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October 16, 2012

An example of blended agro-ecological and conventional farming: growing maize with 'fertilizer trees' and reduced inorganic fertilizer

Nitrogen-fixing 'fertilizer trees' have long been used by farmers in farming-difficult areas such as parts of the Sahel. Rainfall is poor, the soils are often sandy and infertile, and yet there are several varieties of acacia and other nitrogen-fixing trees which do well there.

That these trees benefit other crops growing under or between them has long been known. What is perhaps fairly new in recent years is the more scientific study of the phenomenon, and its deliberate encouragement in parts of Africa that have not previously widely used these trees as an additional soil fertility supplementation strategy.

Given all this, 'Can Integration of Legume Trees Increase Yield Stability in Rainfed Maize Cropping Systems in Southern Africa?' seems like a somewhat superflous question whose answer is already known.

Nevertheless, researchers at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) have been undertaking a 12 year study to find answers to the question. The 'hook' they used to justify the study and give the impression of finding something new was that they were studying the 'stability' of the yields of maize intercropped with Gliricidia sepium.

Amongst the findings:

* the control fields of conventional (inorganic fertilizer-using) maize monocultures had the highest

* close behind were the yields for maize intercropped with Gliricidia sepium and then supplemented with 50% of the inorganic fertilizer that would normally be used in 'conventional' maize monocultures.

This is an interesting practice long used by 'resource poor' farmers-using 'agro-ecological' farming techniques to stretch out and supplement the relatively small amounts of inorganic fertilizers they can afford to buy. This is real world small holder farming, not the pie-in-the-sky 'fully organic or death' mantras mouthed by activists in cushy donor-funded offices in town, worlds away from the realities of scratching out a living from the land..

The study's conclusion: "Maize yields remain more stable in maize–gliricidia intercropping than in fertilized maize monoculture in the long term, although average yields may be higher with full fertilization."

Hardly a ground-breaking study or findings, but still interesting.

African Agriculture

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