills and solar electricity? All with the aim: the transformation of farming to a way of life that is gratifying for body and mind.
In this introductory text I need to mention two more things that need (re)considering: (1) the supply of inputs and (2) the production, access and distribution of information.

Supply of inputs
Local ZNFU /CFU branches from time to time facilitate access to inputs propagated by them. Here in Choma during the past years cuttings of a certain variety of cassava were freely distributed, in line with the promotion of the growing of cassava so as to enhance food security. Similarly two years ago, in the 2008-9 season, seedlings or seed of moringa and musangu have been made available at minimal cost.
Still, a large area of permanent supply requirements is not or poorly catered for, including by the private sector. Examples are proper seed (velvet bean, musangu, neem, moringa); simple but extremely handy tools (such as the hand held hoe, the dutch hoe, quality garden forks; and also, unfortunately for not so simple but very practical mechanical, motorized multipurpose cultivators.
Production and Distribution of Information: Need for IT Development
The CFU has been promoting CF and CA by booklets, instructive sheets and its extension service working directly with farmers. The CFU also has a website: (the URL on the booklets is outdated, but googling as so often in life solves the issue for you).
The website is simple and basic.
What I have in mind is the development of another type of website, a site that is open to contributions by members or community members, operating on software that is geared towards community service and participation. Such as Drupal or Joomla. If you check out the Drupal website you’ll discover that almost all of its very extensive programme components (“modules”) are developed and maintained by thousands of professional volunteers, who through the same site talk with each other and their software users.
We can do something similar on the Internet about ecologically sound farming. You do need an office with an IT professional and an agriculturalist. You design the structure of your website, in chapters (“pages”) as in a regular handbook. But unlike the printed handbook contents can be permanently adjusted (updated), deleted or added on. And unlike the regular handbook your Eco-IT-FarmSite has, in principle, an unlimited number of contributors. You add on a blog and a public forum application. A reference library and/or a component guiding you to places having the references/information you might need – there is already in a dispersed way an immense amount of relevant material. You store and make accessible the recorded experiences of good farmers, and perhaps at occasion those who mess things up as well. You make up for the inaccessibility and poor quality of formal (agricultural) education. You make farming more interesting, efficient and rewarding.
Well, the sceptic might say, (1) in general IT in Zambia does not work so well, and (2) the overwhelming majority of farmers currently addressed by the CFU is computer illiterate. So what’s the point?
1. IT access in Zambia is not perfect and to have genuine broadband does not come cheap. But in a great many places you can have affordable access, be it slow. So what? It will do and is bound to get better.
2. Yes, almost the entire current target group of the ZFU is IT illiterate. But that should not obstruct sensible development. Also village based farmers increasingly access the net, sometimes with the help of a fellow local who has done this before. That, for example, is how some of them look for cars. There are other ways to get around this. CF farmers associated to the CFU are organised in clubs. All that is needed is to familiarise a few members of each club in Internet access, preferably in an Internet cafe. Often these cafes have staff to assist. Finally, ecologically sound farming is a matter for any farmer. Just as in CF and CA propagation of ideas works by practice: farmers copying and adopting from each other. As long as it starts somewhere. What you need are people with a pioneering, enterprising spirit.
Finally, the time is ripe, also in Zambia, for the IT revolution to take its full effect. It is an exciting, sobering and encouraging thought that anybody, privately or as part of an organisation, a company or a NGO, can set up something like the site proposed above, an
site - or something like it.

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