Saturday, February 11, 2017

Conservation Agriculture

Now that it’s been a year since our partners in Ukambani started their conservation agriculture project, and have made it through their first harvest season, we had a chance to visit some of the farms and see how things are going.  MCC staff from Winnipeg were here and joined us for that visit.  We purposefully went to the southern area of Ukambani, which is a tougher environment for agriculture – generally more hot and dry – and with higher levels of poverty.

Click here for additional pictures of CA and life around Nairobi .

First stop was the farm of Nyiva Kinongo, in the southern area of Makueni County.  She tried several new methods of field management, including furrows (a narrow cut in the soil), planting basins (small holes filled with manure and mulch) and half moons (crescent shaped dikes) that are designed to conserve moisture.  Mulch is the biggest challenge as is the case for the entire region; there is competition to use it for livestock fodder, and Bernice said that the termites eat the mulch immediately.  While it seems to farmers like termites eating the mulch is bad, possibly this is not so bad - it still builds organic matter as it is pulled down into the soil.

The second stop was the family of Stephen Mutua and Bernice Mwende, farmers with a lower income.  One thing we noted was that they were able to harvest maize on their CA plot, but not on their conventional plot.  We say many fields in the area with maize still standing, left in the field because there were no cobs on the plants.  Maize in CA plots is chopped off several feet up, the top of the plant is used to feet livestock and the bottom is left to be used as mulch.  

They had planted maize for the last 10 years without getting a harvest, so it's a harsh environment to try and grow maize.  They were somewhat perplexed when asked why they kept planting maize – it is just part of being Kamba people.  While other “traditional” crops like millet are promoted, it has been unproductive to push farmers to move away from maize.  If they don’t have maize, they consider themselves food insecure even if they have other food to eat (a point that made surveys of food security difficult!)  In other words, you haven't eaten unless you've had maize.

Bernice harvested 30 kg of cowpeas from her plot.  Consuming ½ kg per day, this lasts the family 2 months.  Bernice said "In previous years I never had a crop to harvest and store; I always ate from the field"

UDO and MCC staff admiring Bernice's harvest.  Kevin (UDO's CEO) said he'd never seen a harvest like this in this area.  CA is somewhat contentious, some data indicates it takes some years for any increase in yield to happen, and farmers in other countries have switched back to conventional farming even if they do get higher yields with CA.  But admittedly it's hard to see a farm like this one and not think that CA will help.

On the farm of Peninnah Ndunda (left) along with UDO staff member Peter Mueke and members of Penninah’s group.  Peninnah planted maize and dolichos in zai pits before the rain arrived.  Planting crops before rain (“dry planting”) gives the crop a noticeable boost, but is a risk to the farmer.  If the rains don’t come, they won’t sprout, and if the rains are too short the germinated seeds will die.  So the farmers need to make decisions about how much risk they are willing to take.  In fact, with CA being a new technique, it is simply a risk for them to switch techniques from what they know. 

Marketing is a key issue for successfully boost income on the farm.  The self-help group that Penninah is part of has started a merry go round (a small group financial arrangement where everybody contributes to a kitty, and then members can take turns using that pool).  They plan to start a marketing association where they will pool their harvest so that they can get a higher price. 

The group honored us with a traditional green maize porridge that is slightly fermented.  The maize and watermelon were harvested from the CA fields.  It’s always humbling to be welcomed with such hospitality by farmers who willingly share their resources with us, especially when their harvests are limited in the current drought situation.

Penninah had a nice new toilet block constructed; it’s always good to see sanitation improvements in an area like this (where so many people would just defecate in the surrounding bushland).  She proudly explained that her son had constructed it for her as appreciation for supporting him through his education. 

Another risk taken is on the type of seed.  Farmers can purchase hybrid seed, which is more expensive but usually performs better.  In this case, the farmer planted cheaper local seed which happened to perform better because it was adapted to local drought conditions.  Local seed can be risky if not certified (which also increases prices) as the seed quality can be too low for good harvests.

Pugeni from MCC in Winnipeg (center), and the Kenya CA technical officer John Mbae (right) sit with several members of the group and listen to the conversation about Penninah’s CA plots.  We spent a lot of time just sitting and listening to their stories of successes and challenges.

