In the ten years that he has been a farmer, Paul Makula doesn’t remember any year that his family never went hungry.
The father of four has always been a bitter man.
His maize plantation has always been wilting, year in year out, leaving him with very few sacks of maize from the one acre piece of land that has a potential for about 30 bags.
The crop of maize on his farm is unevenly distributed and nothing much can be expected from the otherwise fast maturing, high yielding crop that he planted in March this year.
“I feel so bad to see my crops in this state,” he says, bitterness taking a toll on him. He looks forward to harvesting only one and a half bags of maize, which is barely enough to feed his family for two months. He relies on his masonry skills for random jobs in the vicinity to get extra income to feed his hungry household.
The highest yield of maize the Makueni based farmer ever harvested from his farm was just about seven bags. When asked what is wrong about his crop, he says he has been planting his crops in the conventional way despite calls from agriculture experts and officials to have him practice conservation farming.
Almost giving up farming
The performance of his crops is a far cry from the ones in the neighbouring farm. They are healthy, lush and green. Its owner, Tecla Muoki, who is also Makula’s in-law cannot hide her joy.
From the one and a half acre piece of land, she looks to harvest approximately bags of maize. She is amongst the early adopters of conservation agriculture in the area and her yield has improved significantly.
Before she embraced the practice, coupled with erratic rains in the semi-arid area, she could only harvest a couple of kilos from the farm.
“I was almost giving up farming because I could barely harvest anything,” Ms Muoki, said in an interview.
Conservation agriculture or farming is a practice aimed at preserving soil and water by use of crop cover (mulch or organic matter) to lessen runoff and erosion.
This improves conditions for plant formation and growth. This practice entails planting crops directly in the area of the land protected by mulches or cover crops but only where there is very minimal cultivation.
The practice is intended to use mulch cover in reducing land degradation and soil erosion, lessening soil temperature to conserve moisture for plant growth.
It also involves minimal or no reliance on tilling, increasing organic matter levels, thereby improving soil fertility and structure. Weeds are controlled by deploying herbicides or shallow ploughing, which result to minimal soil disturbance and also retains water and nutrients.
Reduced labour use, improved soil fertility, increase crop yields over time, improved livelihoods, reduced carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere are some of the benefits of conservation farming technology compared to conventional agriculture.
“I learnt about conservation agriculture from internet sources like YouTube videos and Google, before enlisting the help of a field officer to guide me how to go about it,” says Ms Muoki, who plans to sell a portion of the 30 bags of maize she anticipates to harvest from her farm to boost her income.
The arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) have for long depended on food relief given the precarious food insecurity occasioned by bad weather, absence of irrigation schemes and poor or no rainfall.
But, experts are now aggressively encouraging farmers to adopt conservation agriculture as an answer to erratic rains that have affected many parts of the country.
The practice is conducive in the expansive ASAL of Kenya, which constitute 80 per cent of the country’s land mass, yet receives little or no rain all year round.
Participatory Approaches for Integrated Development (Pafid), the Kenya Markets Trust (KMT) and the Ministry of Agriculture have been burning the mid-night oil for some time now trying to get the farmers to embrace this method of farming in the ASAL areas.
According to Eric Kyongo, a field officer working for Pafid in Makueni, the three principles of conservation practice they have been advocating for involve minimal soil disturbance, maintaining permanent soil cover and practising crop rotation.
“It is a process that starts right from the land preparation to the harvesting stage. We are targeting to cut the cost of production and improve yield and a reduction of time taken by the farmer on the farm,” Mr Kyongo said in an interview.
Shem Mecheo, a Kenya Markets Trust portfolio officer for Eastern region covering five counties, namely Tharaka Nithi, Meru, Machakos, Makueni and Embu where the concept is being promoted, highlights some of the major differences between conservation agriculture and the conventional one.
“In conservation agriculture, you save a lot in terms of labour and time. Research has shown that a farmer is able to save between 30 per cent to 60 per cent of labour and time. The cost of production is also low. When it comes to ploughing of the land in conventional farming, you tend to disturb the soil a lot and each part of the farm has to be tilled. But, in conservation agriculture, you only focus on where you are going to do the planting,” Mr Mecheo said in an interview.
Delay of long rains
Most of the ASAL areas are categorised as drylands, which experience famine and acute drought conditions that have threatened the livelihoods of millions of Kenyans.
The delay in the onset of long rains this year, coupled with the poor performance of rainfall last year especially in the ASAL areas has exacerbated the food insecurity condition in the country.
This has in turn led to the reliance of food aid mostly to the Eastern and Northern parts of the country, which are usually the worst hit.
Mr Boniface Muli, an extension officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, argues that conservation agriculture is now taking root in most of the ASAL areas albeit slowly where farmers are embracing the practice.
“Arid and semi-arid areas experience little or no rainfall. We have been encouraging farmers to do minimum tillage of the soil and to use animal waste as manure for their crop, which help in preserving water and moisture in the soil,” Mr Muli said in an interview.
The approach works very well for both food crops like maize, beans, legumes and cash crops like cotton among others.
In the Eastern region of the country, the ministry of agriculture in collaboration with Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (Kari) have been pushing farmers to adopt the practise since 2002.
However, less than 50 per cent of the farmers have embraced the practice as they are slow to adopting new farming techniques.
But, given the visible difference between the crops of those who practice conservation agriculture and those who don’t, the farmers are now taking up the practice hoping that their yields would improve and hunger pangs lessen drastically.
It’s been an uphill task to get a mind-set change for the farmers most of who have always practised farming in the old way without regard of adopting better practices for higher yields.
“The biggest challenge is a lot of farmers are very slow in adopting this practice. Many of them feel that they are being disturbed when we ask them to change their farming practices. But, as they catch up, they notice the advantages,” Mr Muli noted.