CHRISTOPHER CHIPEMBA, Kabwe
FOR 20 years now, conservation farming has been productive and business-oriented farmers’ solution to diminishing productivity and unpredictable weather. It is true that small-scale farmers have failed to break even or attain good crop yields due to poor climatic conditions and bad farming practices.
Late onset of good planting rains, erratic poorly distributed rains and shortened rainy seasons coupled with monocropping and bad tillage practices by farmers have exacerbated the food insecurity situation among the resource-poor people in the country.
In the years that have gone on record to have received very low rains, 2008, 2011 and 2015, farmers that had cultivated using conservation farming technology harvested at least 3.5 to 4 tonnes of maize per hectare.
Despite accepting that smart agriculture practices achieve better crop yields than the conventional way in these changing weather patterns, accessing the right equipment to carry out the required field operations on time still remains a challenge for small-scale farmers.
Joseph Moonga, a farmer in Chikonkomene area of Kabwe district, says his family would have starved if it had not been for the prolonged rains last season as he had planted his crop late in January because he had to wait for the oxen he had hired to finish ploughing the field of his father-in-law before he could cultivate his land.
“Out of respect, I had to let the oxen, which I had hired, to first finish ploughing the field of my father-in-law. This made me delay to plant my crop at the end of January. We were even lucky to get these bags which we are feeding on because we had an extra-ordinary long rainy season,” Mr Moonga says.
“But now, since we have someone in our area with a tractor, the problem will not be there. As I am saying now, I know that by the end of October, my field will be ripped and I will be able to plant early.”
Thanks to the Conservation Farming Unit (CFU), which has been promoting conservation agriculture among small-scale farmers in Zambia since 1996, for scaling up its training regime on mechanisation for small-scale farmers and tractor ripping services providers?
CFU head of mechanisation and commercialisation Sinya Mbale says his organisation is undertaking these trainings to enable farmers to appreciate ripping services and transfer business skills to tractor operators who undertake the business of ripping.
The business is highly attractive to tractor owners, who are able to fully utilise their equipment beyond their farmstead and introduce an extra cash stream.
The organisation hopes to get 730 tractor units providing ripping, shelling and haulage services in Zambia by the end of 2021.
Mr Mbale says his organisation has linked some farmers to financiers and equipment dealers to access farm machinery so that they can also hire out these tractor services to other farmers.
“At the moment, we have about 300 operators who, through our partnership with other stakeholders, have acquired tractor units on loan. We expect that each farmer with a tractor will be able to rip the fields for 300 farmers or more. And so if we do our simple arithmetic, we expect up to 220,000 small-scale farmers to be ripping their fields using tractors,” he says.
“This should have a significant increase in the productivity of small-scale farmers in Zambia as such farmers will be able to provide an extra one million tonnes of maize on the Zambian market as they will be able to plant their crop on time.”
This is surplus to the requirements of the nation and a vital foreign exchange earner for the government.
Alick Daka, a deputy director in the Ministry of Agriculture, has commended CFU for complementing Government programmes to promote smart agriculture practices in order to ensure food security in the country.
Mr Daka says with the rolling out of the e-voucher system countrywide to distribute farming inputs under the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP), farmers have to adopt conservation farming technologies in order to exploit the full potential of agriculture production.
He says under the home-grown economic recovery plan, agriculture diversification is key, and so the farmer trainings that the conservation farming unit has embarked on to prepare farmers for the 2017/18 planting season will ensure that the nation remains on the right track to achieve national objectives.
“The Conservation Farming Unit is doing very well by complementing Government efforts to promote smart agriculture in order to ensure food security in the nation,” Mr Daka says.
Martin Sikanyika, the agriculture machinery specialist at the Agriculture Knowledge and Training Centre based at the Golden Valley Agriculture Research Trust (GART), says in order to transform agriculture to being the mainstay of the Zambian economy, field staff should be well-vested with the knowledge and skills of mechanised farming.
Mr Sikanyika says it is acquiring these skills and knowledge in mechanised farming which will make field officers more relevant to the needs of the farmers.
He commends management of CFU for according their field staff chance to be trained on mechanised farming practices before they go out to interact with farmers.
And CFU regional manager for Central Province Frazier Tembo says his organisation is conducting conservation farming trainings countrywide with the assistance of the British government’s Department for International Development (DfID).
Mr Tembo says having been trained, the field officers will in turn train lead farmers who will also transfer the same knowledge and skills to small-scale farmers.
He says in the next two months, each lead farmer will have trained at least 100 farmers in land preparation, machine calibration and application of herbicides. Mr Tembo hopes to get over 40,000 farmers trained in his region, which includes Kabwe, Kapiri Mposhi, Mpongwe, Mkushi, Chibombo, Kafue, Lusaka, Rufunsa and Chongwe.
Through the various demonstrations that have been conducted, it has been proven that when a small-scale farmer has the correct farming inputs and applies them to a maize field which has been ripped, an average of 4.5 tonnes of maize can be harvested by small-scale farmers.
This is a very good harvest by all standards given that most small-scale farmers have been harvesting less than two tonnes per hectare.
The only challenge now is for the stakeholders on the ground to ensure that farmers that are trained in sustainable agriculture practices are the ones that receive fertilisers under the FISP. These are the issues Government intends to resolve by rolling out the e-voucher system countrywide.