Conservation agriculture

Big tractors. Massive tillers. Heavy-duty harvesters.

Modern agricultural methods often rely on industrial machinery as well as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which strain the land and creates environmental hazards that can affect everything from wildlife and groundwater to the food that reaches the table.

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In many areas where Concern works, marginalized and poor farmers struggle to produce food on land prone to climatic extremes like flooding, drought, and natural disasters. They don’t have the resources to buy farm machinery, but they often resort to agricultural practices that further deteriorate the land and actually worsen food security over time.

What if there were a more sustainable way to grow food without destructive farming methods?

It turns out there is.

GROWING FOOD WHILE CONSERVING LAND

Conservation agriculture is a growing part of Concern’s deep and longstanding commitment to climate-smart approaches to our work. As its name implies, it is a method of growing food in a way that conserves the land.

It has three simple rules:

  • No tilling. Practices that disturb the soil damage its structural integrity, making it susceptible to erosion and nutrient and water loss. During planting in conservation agriculture, seeds are simply inserted directly into the topsoil instead of dropped into plowed land and then covered over.
  • Cover the soil. Mulching and covering the soil with organic matter, such as the residue of previous harvests, helps it retain moisture, prevents erosion during rain, and provides fertilization for growing crops as the cover material decomposes.
  • Rotate crops and intercrop. Alternating the kinds of crops grown on a single plot of land, or growing a variety of crops on the same area of land (intercropping) prevents the soil from being depleted of nutrients. Intercropping also enables agro-biodiversity, creating micro-ecosystems that naturally control pests and plant diseases. Planting trees and other permanent vegetation among crops also helps prevent erosion.

Conservation agriculture can be practiced almost anywhere in the world with slight modifications. We have introduced these techniques in places as ecologically diverse as Zambia and North Korea.

Paulina Sampson uses Tephrosia plants as mulch on her land.

Paulina Sampson uses Tephrosia plants as mulch on her land. These plants are high in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for the soil. Twabagondozi village, Kibondo, Kigoma Region, Tanzania Photo: Jennifer Nolan.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT IS CRITICAL

We work with communities to develop buy-in for conservation agriculture by training respected community farmers interested in new techniques. Their success growing crops using this method attracts others, and they then teach conservation agriculture, furthering the cycle of training and adoption. And because of its “light touch” approach to the land, conservation agriculture requires less time and energy, allowing communities to produce food more efficiently.

To date, we have reached over 11,000 farmers in Zimbabwe, Malawi, North Korea, Tanzania, and Zambia through conservation agriculture. We have helped communities sustainably improve their harvests, enabling them to produce enough food to feed themselves as well as surplus to sell, all while nurturing the land that supports them.

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