Conservation agriculture to take center stage

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WINDHOEK –  The eyes of some 180 000 Namibia’s communal crop farmers  are firmly focused on the implementation of the European Union’s Conservation Agriculture Project for Namibia via the International Food Organisation (FAO) after N$40 million was approved for this proven practice.

This will be emphasised in strong terms after the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has indicated that it will celebrate the World Day to Combat Desertification on June 17 in Omuthiya with special focus on conservation agriculture (CA). The practice, which minimises soil disturbance, maintains soil cover, and rotates crops, is a proven technique that improves soil fertility, and eliminates the efforts and costs associated with plowing. Even though the implementation of the programme has been discussed in detail by representatives of the ministries of Agriculture, Water and Forestry and Environment and Tourism and governors and regional councilors, the programme was introduced in Namibia in 2005. But despite the clear benefits and successes of conservation agriculture around the world, and especially in Namibia, it is little practiced in less wealthy countries and by only some 800 communal farmers in northern Namibia. The Namibia Specific Conservation Tillage (NSCT) technique was developed locally with locally manufactured implements and put to great use, increasing mahangu and maize crops of communal farmers by up to 1 500 percent.

The current drought serves as reminder that CA is a now widely regarded as a missed opportunity that can be changed through education, demonstration and policy and technical support. There is also consensus among many role players that this can only be done by expanding throughout the non-tropical dry land regions to support mainly smallholder farmers, who are the most vulnerable to crop failure and the most in need of innovation and low-cost technology. During Farmers Forum’s recent visit to the north-central communal areas, this factor was stressed over and over by crop farmers who now realise that the focus should be on reduced tillage as the first step towards introducing the conservation system, rather than promoting all principles at once. This enables farmers to introduce changes incrementally, reducing risk and allowing gradual change. The elimination of plowing (zero-tillage) is in itself a major change in thinking. It means crops can be sown earlier, providing immediate improvements in the efficiency of water use and crop yields in most years.

The current drought has also pointed out that crop residues are an important source of feed for livestock producers in the regions, and it is a major challenge to convince farmers to maintain cover to reduce erosion and improve soil. Crop rotations are currently dominated by cereals, and grain legume crops are not widely grown, but a more diverse rotation can have greater benefits.

Though the benefits of zero-tillage can be considerable, the challenge is to change the widespread misconception that ploughing is essential for weed and pest control, and seed bed preparation. Through education, demonstration and support, development partners and policymakers can help raise awareness and promote rapid adoption of zero-tillage. The experience of wealthier countries provides important evidence, as does the experience of farmers in poorer countries who have successfully applied the principles of conservation agriculture.

A practical constraint to wider adoption is the limited availability of appropriate and affordable seeding machinery, critical for the approach to succeed. Zero-tillage planting requires specially designed seeding equipment that is capable of sowing into undisturbed soil where crop residues have been retained. These seeders also maximise seed germination and crop establishment allowing farmers to save up to two-thirds on seed costs. Namibia is in a privileged position as such specially designed seeding and planting equipment have been developed in Windhoek, and to such satisfaction that the proudly Namibian manufactured equipment has been exported to various African countries where it has proved itself as ground-breaking tools in increased harvests.

Zero-tillage seeders from abroad are too heavy, complex and expensive for small-scale farming. But this obstacle can be overcome by supporting the development of local industry to manufacture and repair simple zero-tillage seeders or converting existing seeders to zero-tillage.

 

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