Dropping the hoe and doubling the yield

Minimum tillage 
makes for dramatic improvements for this family in Malawi

It’s raining, but that doesn’t stop Thomas Nkhunda from leading a group of visitors into his fields where he describes how he manages plots demonstrating the benefits of conservation agriculture.

Rain isn’t unusual at this time of year. After all, it’s the rainy season in Malawi. What’s unusual is the fact that the rains they call the “planting rains” came later than usual, by almost a full month. And when they arrived in late December, they came in torrents, wreaking havoc on farmers farther south.

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Nkhunda’s fields weren’t deluged like those in the south, although this area has seen heavy rains. But the crops on his farm located near Nkhotakota about 20 kms into the hills from Lake Malawi look good; the maize and groundnut fields he shows us are neatly tended and standing tall.

Where the rain falls on the roads and on other fields around us, it forms puddles, little rivulets and then runs away, taking the soil with it. Where it falls on his fields, it soaks into the ground where it supports the growing plants.

The 37-year-old father of three is proud of that, and rightly so.

Conserving soil

Conservation agriculture is first and foremost about eliminating tillage. Farmers here typically use hoes for the back-breaking task of pulling the soil in their plots up into ridged rows — sometimes a foot high — into which they plant their seed. It makes for wide row spacing and lots of hoeing in between. When the rain comes, it runs down into the gullies and escapes. In a heavy rain, the ridges collapse leaving the plants to drown. During a dry spell, the plants perched on the top of those ridges are left high and dry.

Under CA, the farmers do away with the ridges. They instead make planting basins into which they put a small amount of manure and later poke their seed in with a stick. Without the ridges, they can plant their rows closer together, which increases the ground cover as well as the yield. They use mulch between the rows to help suppress weeds, hold in moisture and build organic matter.

Better yields, more time

Nkhunda now sows 2.8 hectares of his three-hectare farm using the CA system. He’s seeing multiple benefits to his household, starting with higher yields for less labour.

The maize he grew under CA yielded 7.8 tonnes per ha (124 bushels per acre) last year. The maize he still grows under conventional methods yielded 3.5 tonnes per ha, even though both systems received equal applications of fertilizer. He used herbicide to control the weeds on his CA fields and the hoe to control weeds on the conventional fields.

Nkhunda and his wife Fanesi Chidzura used to work for more than a month every year to prepare the fields for ridge farming, sometimes even keeping their children home from school and bringing in extended family to help. Then they had to hoe again to keep the weeds in check.

Now his kids regularly attend school and he has more time to tend to his other businesses, which include a fruit tree nursery and a small grain-buying business.

In the past, the family routinely ran short of food during the “lean period” between December and March. The maize from the previous year’s crop would run out before the new crop came in, requiring him to seek work off the farm to tide them over. His house now has a metal roof — a step up from thatch — and they are working towards putting in a floor.

Nkhunda summed it up in three words he hesitantly spoke in English: “fixed deposit account.”

“He is saving money,” the interpreter says. “Before, they were not saving.”

Changing face

Nkhunda is a textbook example of the kind of smallholder transformation organizations promoting conservation agriculture in Africa hope will soon become the norm.

Since he began learning about soil-healthy farming eight years ago, he has embraced the concepts, he is reaping the benefits and he’s helping to spread the word.

Researchers with the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and various non-governmental organizations believe the farming system has the potential to change the face of smallholder agriculture in Africa from one of chronic food insecurity to stability and growth.

And it could save the soil as well.

Most smallholder farmers in Africa are working with soils that are severely degraded as a result of repetitive tillage and monoculture; they grow maize, which is a staple food crop, every year, often on the same patch of ground.

Nkhunda and his neighbours, some of whom have converted their entire farms to CA, are among the early adopters who have been receiving technical support from CIMMYT, which became well known for its “green revolution” varieties developed by Norman Borlaug and Manitoba-born breeder Glenn Anderson. It has been working on adapting the no-till system widely used by commercial farmers around the world to a smallholder scale. Extension support in this area has been through a local NGO called Total Land Care.

Nkhunda now tends three demonstration plots, one under conventional, one under CA and one of CA maize undersown to the legume cowpeas. If farmers get the timing right, they will harvest a crop of cowpeas after the maize comes off. But even if they don’t, the cowpeas provide a nitrogen boost to the growing maize.

Nkhunda says that plot appears to be performing the best of the three.

Also visiting fields in the area that day was Christian Thierfelder, the senior agronomist with CIMMYT’s Harare substation. He was notably impressed with what he saw.

“This is a window for many farmers to look through,” he said. “It really shows the potential of the system.”

Potential, however, is the operative word. As we visited with farmers in different regions of this east African country, it soon became clear that as promising as the system looks, some difficult-to-overcome hurdles are hampering widespread adoption.

Next issue — Part 2: Mulch, mice-seekers, and the “man problem.”

Co-operator editor Laura Rance is visiting three African countries in February and March on secondment to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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