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July 16, 2008

No-tillage farming improves yields, reduces soil erosion in Lesotho

The poor, cracked soils and frequent long droughts that characterise the high plateau of Lesotho have long been the despair of farmers and advisors. But a new approach - not ploughing the soil - has yielded dramatic results.

"We have some soil that has not been ploughed for 15 years," enthuses Reverend August Basson, who has championed this no-till farming system, or conservation agriculture (CA) approach. "This is the best we have, and we have reached six tonnes of maize per hectare on one of these fields."

Coming from such depleted soils, and achieved during the worst drought in three decades, the yield is even more remarkable: proof that the no-till farming system has found a foothold in one of Africa's poorest countries, one whose agricultural future has been threatened by climate change and HIV/AIDS.

The spread of CA in Lesotho has been promoted by, among others, the World Food Programme (WFP), anxious to source grain for its national feeding programme from local farmers and avoid the high transport costs and grain prices in the region.

'Food for training' schemes have spread the methodology to 1,800 farmers living in the most food insecure areas, raising harvests and enabling the WFP to buy over 7,000 tonnes of surplus maize from Basotho farmers in 2007. One group of 20 farmers from Mohale's Hoek, for example, sold eight tonnes of surplus maize to the Programme, earning US$2,800. This year, they are expecting to sell over 30 tonnes.

"The most difficult challenge is to change mindset; people are scared of change. It is difficult to accept that you do not need to plough your soil," says Basson, a missionary who has championed conservation agriculture in Lesotho, and whose Growing Nations organisation is a key partner in the training programme. Farmers are taught to make planting holes for seed and fertiliser, rather than the usual ploughing and ridging.

Minimising disturbance of the topsoil helps to protect it from Lesotho's heavy rains and preserves organic matter. Both hybrid and open pollinated varieties are planted, depending on what a farmer can afford, and weeding is done by hand or occasionally by herbicide. Where possible, planting holes are covered with compost or manure, but insufficient supply means that most farmers must also use chemical fertilisers.

Buying maize from the group at Mohale's Hoek was an historic moment for the WFP in Lesotho, its first direct purchase of grain from small-scale farmers in the country. With a saving of US$45 per tonne compared to grain bought in South Africa, the Programme is keen to expand local purchasing. The government is supporting that effort, with a US$4 million budget to subsidise larger producers using CA techniques.

August Basson's efforts are also continuing, persuading the Ministry of Education to add conservation agriculture to the school curriculum and establishing a new training centre for Growing Nations in Maphusteng. "We are at a point where the method is getting a life of its own," he says. "People are developing it as they see fit. Some people fall out, others join."

While the efforts of August Basson and the WFP have focused on maize production, NGOs such as CARE and Send a Cow have been popularising intensive, no-dig horticulture plots as a way of increasing vegetable production. Known as 'keyhole gardens', these are circular raised vegetable beds built from layers of soil, grass, ash and compost, contained within a rock wall some four feet (1.25m) high. Watering is done through a basket, placed at the centre of the garden, typically using the family's daily wastewater; plants grown include leafy vegetables, root vegetables, legumes and onions. With the plants growing at waist height and needing only a single watering each day, keyhole gardens are particularly suitable for the elderly and chronically ill, as well as wheelchair users.

Many have now built their own keyhole gardens; in Lenkoane, one community has built a garden and small dam for every household. With each garden only two metres in diameter, even the smallest plot can be highly productive, potentially transforming diets and making the most of scarce water resources.

With declining soil fertility and low crop yields a demoralising trend in Africa's smallholder farms, August Basson believes that his CA training model could offer lessons to other countries.

Growing Nations, in partnership with the National University of Lesotho, is developing a hands-on science curriculum for secondary and tertiary levels, which includes CA and agroforestry. Intensive training for 30 'lead farmers' in Maphusteng, followed by farmer-to-farmer exchanges, monthly refresher courses and regular monitoring, are all planned. These will feed into the writing of a manual for use in other parts of the country. Education programmes are also being developed to target extension officers and policy makers.

Both CA and keyhole gardens are rooted in a 'no dig' philosophy which many still regard with scepticism. Success in one of Africa's most eroded farming landscapes, however, could unlock the door to widespread adoption.

New Agriculturalist

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