Lesotho does green tillage

Conservation agriculture (CA) could solve Lesotho’s problems of limited arable land, production limited by communal farming and erosion. It has their government’s full support, but can it be established successfully? Peter Hittersay reports.
Issue date : 12 September 2008

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Some 50% of Lesotho’s population earn incomes from crop cultivation or animal husbandry. Of those, most are smallholders who in general only return to farming after having been employed in the formal labour market and so are often old, poor, live on a limited diet, and have the burden of an extended family. Increasing concerns over food security and climate change have prompted the Lesotho government, with assistance from international forums, to adopt crop-production methods that will address these circumstances. Lebone Molahlehi, the chief crop production officer with the Department of Crop Services in Lesotho, gave a brief overview of current production circumstances in the country. “Traditionally crops grown in Lesotho are maize, wheat, grain sorghum, peas, beans and some contract seed potatoes, which are grown in the highlands where the climate is cooler,” he explains.

 “This makes up about 70% of the total crop production. Summer crops have to be planted by the end of November at the latest as frosts as early as February are becoming more frequent due to climate change. “For this reason the late planting of maize in the 2007/08 season made the crop vulnerable. Winter crops of mostly wheat and peas are also becoming vulnerable because of unseasonable rain from May to mid-June. Many farmers are starting to plant pinto and sugar beans for seed production. While there’s no official legislation against genetically modified crops, they aren’t allowed. “Another production difficulty is cattle encroachment on crop land whether intentionally or by accident. As all land is communal, the erection of fences to protect crops and crop residue is prohibited.”

Introducing modern cropping methods
 According to Dr Makoala Marake, a soil scientist at the National University of Lesotho, in the early 1990s an agricultural project initiated by the Lesotho Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS) attempted to promote interest in the Conservation Agriculture (CA) principles of minimum-tillage, using a rip-line planting method. But it failed as smallholder farmers said the ripper required too much energy and exhausted their oxen.

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This, however, did not spell the end for conservation-friendly farming methods. In what Dr Marake refers to as “divine intervention” in early 2000, the Rev August Basson of the Lesotho Evangelical Church Mission in Tebellong, followed by Peter West of the Rehobothe Church Mission in Butha-Buthe, started promoting the low-input Conservation Farming (CF) basin method in their pastoral communities. Inspired by the work being done at the missions, agriculture and food security minister Daniel Phororo attended the Third World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in Nairobi in October 2005.

Government support
In mid-October 2005 Phororo issued a directive to the Department of Agricultural Research to initiate a CA Mechanised Demonstration Block Programme. CA demonstration blocks of 200ha – later reduced to 100ha – were planted in seven of the lowland districts, including Butha-Buthe. Share-cropping agreements were entered into between the MoAFS and participating smallholders, ensuring that 40% of the yield would accrue to the MoAFS, and 60% to the smallholders. The MoAFS would facilitate procurement and delivery of inputs, and conduct field operations and monitoring.

The smallholders were responsible for post-planting husbandry and leaving 70% of the crop residue on their fields as soil cover and using the balance to feed livestock. MoAFS resource centres planted the blocks, made up of parcels of pooled 10 acres (4ha) of land, using Brazilian Vence Tudo no-till planters, inorganic fertilisers and herbicides. However, an extremely dry season coupled with late plantings resulting from logistical problems, and a lack of timeous availability of inputs, resulted in failures in most of the districts. The 2006/07 season in the lowland was therefore not a success.

The current status
The project has forged ahead, however, and it’s interesting to note the status of the crops of both the government’s CA project and the religious leaders’ community-based CF basin plantings during the 2007/08 season. In the government project, the majority of maize fields required urgent weed eradication and the maize crops generally displayed signs of severe nitrogen deficiency and stunted growth. However there was evidence, provided by the yellow-greenish and sporadic green quilted appearance of the landscape, that some smallholder farmers had applied top-dressing fertilisers obtained from the MoAFS’s resource centres.

 In contrast, the maize and inter-row crops grown under the low-input CF basin system method, viewed at the Rehobothe Church initiative and the Lesotho Evangelical Church mission, were generally lush and vigorous with good maize cobs. This was attributed to the church leaders’ active training, guidance and assistance throughout soil preparation, planting, fertiliser application, weed management and production cycles. Rev Basson confirms that at the Maphutseng Station, one field yielded between 6t/ha and 7t/ha.

The official initiative
As part of the original directive by minister Daniel Phororo, the Department of Agricultural Research, with the assistance of the Faculty of Agriculture at the National University of Lesotho, was commissioned to conduct trials to support the district demonstrations. Dr Marake recalls, “I immediately started selecting adaptive research material on CA and, with the assistance of UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), conducted baseline studies to establish what the perceptions of the smallholders were and where the gaps were in terms of more technical research requirements.”

“The collaborative research team prioritised weed management and fertiliser management and calibration under three systems – the CF-basin method, CA mechanised direct no-till, and conventional tillage – as a first step towards a long-term research effort. “In addition, we conducted some varying seed-depth planting trials to determine the optimum depth in relation to good germination and the energy requirements to plant manually by animal-drawn and mechanised means. The manual CF basin trials in the south were conducted in collaboration with Rev Basson.”

The FAO again provided the MoAFS with funding to support applied-CA research for the 2007/08 season. The research capabilities of the University of Lesotho will be enhanced by a research agreement with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture over a five-year period. The agreement seeks to formalise scholarly and scientific interaction by promoting continuing exchange opportunities for participation in academic programmes.

The support of religious leaders
It is interesting to note that it was Rev Basson who made the initial contact with the University of Tennessee. He discovered that the state of Tennessee had similar fragile soils to those of Lesotho and the CA research role the university had played in this field. Dr Marake says that the Lesotho CA-research team was formed following a review of the failures and successes of the CA Mechanisation Demonstration Block Programme over the 2006/07 season.

Failures were attributed to the research department’s staff members’ failure to be hands-on in the field. This responsibility was then given to district offices whose extension officers were supported by the research department. Dr Marake also says the demonstration blocks were too large to effectively set up, manage and train farmers, even if reduced to 50ha. He recommend the blocks be reduced to between 5ha and 10ha per district. Molahlehi concludes: “I think that CA has tremendous potential to reduce erosion and rehabilitate the soils of our country. We need to halt, even reverse the effects of erosion and rebuild the structure of our arable soil – CA is the right way to go.” Contact Farayi Zimudzi at the FAO in Lesotho on 00266 223 15585 or e-mail [email protected] Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the FAO or the government of Lesotho. |fw