Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Growing more food, efficiently and sustainably

While visiting projects in Laos, Dr John Dixon relays to readers how farmers are trying out conservation agriculture. This post coincides with the publishing of the winter issue of ACIAR's magazine, Partners in research for development, which focuses on the dryland agriculture revolution.
Local farmer Malkeet Singh with his 'Happy Seeder' in northern India.
The Happy Seeder represents a breakthrough for farmers across India’s north-west rice-wheat cropping zone both in terms of conservation agriculture (CA ) benefits and other benefits directly to farmers.

Last month ACIAR teamed up with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify what is working with sustainable intensification of agriculture in Africa. The conclusions are relevant to researchers and policy makers around the globe–disciplinary and commodity programs are needed, but they must be backed up by systems R&D; and an approach called conservation agriculture is working for intensification on large and small farmers in all continents.

Conservation agriculture (CA) is a modern approach to farming developed largely by farmers, with some help from scientists, over the last 50 years in various countries including Brazil, India, Australia and Zambia. ACIAR has also contributed, supporting research partnerships in most regions, including countries such as China, Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tunisia and Iraq. In fact there is so much interest in CA that ACIAR decided to devote the just released issue of Partners magazine to CA.

What does CA mean to a farmer?  By eliminating ploughing, soil degradation is reduced – and lots of labour, energy and costs are saved, regardless of whether the fields are dug by hand or ploughed by animals or tractors. In fact labour shortages are a problem for farmers practically everywhere, even in populous countries like Cambodia and India, so labour-saving practices are welcomed.   But you might ask: how can the crop be planted? In fact, special planters have been developed to plant the seed and add fertilizer directly into unploughed soil. These can be pulled by animals or tractors. There is even a hand operated planter called a ‘jab planter’.         

 "Nearly everyone agrees with two fundamental things: the world needs more food, and it has to be produced using farming practices which do not deplete natural resources."
Dr John Dixon.

Another feature of CA is retaining some crop residues on the soil surface. This protects the soil from water or wind erosion, slows evaporation of moisture from the soil during the dry season, and reduces weeds. Because grain crops produce about the same amount of grain and straw, special planting equipment is needed to sow seed directly through tons of straw lying on the soil surface. This can be done by the Happy Seeder which was developed through an ACIAR partnership in India, and has now been exported to other countries including China. In the Iraqi ACIAR/AusAID project farmers adapted their own seeders, some of which were originally Australian.
The iraqi-made seeder undergoes testing.
Yesterday farmers in Laos told me that they wanted to convert most of the village rice lands to CA, often called DSR or direct seeded rice. We could see why – the DSR fields had really excellent rice crops, established with a fraction of the labour that conventional rice cultivation requires. DSR sports the advantages of CA and in addition avoids puddling and transplanting, very labour intensive tasks. The farmers, many of whom already own 2-wheel tractors, were just held back by the lack of DSR drills. Several projects have tested drills for 2-wheel tractors in Laos including the ACIAR crop diversification project and the South Laos farming and marketing systems project.  We wondered how quickly contracting and rental markets for DSR drills might spread in South Laos, and whether R&D support for commercialisation along the lines of ACIAR projects in Bangladesh and East Africa might accelerate adoption.

The life of a poor Bangladeshi family has been transformed through the purchase of a planter to contract to farmers for conservation agriculture. The family, who once lived in poverty, now run a successful business, and are financially secure.  It's a heartwarming tale of success. 

Besides maintaining continuous soil cover and minimizing soil disturbance, CA farmers plan crop rotations to minimise the build-up of pests or diseases and to optimise plant nutrient use across different crops. This is especially the case where the crop residues are left in the field. Of course, most of these farming systems don’t have enough biomass to leave it all in the field – it is also needed for livestock fodder, compost, construction, fuel, etc.  To aggravate the imbalances, the demands on crop residues have increased dramatically as villages grow and forests are converted to cultivation, as we could observe across South Laos – but also in Africa.

Project partners demonstrating the use of two-wheeled
tractorsat the FACASI project launch.
(image courtesy of CIMMYT)
Technical expertise on CA from Australia is well received.  After all, CA has been adopted so fast in Australia that the country now has a greater proportion of cereals under CA than any other country in the world. Even if farms are large in Australia, the agronomic and cropping systems principles still apply to small holders in Africa or elsewhere – so ACIAR also fosters partnerships which build on the CA cropping systems expertise of Australia and the small scale mechanization expertise of South Asia – such as in the new FACASI project for small scale mechanization for CA in east Africa under which 20 African engineers and businesspeople were recently trained in small scale mechanization in India. 
While reading Partners, imagine the potential linkages to share CA experience from country to country and continent to continent. Think also about the how farmers, extension, NGOs, business and researchers work together to establish CA; and of how to balance all the uses for biomass while leaving enough in the field to protect soils.

Author: Dr John Dixon, ACIAR Research Program Manager for Cropping Systems and Economics, Principal Regional Coordinator for South Asia and Africa.  

Further information: 


  1. Growing the food and maintaining the farming industry is a great job by the farmers.

  2. While reading this article, I was thinking about how useful are farm equipments in India, where majority of farming is done by farmers who do not own huge farms rather they just have enough for their living.

  3. Incredible Bali is a residential development by Incredible Lands and Farms. It has a thoughtful design and is well equipped with all the modern day amenities as well as basic facilities. The project offers various odd dimensional plots and villas.

    Farm Land for Sale

    Lands in Hyderabad

    Farm Land in Hyderabad

  4. The innovation of the farm equipments made the life of farmers easier by increasing the yields and supply the food efficiently to all the people around.


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