"Just use a hoe." That's the advice Catholic Relief Services, our local partners in Zimbabwe and government extension agents are giving farmers in hopes of radically increasing crop yields across the country.
When I first heard about conservation agriculture techniques, I was skeptical. How can a hoe really be better than a team of oxen? And if I were the farmer—a woman clearing and planting fields all by myself like the many female farmers I met—how could I ever prepare my land without needing a lot more brawn?
But after seeing field upon field of geometrically aligned planting pits and hearing stories of exceptional harvests, I became a convert.
Conserve Your Resources
Conservation agriculture is all about conserving soil and conserving water. Farmers are encouraged to use hoes to dig lines of small holes, called "planting stations." This method of field preparation minimizes soil disturbance, consequently reducing erosion and increasing moisture retention when rains come. Specific spacing guidelines also promote maximum yields.
Next, farmers are advised to place mulch on the rows of soil between the lines of planting stations. The mulch, which typically consists of dried sorghum or cornstalks from the prior harvest, improves soil nutrition and helps retain even more moisture. Then, a few days before first rains are expected, farmers pour a bottle cap full of fertilizer into each planting station—or a cup of manure if fertilizer is unavailable or unaffordable.
When it begins to rain, farmers plant three seeds in each planting station, with the most common crops grown in Zimbabwe being sorghum, corn or pearl millet. After four weeks, farmers pluck out the weakest-looking sprout from each pit to reduce competition for resources and improve harvests.
"I like conservation farming because we get good yields," says Andrew Munemo, a "lead farmer" from Chigombe, a village participating in a project supported by CRS and funded by the U.K. Department for International Development. Trained and guided by CRS' local partner, Community Technology Development Trust, Andrew mentors nine other farmers in conservation agriculture techniques. After three years, all graduate from the program, and new farmers take their place to spread the knowledge further.
"This half-acre used to give us one 50-kilogram [110-pound] bag of maize using traditional farming," Andrew says. "Last season we harvested 10 bags. If there are decent rains this next season, I hope to get 16 bags."
Small Efforts, Big Returns
Sipiwe Mutare, a 40-year-old widow and mother of three, has also adopted conservation agriculture techniques.
"When my husband died, I had one cow that was given to another relative as part of the inheritance," she explains, adding that it was very difficult to support the family with close to no household assets. "Before, I would harvest one bucket of peanuts and one bag of maize from my three acres of land. Now I reap up to 20 bags of maize and 10 bags of peanuts."
"This program has changed our lives," Sipiwe adds. "It has helped me send my children to school, because I now grow enough to sell some to pay for school fees and books.
Sipiwe's family benefited from a CRS-supported livestock fair that gave her oldest son two chickens to breed in July 2007. They now have 13 chickens, a pig bought with the proceeds of selling five other birds, and a rabbit exchanged for another hen. Sipiwe used some of the profits of her first conservation agriculture harvest to buy a goat, which had two kids.
"Now I don't have any problems," Sipiwe says, showing me the stacks of corn and other food supplies she has been able to purchase due to her increased harvests.
Conservation farming techniques enable anyone with the strength to walk and lift a hoe to prepare and care for fields. As a result, CRS targets the most vulnerable households for training and support, including farms headed by widows, the elderly or people living with HIV. The simple techniques also allow families to prepare fields piecemeal on their own. In addition, when rains start to fall, farmers can plant seeds right away—not having to wait for oxen to be available for hire. That can mean earlier harvests.
"Most farmers still use traditional methods for crops like sweet potatoes, where the soil has to be disturbed anyway to plant and later harvest the tubers," says Zwanyadza Soroti, CRS Zimbabwe's livelihoods project manager. "But for grains, conservation agriculture can really change the lives of subsistence farmers, even enabling them to move beyond survival farming and earn small incomes from excess harvests."
As Sipiwe quickly dug a few more planting stations, I looked out over her fields, and a city girl from San Francisco became another big fan of the hoe.
Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa, based in Nairobi. She recently visited farmers using conservation agriculture techniques in Zimbabwe.