Over three quarters of Kenya’s land is classified as arid or semi-arid (ASALs) with 20% of this having high to middle potential for agriculture. The sector relies heavily on rainfall which often than not is not consistent. Current food production levels cannot meet demand due to among other factors, conversion of prime agricultural land to other uses and the changing size and patterns of our population. There is a need to find ways of utilizing these lands that are considered unproductive due to insufficient rainfall. One possible way is through Conservation Agriculture (CA) which has the ability to increase food production in such areas considered unsuitable for farming such as Kitui, Makueni, Tharaka Nithi, Baringo, Isiolo and Marsabit. In addition, current agricultural practices such as the use of chemical fertilizers are not sustainable and in future we might need to reclaim the once productive lands that will be rendered useless. As the debate on food security gains momentum locally and globally we must consider that our goal should be to produce enough food and leave our land and environment in good condition to produce food for future generations.
So what is Conservation Agriculture? It is a good agricultural practice that has the intended purpose of increasing crop yields over a long period of time, maintaining soil fertility and water and environment conservation. It is anchored in three related principles which must be practiced together for optimum results and include minimum soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover and crop rotation and mixing.
Minimum soil disturbance which is also referred to as no tillage farming and involves planting directly without ploughing or digging the soil. This has been modified to include narrow planting lines or digging planting holes directly into uncultivated land. Currently, there are direct planters which dig holes while planting at the same time. This boosts the soil’s ability to conserve water and make it available for crops.
Permanent organic soil cover involves mulching, planting cover crops and leaving crop residues from previous harvests and uprooted weeds on the field. This has the effect of protecting the soil from erosion (both water and wind) and extreme heat while facilitating absorption of rain water however little. The residues from past crops and dead weeds accumulate in the soil, increasing organic matter thus improving the soil structure and fertility. This is contrary to common farming practices where farmers remove and burn crop residues or mix them with the soil while digging which has the effect of leaving the soil bare and exposed to moisture evaporation, water and wind erosion.
Mixing and rotation of crops reduces multiplication and survival of pests and diseases by breaking their cycles. For this to be successful, at least three crops are recommended.
There are several benefits of conservation agriculture which include low cost of production from the reduced activities in the farm hence higher margins and improved yields over long periods of time due to maintenance of soil fertility, structure and water conservation.
Implementation of conservation agriculture has a number of challenges including competing use of crop residues for livestock feeds, lack of long term land rights and changing the farmers’ mindsets.
Conservation agriculture is profitable with the right information and machinery such as direct planters for large scale farmers. It could go a long way in making our dry lands useful for agriculture, reclaim land that was once fertile and contribute to food security and nutrition in the country. Currently, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the European Union are working with several women groups in a number of counties to increase their yields and earn more by adopting conservation agriculture.