For years, smallholder farmer Grevazio Chiwoko has been seeing the yield from his two-hectare crop field declining even when the amount of fertiliser he applied doubled.
That soils in his area might have significantly degraded seemed out of the question. He says there was no evidence for the purported waste.
It was only when experts from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) informed the farmer and several others in Bembeke Extension Planning Area (EPA) that something was wrong with the soil in their fields that Chiwoko leaped at new options.
“I have lived all my life farming and there was practically little that I thought anyone could tell me about the status of the soil in my garden,” the 56-year-old says.
Today, he admits that the past ten years or so had been difficult in his farming endeavour which is his household’s major socio-economic activity.
It was the coming in of Luanar experts in his location that moved Chiwoko and other farmers to engage in sincere soul-searching regarding their farming methods and the future of agriculture.
“They told us our soils needed some enhancements because they are heavily degraded. They also told us that acidity levels needed to be neutralised, and we are doing exactly that,” Chiwoko says.
The new technologies—championed by the Agro- Ecological Intensification (AEI) Hub Malawi hosted by Luanar, with support from McKnight Foundation—are proving efficient in the farmers’ ventures.
Chiwoko says agriculture waste, often disposed of into rubbish pits or burnt off, is turning to be remarkable in retaining soil worth and keeping moisture.
Called biochar in agriculture technologies parlance, a kind of charcoal produced by thermal decomposition of waste is being adopted by farmers in his location who now contend no waste should be needlessly wasted.
“Crop residue such as what remains after we extract soya beans from the plant is used to produce biochar which we apply in the ridges before planting.
Already, there are noteworthy differences in yields from the time we didn’t know about biochar and now,” Chiwoko explains, standing in his groundnut field.
The project which the farmer, from Kuthindi Village in Dedza District’s Bembeke EPA and several others are benefiting from, is also examining the pros of growing groundnuts in double rows and the reduced application of lime in fields.
A research assistant at AEI-Hub, Esnart Kanyenda, states that high acid levels in soils gravely affect plant growth.
She hopes that the lessons that farmers involved in the trials have learnt will be crucial in others making decisions about new technologies developed to counter high levels of acids in the soils.
Kanyenda says: “Farmers need to reap high yields from their fields. The recommended amount of lime is two tonnes per hectare but we are trying to reduce it to one tonne and even less, with other interventions like applying the lime only in spots where the crops will be planted.”
Regarding biochar, which may be a means to mitigate global warming and climate change, Kanyenda says it is already being used in other countries where results show considerable soil quality improvements.
The two years that she has been working with farmers in Lilongwe’s Mitundu EPA and Bembeke EPA in the project that is winding up this year, she has noted that the residue-based product also provides protection against some soil-borne diseases.
“At the end, the yields are higher. That is what every farmer wants. Farm residue which would otherwise be cast away is turning out to be vital in soil improvement,” Kanyenda says.
A professor in the Crop and Soil Sciences Department at Luanar, Venon Kabambe, who is also AEI-Hub coordinator, states that integrated soil fertility management technologies are essential in improving crop yield.
His attention is largely on smallholder farmers who struggle to access inputs due to lack of money.
“These farmers need to be exposed to cheaper means of improving soil fertility, of course, with a little bit of purchased fertiliser,” Kabambe says.
The crop and soil sciences expert further states locally found botanicals that can help in controlling pests and diseases in crops should have their potential explored further to reduce farmers’ overreliance on other chemicals.
He contends that profitability in farming is also a result of improved efforts in production and increase in yields, elements which farmers often miss.
“So, we are trying to help with practices that can enable them yield more from less. For instance, with the technologies in groundnuts production that we are disseminating to the farmers, they can yield up to threefold on the same fields which used to give them less,” Kabambe says.
Agriculture Extension Development Officer Chifundo Chikudzu, who is responsible for Chiwoko’s area, admires the dedication of the farmers who, she says, are always eager to learn new things.
She reckons that even at the start of the project, the engaged farmers showed particular interest in the technologies that Luanar brought for them and immediately adopted them in their fields.
“Crops that traditionally do well here were facing challenges. The new technologies that Luanar brought, whose production and use we were trained in so we can also transfer the skills to more farmers, are proving very important in increasing production,” Chikudzu, herself a farmer, says.
For Chiwoko and his fellow smallholder farmers, that they can apply less lime in their fields and still reap more and that they can plan groundnuts in two rows on one ridge, are worthwhile.
It is more gratifying to gather crop residue after extracting the nuts or beans and burn it into a neutraliser of acid in the fields than casting it into the rubbish pit.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje