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ZIMBABWE: ‘Farming God’s Way’

GURUVE, Zimbabwe, Apr 2 2010 (IPS) - Mbuya Erica Chirimanyemba is a marvel among women, and men! Watching her digging holes in dry ground earlier this year, her neighbours thought the old lady had gone berserk. But 60-year-old Chirimanyemba was putting an alternative farming technique into practice.

Chirimanyemba in her maize field: conservation agriculture techniques have turned her fortunes around. Credit:  Ephraim Nsingo/IPS

Chirimanyemba in her maize field: conservation agriculture techniques have turned her fortunes around. Credit: Ephraim Nsingo/IPS

And it has paid off so well her husband – who fled the district, defeated by perennial drought eight years ago – has come back home to see the wonders she is working on her farm.

“All along we have been getting it wrong, but now we are farming God’s way, and things are working well for us,” said the energetic 60-year-old.

Chirimanyemba is one of 10,000 small scale farmers in Guruve – an arid district in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland Central Province – who has adopted conservation farming methods.

Old dogs, older tricks

“Even in the past, this is how our parents used to farm before they started using draught power. The harvests were always very good then because this is God’s way of farming. No matter how many cattle I have, I will never ever use draught power again. I now know the secret of productive farming,” said Chirimanyemba.

The Sustainable Agriculture Trust (SAT) introduced Chirimanyemba to conservation agriculture in 2007. SAT is facilitating the adoption of conservation agriculture in Guruve, with support from the Food Agriculture Organisation under the EU’s Global Food Facility, established in response to the food security crisis that developed in 2008.

Conservation farming involves planting crops in small basins or holes, which minimises tillage. In addition to reducing disturbance of the soil structure, the practice also saves time, energy and money as farmers without cattle or tractors of their own do not have to hire tillage. Other techniques mulching, and judicious mixing and rotation of crops.

Conservation agriculture

Conservation agriculture is a resource-efficient crop production practice based on three principles that enhance biological processes above and below the ground. The guiding principles involve minimum or even zero mechanical disturbance of the soil disturbance; keeping the soil covered at all times, either by a growing crop or a dead mulch of crop residues); and diversified crop rotation.

In addition, farmers use traditional crop varieties without herbicides or herbicide tolerant varieties. Crop rotation is also used to control pests.

The emphasis is on simple, low-cost tools such as ox-drawn planters and rippers. A Brazilian invention, the Fitarelli no-till planter is increasingly becoming a popular CA tool. It costs $500 and has been used to plant a variety of crops.

CA is credited with eliminating power-intensive soil tillage and reducing labour required for crop production by more than 50 percent for small scale farmer. According to the FAO, this is especially important for households affected by HIV and AIDS where children or the elderly are responsible for farm labour.

For mechanised farms, it reduces fuel requirements by 70 percent and the need for machinery by 50 percent.

During the dry season, Chirimanyemba dug thousands of small holes and packed them with fertiliser. When the rains came, she was poised to plant immediately while neighbours relying on conventional approach to plowing to prepare their fields scrambled to hire draught power and get seeds into the ground.

Support for farmers

In the 2009/2010 farming season, about 176,000 smallholder farmers nationwide received seed and fertiliser from the EU Food Facility. In February, the EU announced an additional $13 million of support, which will see 80,000 more families benefiting.

As small and large scale farmers prepare to harvest the maize crop in Zimbabwe, it appears yields are much higher for those farmers who use conservation agriculture than those relying on conventional tillage methods.

Ian Henderson, a former commercial farmer now working as an agricultural consultant, said he expected an average yield of 1.5 tonnes per hectare for the 10,000 conservation farmers in the district. This, he said, would ensure that the district has enough food reserves for the next 12 months.

In contrast, this growing season for farmers who used conventional methods will be a disaster. Crops that were planted late wilted before reaching fertilisation stage.

“Those who are not in the programme (of conservation farming) planted late, as they had to wait for the rains in order for them to start preparing their land. By the time they finished planting, our crops were already at knee height,” said Judas Phiri, district supervisor for SAT.

“From the look of things,” Henderson said,” the yields are not that good for those farmers who use conventional tillage, as they had to wait for the first rains before they could prepare their land and plant. For each day a farmer delays to plant after the first rains, you lose 120 kg per hectare. That is a lot, as it translates to more than one tonne in just one week.”

Adapting to conditions

Climate change is creating a nightmare for those who rely on conventional methods. The head of Mavhunga village, Teddy Chihoko, said farmers were having difficulty planning ahead.

“These days it is difficult to tell when the rains will start,” said Chihoko. “This conservation agriculture programme has proven to be very useful in helping farmers prepare on time. It has helped us a lot to develop as a community and to fight poverty.”

After two successful harvests using the conservation techniques, Mbuya Chirimanyemba is the talk of the village. She was even named the best farmer in Guruve district for the 2009/2010 cropping season.

Chirimanyemba’s husband, Lameck, said the family’s adoption of conservation farming has bettered their social standing.

“People always have a better perception of you if they know you have food, than when you are starving. This type of farming has really helped us,” said Lameck. Chirimanyemba’s grandson, who had to drop out of school due to unpaid fees has resumed his education.

“My grandson has also gone back to school. Things are working for me now. In the 2008/2009 farming season, I got 35 bags. This time I am expecting not less than 50 bags. I have no doubt this year I will get my biggest harvest ever,” said Chirimanyemba.

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