Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Small-Scale Farmer's Story in Malawi: Fertiliser, Planting and Dry Spells

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Me, with my wife and son by our groundnuts crops.

This is the second in a series of posts from Chikumbutso Patson Kayira, a small-scale farmer in Malawi, documenting his experiences and the challenges he faces as he farms and harvests his land.

As I wrote in my first blog, we normally plant in November with the first rains. This season has been a different story since I planted my crops in December. The first rains were very late. The crop is now approaching maturity, but I hope that the late start to the rains does not mean a short rainy season. We still need a few more weeks of rain.

Planting predicaments

There were a few further issues surrounding planting:

a) Seed: In my experience, hybrid maize seeds give better yield in comparison to local varieties, due to better germination rate and growth. But this year I have planted local seeds. This is due to limited finances.

b) Labour: With the little labour force available, I have managed to cultivate just three-quarters of my field. Before planting, the land needs clearing and ridging. As I wrote before, my wages are insufficient to hire extra labour.

c) Fertiliser: In the farming business, fertiliser is one of the biggest issues a farmer has to deal with. Even more so, it becomes tough when growing tobacco and maize as I have done this year. My monthly wages failing to meet fertiliser demand, I have borrowed money from a friend so that I was able to buy two 50kg bags. Also, my wife led the making of compost manure.

Considering these challenges, I was somewhat relieved to start planting. To some of the maize and tobacco, we have applied both fertiliser and manure. To other areas, we have applied just fertiliser. Therefore I am able to compare the performance of the different treatments. The maize and tobacco that received both fertiliser and compost manure look much healthier. We suffered a long dry spell of two weeks, from February 1 to February 15. The crops that received only fertiliser suffered much more. It appears that the compost manure helped the maize and tobacco plants to withstand the dry spell.

The dry spell has no doubt damaged the yield prospects. However, I hope the pigeon pea will still perform well. The dry spell is now the main worry of this season, and there will not be a bumper harvest here, unlike other areas of the country where the rains have generally been good this year. The dry spell will also extend the time it takes to reach crop maturity. Late harvests increase the chance of running out of food at home.

The dry spell hurts further as the tobacco leaves will be of low quality. Low quality leaves fetch low prices at the Auction Floors. I am worried that I will fail to meet expectations this year, and that to buy enough inputs for next year and to hire more labour will once again be out of my reach. I think it is a common picture for many of us small-scale farmers.

Following the devaluation of the kwacha, my monthly wage is worth hardly anything. Next year, one priority will be to increase the making of compost manure in order to reduce my dependence on expensive fertiliser. My other ambition is to further my education. Better education is the ticket to a better job, and a better job could mean fat monthly earnings. This could support my family, in particular my daughter’s school fees, and increase the investment in my fields.

Conservation Agriculture: a good investment?

Near my farm there is a Ministry of Agriculture Extension Office. There they have a plot of maize grown under Conservation Agriculture (CA). The maize received fertiliser and manure, like some of my crop, but it is performing much stronger than any other maize I have seen in the region (see below). With CA, the soil between maize plants and ridges is covered with organic material – maize stovers, cut grass, and even pulled-up weeds. In times of dry spell, CA can assist in holding moisture in the soil. This demonstration has made me very interested to try CA next season.

CA farm

However, I have a number of concerns about adopting CA. First, I need training so that I implement it according to the correct procedures. Second, I am worried that it will require more labour, although I understand that with CA, ridging is not promoted. This leaves me wondering how I will control weeds. Third, grazing animals generally feed on the maize stalks during the dry season. There is need for me to find ways of safe-guarding the maize stalks and other crop residues ready for CA in the 2013-14 season.

With the lower than average rainfall this year, the river adjacent to my fields has not overflowed as it used to. Therefore, fortunately, the soil erosion has not been much. Next year I will be prepared to plant vetiver grass and some trees along the river bank to help avoid erosion problems.

Tobacco is fetching a good price at the Auction Floors in the southern and central regions where harvest is earlier. If prices remain solid, and the rains can continue for a further few weeks to ensure the maize reaches maturity, then this season should be average. The devaluation of the kwacha has made it much tougher since the price of fertiliser doubled but my salary has not increased. Also, the dry spell has damaged yield prospects and crop quality. I will write again around June to inform you how the harvest goes.

Chikumbutso's first and third posts can be found here and here.

Chikumbutso was speaking to Edward Joy. If you have any questions you would like Chikumbutso to answer in subsequent entries, please comment below the article, let us know on twitter @thinkafricafeed, or contact editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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