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You are here: Home Magazines Global edition Ecological processes at work Conservation Farming in rural Zimbabwe

Conservation Farming in rural Zimbabwe

Conservation Farming takes advantage of natural ecological processes to conserve moisture, enhance soil fertility, and improve soil structure, and to reduce soil erosion and the presence of diseases and pests. It does this in three main ways – through minimal soil disturbance, the retention of crop residues and crop rotation. Ploughing and burning disturb the soil and the micro-biota that live there. In contrast, Conservation Farming involves very little soil disturbance, enabling naturallyoccurring soil flora and fauna to flourish.

LEISA Magazine • 22.4 • December 2006

“Conservation Farming allows me to begin my land preparation as soon as I harvest. This allows me to do early planting at the onset of the rainy season, and hence my labour is spread over months.”
Mrs. Lupane, a widow caring for her three orphaned grandchildren

“Tilling the land the conventional way causes many risks, namely compaction of the soil and exposure of the soil to water and wind erosion by removing the earth’s blanket.”
Mr. Chipunza, a Farmer Field School facilitator

Farmers are already seeing big increases in yield by using Conservation Farming methods.Photo: Lovemore Dumba
Farmers are already seeing big increases in yield by using Conservation Farming methods.Photo: Lovemore Dumba
Mrs. Lupane and Mr. Chipunza are two members of the more than 5000 rural Zimbabwean households practising conservation farming as a result of the inputs and training provided by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and its community-based partner organisations.

Their comments highlight two key benefits of Conservation Farming in comparison to other farming techniques – its low labour input and its effective utilisation of natural ecological processes.

This article provides an overview of the Conservation Farming methodology and describes how CRS/Zimbabwe has successfully piloted conservation farming over the past three years. It outlines the lessons the organisation has learnt during this pilot programme and how these lessons are informing plans to scale-up the intervention to benefit more community members.

Conservation Farming

There are five main components to successful Conservation Farming: preparing land properly, following regionally-specific planting standards, controlling weeds, mulching, and rotating crops. With Conservation Farming, farmers do not till all available arable land, but instead prepare land by opening planting basins as holes or furrows. Then, farmers follow technical guidance regarding planting standards –such as seeds per station and spacing– that are appropriate to the soil and other natural factors in their particular area. They also keep these permanent planting basins weed-free to optimise soil use. Farmers rotate production of cereal and legume crops, retaining at least 20 percent of the crop residues on the soil surface – the more the better.

Conservation Farming takes advantage of natural ecological processes to conserve moisture, enhance soil fertility, and improve soil structure, and to reduce soil erosion and the presence of diseases and pests. It does this in three main ways – through minimal soil disturbance, the retention of crop residues and crop rotation. Ploughing and burning disturb the soil and the micro-biota that live there. In contrast, Conservation Farming involves very little soil disturbance, enabling naturally-occurring soil flora and fauna to flourish.

These micro-biota decompose the crop residues that farmers retain as soil cover, thus adding nutrients to the soil and improving the soil’s crumb structure. In addition, conservation farmers are able to make better use of the rain because undisturbed land covered with crop residues allows more rain to infiltrate into the soil and reduces evaporation. When there is low rainfall, the farmers’ basins capture the available moisture. Soil cover also reduces run-off which, combined with the improved soil structure, reduces soil erosion from water or wind. Finally, crop rotation takes advantage of natural ecological processes by disrupting the disease and pest cycle and using legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil. Over the long-term, Conservation Farming’s use of natural ecological processes reduces farmers’ need to use fertilizers and pesticides, thus enhancing the low-input nature of the approach.

Conservation Farming has important strengths as a technique for farmers in Zimbabwe – a country with widespread poverty and a high rate of HIV/AIDS infection. Even very poor families can use Conservation Farming because it does not require draft power or tractors, simply hand hoes. And, because of the low labour input required, the technique is well-suited to households and communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

Implementing the programme

The promotion of Conservation Farming is one strand within CRS/Zimbabwe’s Protecting Vulnerable Livelihoods Programme, which works in partnership with well-established community-based organisations and is funded by the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID). CRS provides training, technical support and resources, while its partner organisations implement the programme at the community level. Extensive liaising occurred with relevant government stakeholders, such as the Agricultural Extension Service, throughout the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the pilot project in order to maximise the appropriateness and sustainability of the project.

During the 2003/4 season, Conservation Farming was piloted in three districts, with the aim of increasing food production and improving beneficiaries’ nutrition levels. Strict targeting criteria were used to select 650 vulnerable households and identify six “lead farmers” – well-respected community members who were already engaged in farming activities and could host project participants on a communal plot. The inclusion of lead farmers in the project was a strategic decision designed to overcome one considerable challenge – the reluctance of some community members to use hand hoes when they had previously used draft power or tractors.

Training in Conservation Farming was provided to the partner organisations who, in turn, trained household members and lead farmers. The training programme included basic record-keeping, in recognition of the fact that successful conservation farming requires solid planning skills, which, in turn, demands accurate records. The record-keeping process was initiated by getting farmers to list their broad intentions and activities, and then dividing these activities into smaller components. All activities carried out on the trial plots were recorded in a diary, including information about seed, fertilizer, labour, rainfall, wages, yield, food consumption, transport, medical bills, illnesses and deaths among the group.

