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"Soil power" comes in humble packaging

CIAT - Mon, 15 Jul 2013 15:44 GMT
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Clement Naazuin, a farmer in Lawra, Ghana, explained to researchers the methods he's adopted to combat a shortened rainy season and decreased soil fertility, May 2013. CIAT/Caity Peterson
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Sticks, manure, ridges, pits - we’re not talking rocket science, but the business of soil quality is a serious one in Lawra district in Ghana’s Upper West region.

Virtually every task Clement Naazuin considers to be important on his farm in Dazuuri village has to do with improving his soil.

In Ghana - a country with one of the most seriously nutrient-deficient soils in sub-Saharan Africa and even the world - soil degradation is perhaps the greatest limitation on improved agricultural productivity. The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is taking a look at what farmers in Ghana can, and are doing to confront such challenges in a climate-smart manner, and what obstacles might be standing in their way.

“I’ve been farming this area since my infancy,” Clement declares. “When I first started farming I didn’t have to put in so much effort to add nutrients to the land, and the yield was still very good. Now I have to put in extra soil nutrients, otherwise I get a low yield. To me, that is the main concern I have for agriculture on my land.”

Clement’s mischievous air, complete with handmade sling-shot wrapped around the ski hat adorning his head, doesn’t immediately suggest top-of-the-class. Nevertheless, he is by far Dazuuri’s most assiduous student of improved agricultural techniques.

TIME FOR CHANGE

The drastic changes Clement noticed in his environment in recent years - stronger wind storms, intense heat and sun, reduced and unpredictable rainfall - were, for him, an ultimatum. “I knew I needed to change the way I went about my farming,” he reflects. “I couldn’t continue using the old practices.”

So he sought information from wherever he could get it. An integral member of the local Farmer Field School (organised by the government extension services and supported by several NGOs) from its outset, he has also become a teacher for other farmers and actively participates in educating his neighbours about the need to adopt new farming practices.

Devil-may-care appearance aside, Clement is a highly respected, and, in this area, truly innovative farmer. Only in this case innovation doesn’t necessarily equate with fancy new technology - for Clement it means making better use of what is already around.

For example, he has changed the way he prepares his land for planting following advice from government extension agents. “I plant on ridges now, instead of on a flat surface or on mounds as is the tradition around here. When you look around my farm you will see ridges of maize and millet everywhere. When you farm on the flat surface and it rains, you have water running through the fields carrying the topsoil away. That’s all of your nutrients gone!” he explains.

The traditional method of planting cereals on dirt mounds has become less and less effective of late, allowing rainwater to run off the fields and effectively stripping nutrients from the soil. The ridges, on the other hand, cause plant residues to accumulate in contours where they later break down, providing a nutrient boost to the soil, as well as slowing the flow of water.

And as for those sticks - they’re the pesky residues left over after a cereal harvest, which most farmers in the area used to just burn away. “I learned that, over the years, burning actually reduces the soil fertility. So I stopped burning and began to leave the residues on the field to decompose,” says Clement.

CLIMATE-SMART COMPOSTING

Although he may not describe it in this way, Clement has transitioned to more climate-smart practices. He has improved his adaptability by addressing soil degradation, while simultaneously reducing the emissions released by burning.

Of all the techniques he has learned over the years, preparing animal manure as compost is one of the most important. “You can’t just throw it on the fields like a lot of people do,” he explains. “You have to dig a hole and let it decompose along with any other residues—leaves, food scraps, crop remnants. That way it won’t create so much heat that it kills the young crops.” Composting also reduces the amount of nitrous oxide and methane emitted when manure is applied to the soil. Chalk that up as a win for the climate.

But managing manure in this way is a lot of work. “All of that material must be carried to the fields by someone, so I have to hire additional hands,” Clement says. The women of the family are mostly responsible for spreading the composted manure, and Clement has several wives and their children to help him, but he still worries: “If you don’t get enough people to do it, your production time is delayed.”

Farmers in Lawra district use the phrase “soil power” to describe the gains they get from climate-smart practices like proper residue and manure management.

Yet challenges remain. Even the humblest of techniques aren’t always available to all farmers.  Poorer families, including those without enough animals to supply the right amount of manure, might miss out on productivity benefits, according to Clement’s calculations.

One solution will be improving the flow of information to remote areas and disadvantaged people. In the meantime, farmers can look to pro-active community members like Clement for examples of intelligent ways to approach the combined issues of food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Caity Peterson is a visiting researcher based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, working in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). From July 15-20, CGIAR and its partners are participating in the Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW), in Accra, Ghana. For updates from the conference follow @Cgiarclimate and #AASW6 on twitter.

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