Ms Pauline Mogambi at her farm. The former accountant has no regrets after adopting conservation farming. Photo: Jackson Okata

Conservation farming has increased grower’s maize from 10 to 36 bags per acre

This farming technique helps farmers to maintain and boost yields and increase profits, while reversing land degradation, protecting the environment and responding to growing challenges of climate change

By JACKSON OKATA , jackson@smartfarmerkenya.com

When 51-year-old Pauline Moghambi resigned from her accountancy job, she did not know that her next venture would thrust her into high places. “The salary I was earning in formal employment was adding more misery than joy to my life. I got tired and decided to resign,” she says.

In 2005, she ventured into a kind of farming that was not so common in Kenya. “I chose conservation agriculture, a route that many were not following, and I have never regretted my decision,” she says during an interview with the Smart Farmer Africa team on her farm.

Behind the green gate in her compound in Kerma village of Nakuru county, is a farm that has become a training ground for farmers and agriculture students interested in conservation agriculture.

The neatly manicured farm with small trenches to tap, direct and conserve rain water, has maize as the main crop with sweet potatoes, African vegetables, beans, and fodder serving as the cover crops. Also on the farm, bananas and avocados and different varieties of cassava are planted at the edges. The small farm also has a hay storage facility.

Before she fully adopted conservation farming, Ms Moghambi’s one-acre piece of land would give her less than 10 bags of maize. But in her first year of practicing the new style of farming she harvested 13 bags, which have now shot to the current 36 bags that she harvests from the same piece of land.

“After I quit my job, I ventured into farming, but the yields were disappointing. It was losses every season until I discovered the secret,” she says.

“What I used to harvest was not even enough for family consumption. I also spent a lot of money buying food but currently, I harvest not only enough for the family but also for the market,” adds the mother of two.

In the last 17 years, she has seen what she terms as “real transformation” of her family and life, thanks to conservation agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) , conservation agriculture is a farming system that entails very minimal disturbance of the soil structure through very limited or zero tillage of land.

The organisation adds that conservation agriculture helps in “enhancing biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground,” hence, ensuring the efficient use of water and nutrients that in the end leads to “improved and sustained” crop production.

According to CIMMYT conservation agriculture is based on the principles of minimal mechanical soil disturbance, permanent soil cover with living or dead plant material, and crop diversification through rotation or intercropping.

“It helps farmers to maintain and boost yields and increase profits, while reversing land degradation, protecting the environment and responding to growing challenges of climate change,” says CIMMYT in its website.

The technique has enabled Ms Mogambi to practice intercropping, which has allowed her to plant other income generating crops like beans, vegetables, grass and bananas that have helped boost her income.

With savings from the sale of maize, beans, grass and vegetables from the farm, she has invested in dairy cows and currently has five.

“Because conservation agriculture does not consume much of my time, I have been able to diversify my farming. The county trained me in dairy farming and with time I have been able to achieve this,” she says.

The cows give her 100 litres of milk daily, which she sells to vendors at a cost of Sh40 per litre. She has also diversified into poultry farming. Ms Moghambi spends very little money on animal feeds since the farm gives her enough hay and other protein filled feeds for her cows. “My farm has enough calliandra, lucerne, mulberries, garden peas, desmodium, brachiaria, mucuna and grass, which has enabled me to prepare enough silage and hay to last for even a year,” she says.

After I quit my job, I ventured into farming, but the yields were disappointing. It was losses every season until I discovered the secret. What I used to harvest was not even enough for family consumption. I also spent a lot of money buying food but currently, I harvest not only enough for the family but also for the market

With the huge amount of dung from the dairy unit, she has also been able to build her own biogas plant that supplies the farm with cooking gas and lighting power. This has enabled the family to completely cut the reliance on wood for fuel, which saves them Ksh18,000 ($180) annually.

Proceeds from her farm have also enabled her to educate her two children through to university. She has been able to build a permanent family house and is currently building a guest house for many of her visitors.

Enhanced nutrition for the family is one thing she has been able to register, since apart from milk and eggs, the farm gives her constant supply of different kinds of vegetables.
“My expenditure on food has greatly reduced since I can get almost everything from the farm,” she adds.

Accolades

Ms Moghambi had developed an interest in conservation agriculture after attending a farmers’ field day in the county in 2004. She was latter selected for training under the Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development(CASARD) project that was being implemented in Kenya and Tanzania under funding from FAO.

“Since then, I have never looked back. There are many we started with, but they gave up along the way,” she says.

For years now, Ms Moghambi’s farm has been a beehive of activities with individuals and groups from within and beyond trooping in to pick a lesson or two from her success story.

“From the experience I have gained over the years and the results I have registered, I have taught many who are also doing well,“ she says.

She has hosted the high and mighty from across the world including agriculture ministers from across Africa, governors, professors, researchers, and recently International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD) vice President.

Because conservation agriculture does not consume much of my time, I have been able to diversify my farming. My expenditure on food has greatly reduced since I can get almost everything from the farm. Since then, I have never looked back. From the experience I have gained over the years, I have taught many who are also doing well

World exposure

As a result of her excellence, the farmer has become a common speaker at conservation agriculture forums in Kenya and across the world. She was selected to represent Africa at the 8th World Congress on Conservation Agriculture that was held in Switzerland between the 21-25th June 2021. However, due to Covid-19 pandemic related restrictions, she was unable to travel but made her presentation virtually. In 2018 she won the Eastern Africa conservation agriculture award.

Management

According to Ms Moghambi, conservation agriculture is less expensive than conventional agriculture. For instance, for her one-acre piece of land she spends a quarter of what she used to spend on the same piece before she ventured into conservation agriculture.

“It doesn’t make me dirty, and I have so much time to do other things. The profits are also huge,” she says.
Unlike in tilled land, conservation agriculture consumes very limited inorganic fertilisers which reduces the cost of farming.

The intercropping, crop integration and crop rotation practiced in conservation agriculture helps in enhancing soil fertility. The use of shallow weeders and planting reapers also help in protecting the soil structure, since it involves less stepping on the soil. Conservation agriculture helps to conserve water in the soil and this enables early planting for farmers, which in turn leads to better control of plant diseases and pests.

Ms Moghambi says that conservation agriculture can help in enhancing the food situation of the country, if only government can make it a policy. The major challenge she says is climate change, which she says affects production and the shortage and high costs of machinery like ‘walking’ tractors.

And as she plans to retire from farming in the coming few years, she hopes that one of her children will take over from her.
“Agriculture is all about passion and if one of them can show interest, then I can as well hand over to them and take a break in the future,” she concludes

Benefits and constraints in conservation agriculture

• Zero-tillage farming with residue cover saves irrigation water, gradually increases soil organic matter and suppresses weeds and reduces costs of machinery, fuel and time associated with tilling.
• Leaving the soil undisturbed increases water infiltration, holds soil moisture and helps to prevent topsoil erosion.
• Conservation agriculture enhances water intake that allows for more stable yields in the midst of weather extremes exacerbated by climate change.

Constraints

• Wetlands or soils with poor drainage can make adoption challenging.
• When crop residues are limited, farmers tend to use them for fodder first, so there might not be enough residues for the soil cover.
• To initiate conservation agriculture, appropriate seeders are necessary, and these may not be available or affordable to all farmers.
• Conservation agriculture is also knowledge intensive and not all farmers may have access to the knowledge and training required on how to practice conservation agriculture.
• Finally, conservation agriculture increases yields over time but farmers may not see yield benefits immediately.

What is conservation agriculture?

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Source:Smart Farmer Magazine