Beneficiaries were provided with local seeds and hybrids as well as fertilizer for micro-dosing. Each conservation farmer had a third of a hectare plot, with most of it reserved for cereal and a small portion for legumes.

The results from this pilot season were quite favourable, and other community members took note of the conservation farmers’ successes. In the following season, additional training was offered to the original group of 650 households, as well as to another 117 interested households who were not part of the targeted group. Some of these “volunteer” participants did not have the necessary minimum amount of crop residue in their first year of Conservation Farming. They were, however, still able to make the necessary basins. Overall, the 767 households who practised these techniques successfully harvested crops in what proved to be a drought year – thus improving their food security.

More community members noticed the success of the project and, in some of the pilot areas, large numbers of people spontaneously adopted the technique, with no direct support from the programme. By the end of July 2006, more than 1045 households in the three districts were practising Conservation Farming and more than 5000 households had been trained in the technique – numbers which greatly exceeded the project’s initial targets.

As a result, between the 2004/5 and 2005/6 seasons, there was a 230 percent increase in the land on which Conservation Farming was being practised. Monitoring and evaluation indicated that, in all the districts, Conservation Farming led to higher yields for maize, sorghum, soybean and cowpeas. Some of the yield increases were quite dramatic. For example, in Murewa district maize yields were 4 t/ha, compared to half a tonne per hectare where the techniques had not been adopted. In nearby Mutoko, maize yields under Conservation Farming were 5 t/ha, compared to one t/ha. One farmer in this district who had participated in the project since the beginning achieved a yield of 7 t/ha.

Typically, most cereals and legumes grown in these areas are consumed in the household, with any surplus being sold to pay for household expenses, such as children’s school fees. In the 2005/6 season the project piloted distributing soya bean seed among the targeted vulnerable households so that they could begin growing this cash crop. The hope is that this cash crop, combined with the sale of surplus cereals and legumes, will eventually enable these households to purchase their own inputs, thus eliminating their need for external support. This self-sufficiency will be aided by the likelihood that as the Conservation Farming practices improve soil fertility over the next 5-10 years, the farmers’ need for fertilizer is likely to be eliminated. As targeted households become self-sufficient, the project will identify new vulnerable community members to work with.

Lessons learnt

The three-year life span of the pilot project provided many lessons about implementing Conservation Farming:
• Although Conservation Farming is low-labour input agriculture, there are still some HIV/AIDS-affected households that do not have sufficient labour resources to succeed on their own, especially during peak labour periods, such as basin making and harvesting. These households are likely to include those headed by elderly people, those with few members, and those with chronically ill members who require constant care. To address this challenge, some communities have created “work teams” of community members who provide voluntary labour to vulnerable households that need help.
• Introducing Conservation Farming to community members requires patience, understanding and careful explanation. Some aspects of Conservation Farming may initially seem unusual to community members, and it may take time for them to overcome their scepticism and understand the approach. For example, farmers were initially concerned about the presence of termites feeding on the dry stover because they thought that the termites would go on to destroy their green crops. However, after observing the termites at work and seeing their positive impact on the soil, community members accepted termites’ vital role.
• Lead farmers were vital to the project, as was originally anticipated. In particular, they have played a critical role in relaying information about Conservation Farming to household participants and in providing technical support. They also help motivate community members and assist in project monitoring.
• Conservation Farming is particularly beneficial for female farmers, who are often heads of their households but lack draft power or sufficient labour to engage in other farming techniques. More than 80 percent of participants in the project are female farmers.
• Including community members outside of the targeted beneficiary group in the trainings has helped increase the programme’s impact and improve the overall food and livelihood security of the community. Although these community members do not receive inputs from the project, their uptake of Conservation Farming has been impressive.
• The involvement of government extension officials has helped in monitoring the activities and their impact on communities.
• Conservation Farming is resulting in substantial yield increases for most crops.
• The project has highlighted the value of sorghum as a drought resistant crop. Unlike other crops such as maize, sorghum has the ability to re-sprout when moisture conditions become favourable. In one district, Chiredzi, this second crop yielded more grain than the initial crop, which was affected by a mid-season dry spell.
• Soya beans have potential as a cash crop that conservation farmers can use to enhance their livelihood security and become self-sufficient.

Future plans

CRS/Zimbabwe completed a self-assessment of its Programme in August 2006. One recommendation that emerged from this assessment was that additional emphasis should be placed on promoting Conservation Farming. Given limited resources, this will be accomplished by inviting non-targeted beneficiaries to also attend trainings. In addition, CRS intends to more closely integrate Conservation Farming with other activities such as Farmer Field Schools, Junior Farmer Field Schools, seed voucher distribution and food security support for orphans and other vulnerable children.

Consideration is being given to ways of expanding adoption of the “work team” concept in order to help HIV/AIDS-affected households who struggle to provide the necessary labour for Conservation Farming. One option being considered is providing these households with vouchers that they can redeem for labour. Finally, there are plans to extend the provision of soya bean seed to more vulnerable households for cash cropping.

Carolyn W. Fanelli and Lovemore Dumba. Catholic Relief Services/Zimbabwe. Box CY 1111 Causeway, Zimbabwe. E-mails: cfanelli@crszim.org.zw ; ldumba@crsert.org.zw

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