Conservation farming instead of food aid

We’re becoming evangelists – conservation farming (CF) evangelists. Whenever we talk to farmers we preach CF. The fields we’ve seen this week speak their own message loud and clear – CF pays, both for the land and for the farmer.

Peter Ngandu can rightly be proud of his field of soybeans, planted using conservation farming methods. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Peter Ngandu can rightly be proud of his field of soybeans, planted using conservation farming methods. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Peter Ngandu stands proudly in front of his plot of soybeans, planted using CF methods. He’s been doing CF for the sixth year now. We visited the mission farm two years ago and can see the development that comes with experience. Peter’s soybeans can take it up with any large commercial farmer. So can his maize (corn) and sunflowers.

“There are five rules for conservation farming,” Peter tells us. 1. No burning of trash. 2. Make permanent planting basins (dig holes where you plant, and plant in the same holes year after year). 3. Early land preparation – usually farmers start to plow (by hand or with oxen) when the first rains start. CF has the land ready for planting then. 4. Continuous weeding – farmers tend to weed once, maybe twice and then let the weeds grow. 5. Rotate your crops.

CF isn’t just for the small scale farmer. Prominently situated along the main highway just outside the capital city of Lusaka, Dutch Gibson grows 60 hectares of maize using only a hoe and the CF method. “It takes four men or three women to plant a hectare of maize,” Dutch tells the group of 74 that we are part of. “Do the women get paid more?” someone calls out. Of course not…

Dutch Gibson, a strong proponent of conservation farming, is happy to tell farmers how to do a better job on their fields.(Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Dutch Gibson, a strong proponent of conservation farming, is happy to tell farmers how to do a better job on their fields.(Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Gibson, who uses mechanized minimal tillage on the rest of his farm, works closely with Peter Aagaard at the Lusaka Conservation Farming Unit. In the foreword to the CF Handbook for Hoe Farmers, Aagaard writes:

“Farmers who adopt the simple and proven farming systems described in this Handbook can eliminate their dependency on food aid, produce excellent crops in all but the worst droughts, minimize their reliance on increasingly expensive fertilizers and regenerate rather than exploit the environments in which they live.

The distribution of food aid does not offer any long term solutions to the predicament of Africa’s rural communities. Food aid is a quick fix that addresses the immediate symptoms of a much more fundamental problem. In its most unbridled and cynical manifestations it extends dependency, distorts local markets and undermines the will of communities to adopt the farming systems that offer them the opportunity to extricate themselves from the indignity of depending upon others to feed them.” (Conservation Farming and Conservation Agriculture Handbook for Hoe Farmers in Agro-Ecological Regions 1 and 2 – Flat Culture, 2007 Edition)

Our experience confirms this. It is this message we preach, and more are listening all the time.

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