Applicability of Response Farming

"Response farming springs from research on rainfall behavior and its predictability in a 'cropping systems design' project in Kenya [...]" (Stewart 1988). In and of itself, this introductory sentence summarizes the tight association between climate forecasting (rainfall predictability) and "opportunity cropping" tactics (ibid.) promoted by response farming (RF). The fact that RF originated in a region characterized by a vulnerable population associated with a high rainfall variability and a fair level of ENSO-based predictability (Kenya) is likely not a product of chance and has probably contributed to a worldwide success story of pilot applications of seasonal climate forecasting in agriculture with Kenya (and notably the Machakos District) a popular benchmark area throughout the years (Rao and Okwach 2005; Hansen and Indeje 2004). In any case, the potential usefulness of seasonal forecasting should be embedded in a down-to-earth assessment of current practices and possibilities. In the Sudano-Sahelian region, considering such options as shifting crop mixes and response farming tends to assume far-fetched levels of farmer flexibility in a socio-economic context still marked by risk-adverse, conservative practices, and might thus be unrealistic (Abou Berthé, personal communication). This is not to say that vulnerability deprives farmers of responsiveness, rather that they will deliberately take the risk to respond to those signals that are unequivocal, and likely ignore those which are uncertain. This dichotomy was demonstrated in year 2000, when an unequivocal decrease in purchase prices by the cotton parastatal prompted a nationwide farmer strike with widespread changes in crop mixes in southern Mali. While illustrating clear independence from political power by non-subsidized farmers (contrary to developed countries), this does not imply that the same cotton farmers would be willing to risk their food security by responding to a seasonal forecast which, constrastingly, is largely uncertain.

Traditional climate risk management practices by Sudano-Sahelian farmers include direct sowing, low planting densities, distribution of early and late maturing types throughout the landscape and spreading sowing dates (Ouattara et al. 1998). Potential innovations include contour ridge tillage cultivation, cover plants and mulching, zai'. Several of these have the potential to concurrently reduce climate risk and increase productivity (De Rouw 2004) in a 'conventional' response farming framework, provided reliable climate information is available. A large component of farmers management strategies however resides out of the response farming realm as it relates to specific adaptation traits engraved inside plant genetic resources.

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