OL 333 Assignment Three Discussion
Climate Smart Agriculture


Assignment Three. Low Input Agriculture and Conservation Agriculture
Last week I asked you to:

-Write a very concise and specific definition of one, or if you would like, two of your agricultural challenges.
-Investigate one or two specific techniques that could potentially work has solutions for your challenge.
-Develop a short, bulleted list of resources and capabilities that your community may have available for supporting a solution to your agricultural challenge.
-Let me know if you have already facilitated the development of a farmers association with your community.
-Let me know if you have contact with an agricultural expert who can help you to evaluate the challenges, resources and potential solutions.

If you need to establish a farmer’s association or connection of an agricultural expert, you still have several weeks to do this. In week six, we want to have these two activities underway.

Over the next three weeks we’re going to investigate a number of different agricultural activities and technologies which could very well be useful in the challenges that you carefully defined in Assignment Two. The homework assignments won’t be very long because I would prefer that you to invest more time in investigating the resources that we are providing and putting some thought into whether one or two of them will best provide solutions for your project. At the end of this three-week period you might find that the technique that you investigated in assignment two was still your best option. However, you might also find  that there is another option that is even better.

In this assignment were going to be exploring low input agriculture and conservation agriculture. They have some similarities, and share some common techniques. However, there are some differences—plus each one of these two camps has slightly different resources available—all of which are quite useful for our purposes.

Conservation Agriculture

I arrived at this section of the course with a chip on my shoulder. I lived for years in Washington state. In Eastern Washington there is an area known as the Palouse—an area full of small, very fertile hills where farmers intensively grow wheat. They began having trouble with erosion over the years and the local university introduced the concept of conservation agriculture.

Conservation agriculture incorporates three key elements:
1. Minimal tillage of the land; tilling the soil disrupts soil microorganisms and soil fauna which provide important functions and healthy soil system
2. Protecting the surface of the soil with a permanent or semi-permanent organic soil cover: mulch, leave crop residues in place—and no burning of crop residues. This organic material breaks down and provides organic material for the soil and provides a substrate for and feeds soil flora and fauna. It also increases soil moisture in reduces erosion.
3. Crop rotation; helps to avoid disease and pest problems

The Washington State University agricultural extension services focused on the minimal tillage aspect. The challenge there is that in commercial agriculture when it comes time to plant again there are frequently living plants on the land which need to be eradicated with herbicides. This seemed a bit counterproductive to me at the time—and I was also concerned about polluting the watershed with herbicides. The second thing about conservation agriculture that I was concerned about is that in growing vegetables, I’ve always fluffed up the soil into raised beds, I felt that the softer soil allowed for better root penetration.

FAO Definition of conservation agriculture:

“Conservation agriculture aims to conserve, improve and make more efficient use of natural resources through integrated management of available soil, water and biological resources combined with external inputs. It contributes to environmental conservation as well is to enhanced and sustained agricultural production.”

Much to my delight I have observed over the last few years that conservation agriculture for smallholder farmers has blended the best of both worlds. It still includes minimal tillage, mulching, and crop rotation—but it can also include softening and enriching of the soil that is specific to individual plants. For example, one technique leaves a farm field intact, but digs small planting basins 30 cm in diameter (or a rectangle 30 cm long depending on your source), 20 cm deep, and 60 cm – 75cm apart. Nutrients such as lime, compost and manure are added back into the hole, the seeds planted, and then covered by soft soil high enough to cover the seeds but low enough to leave a depression were the planting basin is. This depression collects rainwater and let’s it percolate into the soil for future use in arid regions; this might not be the best idea for areas of high rainfall. The planting basins are then mulched to protect the soil from exposure to sun (to keep soil temperatures down in hot regions), and to protect the soil from wind and rain (to reduce soil erosion and runoff— a loss of valuable rainwater).

Crops are regularly rotated to reduce depletion of valuable nutrients through hungry crops such as corn, and to prevent disease and insects taking over a permanent habitat.

So now we have the best of both worlds. Conservation agriculture maintains soil structure in the majority of the field, reduces oxidation of nutrients from intense sunshine and air mixing with the soil, and maintains and protects flora and fauna in their natural soil profile.

Here are the best resources that I have found. They can all be linked to from the resource page

General introduction to conservation agriculture:
FAO: Conservation Agriculture — matching production with sustainability

Conservation farming, productivity and climate change — Peter J. Aagaard

In depth handbooks on conservation agriculture:
CFU: Conservation Farming & Conservation Agriculture Handbook for Zambia Hoe Farmers

CFU: Conservation Farming Handbook for Ox Farmers Handbook

Farming for the Future – A Guide to Conservation Agriculture in Zimbabwe

Homestead Gardening: A Manual for Program Managers, Implementers, and Practitioners

Secondary conservation agriculture sources: some good information but not as good as the resources above:
Sustainet Technical Manual Conservation Agriculture

IIRR: Conservation agriculture. A manual for farmers and extension workers in Africa.

Farming God’s Way: Trainers Reference Guide

Permaculture resources. These tend to be focused on home gardens however there are many techniques applicable to smallholders farmers.
Healthy Harvest: A training manual for community workers in good nutrition, and the growing, preparing and processing of healthy food.

