Conservation agriculture is a set of basic principles that includes eliminating the traditional ridge-and furrow tillage systems, keeping crop residues on the soil, and rotating or inter-cropping maize with other, mainly leguminous, crops. The approach is designed to improve soil structure and fertility, increase infiltration and water retention, and reduce labor, erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. CIMMYT cropping systems agronomist in southern Africa, Christian Thierfelder, explains that for small scale farmers who rely on rainfed agriculture, the benefits of conservation agriculture are dramatic during dry spells: “residues retained as surface mulch, root holes and earthworms catch and channel falling rain and impede evaporation.” In 2012, maize in conventionally-managed plots wilted in the drought but in fields managed using conservation agriculture, there was no problem. In the 2006/2007 cropping season, CIMMYT began work with six farmers at Lemu near the Balaka Township in southern Malawi, to study, test, and promote conservation agriculture. “A key strategy has been to establish demonstration and validation plots run by farmers in their fields, with backstopping from extension,research and NGO partners,” says Thierfelder. “We provide the farmers with seed, fertilizer, and herbicide,which they pay back to a community project or fund at harvest time. For farmers, the test plots are successful examples of conservation agriculture and serve as learning centers. We group them strategically for use as on-farm trials to evaluate the performance of conservation agriculture across years. This is particularly important as conservation agriculture is a longer term investment for farmers – the real benefits become significant only after 3-5 years. ” By the 2011/2012 crop season, nearly one fifth of the area’s 2,200 farmers had adopted conservation agriculture practices. Although there is a lot of documented evidenceon the benefits of conservation agriculture, there are still challenges to overcome, including limitedaccess to fertilizers and herbicides or the tradition and mindset of using the plow, but extension efforts, research, messaging for conservation agriculture, and demonstration and validation plots have been paying off. Uptake in areas where the regional NGO Total LandCare (TLC) partnered with CIMMYT has been greater. TLC not only extended the principles and practices of conservation agriculture to farmers in target communities but also established a soft loan scheme for farmers to access critical inputs such as improved seed and herbicides. TLC’s Zonal Manager John Chisui explains that the negative effects of climate change are also playing a role in farmers’ acceptance of the new cropping system: “People can see that under conservation agriculture, the crop will do much better and can withstand seasonal dry-spells, compared to conventional approaches.”
In Malawi, draft animals are scarce and traditional cultivation for maize involves as many as 160,000 hoe strokes per hectare. Farmers who use the traditional ridge and furrow systems for land preparation, which involves hard manual labor of approximately 20-25 days to create the ridges per hectare, can now plant the crops directly into the soil by just using a pointed stick to make a hole for fertilizer and seed under conservation agriculture. If herbicides are used for weed control it saves the farmers another 10-15 labor days. This extra labor can effectively be used to add value to farm products, move to more labor intensive higher value crops, expand the cultivated land area,sell farm produce in the market, take up off-farm labor or go fishing, which is common along the lake shore.
“I cannot stop practicing conservation agriculture, because I’m getting lots of benefits,” farmer Belita Maleko from Mwansambo in Nkhotakota District says. “I have enough time to grow other crops. I’ve built another house with the proceeds. I’m a happy woman.” CIMMYT started this work with TLC in 2005 with 12 farmers around Nkhotakota District and has now expanded to other districts reaching out to more than 30,000 farmers. These successful results, in line with CIMMYT’s aim to sustainably intensify current farming systems, are a result of effective synergies between organizations with a common interest. The involvement and facilitation of input and output markets and finally the commitment by farmers and extension officers to change from degrading labor intensive systems to more sustainable conservation agriculture systems also made a great difference to smallholder farmers in Malawi. “We realize this is a complex technology with many challenges to overcome,” Thierfelder explains. “Achieving widespread adoption may take considerable time and effort, but ‘difficult’ is not a good excuse for not getting started.”