Farmers coping strategies

Farmers in Africa have been subjected to persistent unfavorable climatic conditions. tte level of assets and wealth determine how much adjustments one can make to sustain agricultural production. In Zambia, a recent World Bank Survey reported an increase in poverty levels in the rural areas from 70% in 1994 to 90% in 1995 (Balat and Porto 2005). ttese statistics reinforce the fact that farmers have to find coping strategies to survive. At the institutional level, ineffective extension and research services and inappropriate agricultural policies, which have relied excessively on maize production, have been cited as contributory factors (Siacinji-Musiwa 1999).

Literature is replete with information regarding the declining performance of the agricultural sector in Africa and the reasons advanced are due to changes in climatic and economic circumstances (FAO GIEWS 2005a). tte severe droughts experienced recently, particularly in the southern Africa region were characterized by both a decline in overall precipitation and increasingly erratic distribution patterns (FAO GIEWS 2005b). When drought occurs, future draft power is affected due to poor health of the livestock in most cases leading to death, tte decimation of draft oxen, the reduction in active farm labour, and disruptions in input supply and marketing arrangements all have a negative impact on productivity, income and most importantly, food security (Siacinji-Musiwa 1999). On the positive side there is evidence that farmers themselves are attempting to adopt strategies to cope with these problems. Among the strategies that are being adopted include; crop diversification, the use of drought tolerant varieties, the adoption of reduced tillage methods and an increase in off farm income-generating activities.

Conservation farming is one method that is being used widely in southern Africa to sustain agricultural production and mitigate the impacts of intra-season rainfall variability, tte benefits of conservation farming are well proven and offer smallholders the opportunity to increase their productivity, safeguard their land and reduce the risks of total crop failure in drought years (Siacinji-Musiwa 1999). Sustainable agriculture takes into account a series of farming operations that take care of the "whole" farming system in such a manner that farming can be sustained over a long period of time. One such method that the farmers use is minimum tillage (MT) which refers to reducing tillage operations to the minimum required for crop development. When using hand tools or animal draft, farmers plough out the row where the crops are to be established, leaving the rest of the land untouched before planting. MT is not a new concept and has always been a traditional way of planting. Farmers who wait for the rain while they have planted in holes are basically exercising MT. tte main benefits of MT are that farmers are able to plant a larger area and can plant early.

Conservation Tillage (CT) includes all operations which:

a) Protect the soil from the damaging effects of rain splash;

b) Reduce runoff and keep more of the rain on the fields (rain harvesting);

c) Make the best use of costly fertiliser and seed and d) Allow farmers to finish land preparation well before the rains.

tterefore, Conservation Farming (CF) incorporates MT and CT and is a term used to describe a range of husbandry and conservation practices which, when used in combination, bring about the benefits stated above. Conservation Farming also means crop diversification and rotations so that at least 30% of the land is occupied each year by a legume. Farmers who practice CT and also use rotations are doing conservation farming. Essentially, CF combines sound husbandry and management practices, which arrest soil exhaustion, reduce the impact of intra-season rainfall variability, increase productivity, and enable farmers to spread out labour demand and get their work done on time, tte technology can be applied to a wide range of farming groups from resource poor to commercial with good results.

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