Low Input Food and Nutrition Security: There is a very good information in this book.

Garden Africa – Permaculture Trainers Manual: A very thorough training manual by a great NGO with offices in London and projects in Southern Africa.

Garden Africa – Growing Health: A very thorough training manual by a great NGO with offices in London and projects in Southern Africa.

What are the attractions of Conservation Agriculture?
FAO: Conservation Agriculture — matching production with sustainability

-Conservation Agriculture attracts different people for different reasons:

Reduction in labour, time, farm power
Reduction in cost
In case of mechanized farmers: longer lifetime and less repair of tractors, less power and fewer passes, hence much lower fuel consumption
More stable yields, particularly in dry years
Gradually increasing yields with decreasing inputs
Increased profit, in some cases from the beginning, in all cases after a few years.

More constant water flows in the rivers, re-emergence of dried wells
Cleaner water due to less erosion
Less flooding
Less impact of extreme climatic situations (hurricanes, drought etc.)
Less cost for road and waterway maintenance
Better food security

At global level:
Carbon sequestration (greenhouse effect): in some places no-till farmers start to receive carbon-grant payments; the global potential of Conservation Agriculture in carbon sequestration could equal the human made increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.
Less leaching of soil nutrients or chemicals into the ground water
Less pollution of the water
Practically no erosion (erosion is less than soil build up)
Recharge of the aquifers through better infiltration
Less fuel use in agriculture

An agroforestry component of conservation agriculture: Faidherbia albida
In “Conservation farming, productivity and climate change” — Peter J. Aagaard points out how valuable a component agroforestry can be and conservation agriculture.

De-forestation in Zambia is reckoned to be the 4th highest per capita in the world and small-scale agriculture is the principle cause. When soils are judged to be exhausted, families in Zambia’s Maize belts migrate locally or long distances to fell virgin or rejuvenated woodland. The fact that over 60% of smallholders do not use fertiliser on Maize aggravates this situation. The widespread planting of Faidherbia albida combined with CF can replenish soils, increase Maize yields, minimise dependency on fertiliser and enable small-scale agriculture to become associated with re-forestation.

Faidherbia is the only known tree to display reverse phrenology. In mono modal rainfall situations it defoliates after the onset of the rains and re-foliates toward the onset of the dry season. This leguminous tree can be found across the Sahel from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, and from Namibia and Southern Angola, through Natal, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Israel and Jordan. Faidherbia is found 270 metres below sea level near the Dead Sea and up to 2,300 metres in Jebel Mara in the Sudan. Rooting depths of 40 metres have been recorded. In natural circumstances the seeds are disbursed by game and livestock eating the pods.

Most of the research on this tree dating back 60 years has been undertaken in the Sahel. Through leaf and pod fall and Nitrogen fixation in association with micro-organisms, fertility accumulation per hectare under mature canopy is claimed to be in the region of: 75kg N; 27kg P205; 183kg Ca0; 29kg MgO; 19kg K20 and 20kg S. This would be equivalent to about 300kg of complete fertiliser and 250kg of lime. Irrespective of the veracity of these claims, mature Faidherbia has a dramatic effect on Maize yields as trials in Zambia and Malawi have shown. The photo of the CFU trial on the right, 1 of 40 sites, highlights the difference between the Maize under and outside the tree, all with zero fertiliser. At harvest Maize yields under the trees averaged 5.12 tons/ha and outside 2.65 tons/ha. Experience from Malawi shows that farmers growing unfertilised Maize under Faidherbia over many years consistently achieve up to 2.5 times the yield of unfertilised Maize grown in the open.

Low-External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA)
LEISA is about Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture. It is about the technical and social options open to farmers who seek to improve productivity and income in an ecologically sound way. LEISA is about the optimal use of local resources and natural processes and, if necessary, the safe and efficient use of external inputs. It is about the empowerment of male and female farmers and the communities who seek to build their future on the bases of their own knowledge, skills, values, culture and institutions. LEISA is also about participatory methodologies to strengthen the capacity of farmers and other actors, to improve agriculture and adapt it to changing needs and conditions. LEISA seeks to combine indigenous and scientific knowledge and to influence policy formulation to create a conducive environment for its further development. LEISA is a concept, an approach and a political message.

ILEIA – Centre for Learning on Sustainable Agriculture
ILEIA has a number of resources about Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture which include regionalized magazines on LEISA.

This is the best book available for this section on LEISA and soil and water. I have used this book extensively:
ILEIA: Learning AgriCultures. Module Two. Soil and Water Systems

ILEIA Learning AgriCultures. Seven Module educational series on small-scale farming sustainability

Farming Matters Magazine: ILEIA – Centre for Learning on sustainable agriculture

ILEIA magazines are also available in regional editions.

Online Learning student—Chris Enns (Tanzania/Canada) had a conservation agriculture component in his project. You can read a little bit of background information about this project here:

Enns, Chris OL 344 Assignment 2

However, this is the best of Chris’s documents because of the descriptions and photographs of conservation agriculture:
Enns Chris OL 344 Assignment 4 Conservation Agriculture Workshop

Good luck—I look forward to hearing about your results—please move on to Assignment Three.


Tim Magee