After visiting farms of UDO, we moved east to Kitui where we visited some of SASOL’s farms.  The first was in one of the driest areas, a family that has struggled doing any agriculture even with CA.  Here Mywa Mule stands in his CA field, which has some green dolichos and had a few watermelon. 

In the field of cowpeas they harvested a total of only 2 kg, plus taking some of the leaves which are eaten as greens.  They had moved to the area about 10 years ago when it was raining more.  He commented that he didn’t know why the weather had changed, prompting a good discussion later in the car about what climate change means to Africans, and how farmers like Mywa might understand it.  

Mywa relies on traditional knowledge, for instance watching for a certain type of cloud at night that indicates he should plant prior to rains.  These observations suggested to him that the next rains should be good.  We all hope so, as Kenya is currently in an escalating drought situation.  Several million people are now received food aid from the government, and there are conflicts arising as pastoralists who need grass and water for livestock begin encroaching on ranches and communities. 

Kanina Moira said they usually plant larger fields, but with lack of rains have let it go to grass.  The area was cleared from bush – native shrubland – when they came 10 years ago.  Many or most people in areas like this resort to the charcoal trade, cutting down trees and making charcoal that gets shipped to Nairobi.

Despite all this, including the increased work to do CA, they are planning to try again as they see promise in this technique.  It remains to be seen whether CA or any rainfed agriculture is viable in an area like this, which is technically below the 300 mm/year limit that is often cited as needed for CA to work.  Indeed one wonders if people should be living in some of these marginal areas at all! 

Maize intercropped with dolichos on Angeline Patrick's farm.  The dolichos is a nitrogen fixer so helps the soil.  Timing of planting is critical for this (as for much of what is done in CA), the farmer has to wait a few weeks after maize planting so that it doesn't get smothered by rapidly growing dolichos.

Lunch in Ikutha with UDO, SASOL and MCC members all together.  
The family of Robert Kilowzi (left) and Dorcas Mwanza had a homemade baler, a box which is stuff full of straw and tied up into bales like this.  Two bales are needed per cow per day.

A field of millet at the farm was planted to provide an alternative food source for "granny" who is diabetic and can't handle maize.  Millet is a traditional crop for the region, although not commonly seen these days.  One disadvantage of millet is that it is easily eaten by birds (especially the local quelea bird, a small finch which is the most abundant bird on earth!).  You can see a line across some pools in the field - shaking the line scares away the birds.  This takes vigilance, and this field was entirely eaten by birds despite attempts to keep it clear.  Areas that have more millet tend to do better, as the birds then don't eat all of the grain from a single field.  

Dominick Kitheka looks out over one of his 4 "experimental" plots.  Encouraging farmers to try things out on their own is an important component of successfully implementing CA.  It's even better when they can set up comparison plots like these, so that they see what techniques work best.  It's gratifying as a scientist to see farmers basically just doing the scientific method out their in their fields!  Dominick's field was also interesting as it was just across the road from where he runs a small duka (shop).  This is a great way to help spread ideas about CA - any people that come visit his shop can see his fields and talk with him about what he is doing.

While with our partners at a CA conference in Arusha, Tanzania, we had a workshop on using animal-drawn implements.  The main implement is called a ripper, basically a small thin blade attached to a normal ploughing setup.  Here a ripper is drawn by 4 oxen, the rip lines are visible in the field.  Ripping breaks through the hardpan layer that is normally present due to ploughing, which opens up a slot where water can infiltrate into the field better.  The farmer returns to rip a shallower line in a way that allows him or her to add seed and manure along the line.  The rip line allows the roots of the crop to penetrate below the hardpan to access water better.  In this area, it costs the same amount to hire a tractor (background in a neighbor’s field) or an ox team.  Switching to this minimal tillage method is a mindset change for farmers, and has not yet taken off in the region (or in the rest of Africa).

I got a shot at doing some ripping myself behind the 4 oxen.  Clearly it takes some skill, but it wasn’t as hard to control as I was afraid that it would be.  In fact, they told us that driving the oxen is the harder job, compared to controlling the ripper.  We’re told that men often say they “need” to do the hard job of working the ripper, leaving the women to drive the animals.

We stopped by a local restaurant for lunch to have their specialty, a local dish featuring plantains and beef with sauce.  Local restaurants always have lots of ambiance and generally have a nice outdoor seating area to enjoy the sights and sounds of the area.

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