MERU COUNTY, Kenya – About three years ago, when 49-year-old Margaret Gaceke started leaving crop residue in her fields following harvests, people in her village were horrified at what they saw as laziness.
“Traditionally, everyone cleaned the farms by burning crop and weed residues or any other types of vegetation [left over] after harvesting,” explains Gaceke, who lives in Central Imenti, in eastern Kenya’s Meru County.
But the mother of two says she started leaving the residue in place after taking a class on conservation agriculture provided by the local Kaguma Farmers self-help group. During each planting and harvesting season, the group of 25 farmers attends training sessions funded by the European Union through the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and run by Kenya’s agriculture ministry. Held at a demonstration farm, the lessons teach farmers everything from what seeds to sow to how to market their produce.
“The teacher said we should stop burning the residue and instead leave it on the farm,” says Gaceke. “This was to improve the soil quality, help the soil retain water and increase yields over time.”
Conservation agriculture is an approach used to manage agro-ecosystems by rotating crops, minimizing soil disturbance and retaining a permanent soil cover. According to the FAO, the method is credited with improving crop productivity and increasing profits and food security, while preserving the environment.
Gaceke was an early adopter of conservation agriculture in her area. She first practiced the method on a quarter-acre (0.1 hectares) of land, but after seeing how well it worked, she now uses it on her entire four-acre (1.6 hectare) farm.
“At first, it was about taking a risk and trusting the teacher,” she says. “At the end of the season, I noticed the soil was darker and moist on the quarter-acre compared to the rest of the farm. This led me to increase [the use of] conservation agriculture.”
Today, Gaceke’s land is permanently covered in mulch, and she can harvest about 80 bags of maize each season – 30 bags more than she previously harvested. “Over time, the maize [residue] and any other crop residue I have left on the farm decays,” she says. “This softens the soil and helps the soil absorb water better when it rains, reducing run-offs. The water does not evaporate as compared to areas left bare.”
Gaceke also practices intercropping – planting one type of crop among a different crop – another method she learned from the trainer. Growing cover crops such as beans and black beans among her regular crops – including maize, sorghum, black beans and tomatoes – creates a canopy, shading the ground and helping conserve soil moisture.
At first, Gaceke worried that not cleaning her farm of crop residue would attract pests, but the trainer advised her to rotate cereals with legumes to avoid this scenario. “I learned that there are pests that affect the cereal family and do not affect the legumes, so rotation helps avoid pests,” says Gaceke.
Local farmers started asking Gaceke to teach them all about conservation agriculture after they saw her harvest more than 15 bags of maize from just one acre of land last year, when the area was suffering through drought, and most of them had harvested much less, or nothing at all. Since learning the method, she has trained 12 neighbors, eight of whom have adopted conservation agriculture on their farms.
“Now people call me the ‘agricultural officer’ and come to me for advice,” Gaceke says. “Many people have copied my way of farming, which is transforming this village.”
According to Mercy Mulevu, the FAO field officer for Meru County, more than 10,000 farmers in eight Kenyan counties have adopted conservation agriculture practices. Around 80 percent of the farmers in the program are women, far exceeding the initial target of 40 percent.
During this planting season’s training sessions, the teacher introduced the farmer to specialized equipment, including a jab planter, to help with tilling and preparing planting lines. Now Gaceke is teaching her neighbors how to use these machines instead of hand hoes to dig planting holes, saving them time and reducing labor, since fertilizer and seeds go into the ground at the same time.
“I used to hire at least two people while planting. One would handle the fertilizer while the other seeds,” she says. “Today, one person with a jab planter is enough to do the job.”
Gaceke hopes her entire village will adopt the new method, which can help farmers survive through the reduced rainfall and recurrent drought that has ravaged not only her community, but the entire Horn of Africa.
“I teach everyone who comes my way,” she says. “The drought has devastated this village – we need to move away from our traditional farming ways to cope.”