Thursday, 22 December 2016

Improving livelihoods through innovative cropping systems

It takes great patience and courage to stick at a crop when others have tried and failed and
particularly when it takes much longer than other crops to produce a return. Mrs Upasi Devi from Bhubhui village in Gola of Ramgarh district in Jharkhand had that patience and is now reaping big rewards for her whole village and the neighbouring district.

It all started when five nominees came forward as research farmers under the project
“Improving livelihoods through innovative cropping systems on East India Plateau” (ACIAREIP) in 2013. The farmers had been selected by their villages to help introduce new cropping ideas, and the project introduced them to pointed gourd – a long term crop grown on trellises. Despite being experienced vegetable farmers they’d never cultivated this strange crop or tasted it.

Practical training on pointed gourd production was provided by AVRDC and PRADAN, the
project’s NGO partner. The economics of pointed gourd cultivation was new for them but they were excited to see what would happen when they took up the challenge of planting the cuttings they’d been given.

Days passed, neighbors crops were flourishing, but the pointed gourd wasn’t growing due to
low temperatures. Early hopes of getting more income than other farmers were quickly fading. Four out of the five farmers gave up saying that the land and climate were just not suited to the crop.

Seeing the other four farmers’ disappointment, Mrs. Upasi Devi was also demotivated, and
also thought of pulling out the pointed gourd in her 260 m2 field. But her younger daughter Ms. Savita Devi encouraged her mother to keep it going for just a few more days. Patience is often truly rewarded many times over.

After a couple of weeks, the weather warmed up and the pointed gourd began to sprout. Mrs.Upasi, once about to remove the crop, now was starting to smile.

But she still had to be patient before fruits would come. During the village research farmers
meeting, they decided to cultivate another other crops in the field as an intercrop to better
utilize the land, and to get some additional income.

So she planted red amaranthus between the trellised rows of pointed gourd. Her family,
friends and relatives consumed most of it and the surplus was sold in the market. It added
nutrition to their diet but it didn’t make much money.

When the vines of pointed gourd grew bigger and it was difficult to grow another crop under
the trellis, the group of research farmers came up with a new idea - shade loving ginger. So
she planted it and harvested about 90 kg, earning an additional income of 3575 INR. She kept 20 kg for seed and the 5 kg she kept for home use also reduced her food bills.

At long last her patience was rewarded when she was able to sell 517 kg of pointed gourd,
earning an income of 13000 INR from her small field. This income not only made a big
difference to her household expenditures but also helped her at a crucial time when her eldest daughter needed medical treatment.

She’s now become a role model for other farmers and the youth of the village. In 2014, seven more farmers began cultivating pointed gourd in her village. Now farmers come from far and wide to visit her field just to see the pointed gourd crop that she made possible with patience and hard work. The cultivation of pointed gourd has now spread to ten nearby villages.

When visitors asked her about the struggle, she says,”Success is only possible when we
encounter challenges and difficulties.” As the demand for pointed gourd cuttings grows in
Bhubhui and the neighboring villages the youth of Bhubhui are enthusiastically building up a
village nursery. So far they have sold almost 1000 seedlings to neighbouring villages at 10
INR each. Mrs. Upasi Devi has not only created a model for her other farmers, she is providing new hope to the next generation.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Calculated risk on new vegetable farming benefits community

By Ms Jind Doraiburu, Jharkhand

Women farmers from the villages adjoining Talaburu in the West Singhbhum district of
Jharkhand State in India frequent the home of Ms Jind Doraiburu seeking her counsel. The
confident 32-year-old who tasted success in a very short time span has been encouraging
more women farmers into vegetable farming.

The trellis of success, Jind Doraiburu
Paddy rice is the main crop in the region of West Singhbhum district, the home of the tribal Ho community. Socially isolated, many of them were unaware of the option of diversifying their cropping with vegetables.

AVRDC with support from the NGO Pradan is working in 72 villages in Jharkhand to promote new vegetable cropping options, safe vegetable production and home gardens under the project “Improving livelihoods with innovative cropping systems on the East India Plateau” funded by ACIAR.

In 2013 Ms Doraiburu was one of the 25 women farmer researchers selected by their
communities to conduct research trials as a part of the project. The AVRDC team introduced
her to trellis cultivation of cucurbits
during the rainy season. In the first year she was one of
only five farmers who took up the challenge of growing bottle gourd in this way.

The experiment failed.

The fruiting crop was destroyed due to flooding through her small plot, but she realized the
potential of the idea if the right field was used.

Undaunted, in 2014 she started again, this time deciding to grow trellised cucumbers in a 180m2 field where she had grown maize the previous year.

She said, “I had a dual challenge over me with these research trials. One was proving that
women can take a risk in trying new things in farming and the second was to prove that the
diversification of crops with cucumbers on a trellis will bring in more income”.

And it worked.

She was able to harvest about 365 kg of cucumbers for an average price of 20 rupees per
kilogram. Her total income for the season was 7300 rupees, five times more than the
investment of 1250 rupees and seven times more than what she usually gets by growing maize or rice in the same plot. The income also came in from August to October when there is normally no other money available. It helped her pay back the loan she got from her self-help group for medical treatment and the rest was invested in pesticides for her tomato cultivation.

Ms Doraiburu is now widely known for her promotion of trellis production methods and she is keen to continue her crop experiments, and to encourage other tribal women to emulate her success.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Responsible nitrogen management for sustainable futures

7th International Nitrogen Initiative Conference 2016

By Kirsten Davey 

While carbon pollution gets all the headlines for its role in climate change, nitrogen pollution is arguably a more challenging problem. Somehow we need to grow more food to feed an expanding population while minimising the problems associated with nitrogen fertiliser use.

This week nitrogen experts from around the world gathered in Melbourne to share their expertise of and address the challenges associated with its sustainable use in agriculture. The 7th International Nitrogen Initiative Conference attracted attendees from 44 countries across Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Including strong representation from ACIAR projects undertaking research into nitrogen use I the developing world.

Dr Cameron Gourley from Agriculture Victoria and Secretary of the International Nitrogen Initiative Conference explained to me that ‘nitrogen is essential for global and local food production and economic development. This kind of international collaboration is critical for us to find the right balance between food security well as taking responsibility for our environmental footprint.’

In Europe alone, the environmental and human health costs of nitrogen pollution is estimated to be €70-320 billion per year.

Region-specific research is necessary to improve soil health by recalling that nitrogen uptake by plants can be enhanced when it is balanced by other essential nutrients, sufficient soil organic matter.

Nitrogen is the nutrient most often deficient for crop production in developing countries and its efficient use can result in substantial economic return for farmers, resulting in increased food security. However, when nitrogen inputs to the soil system exceed crop needs, there is a possibility that excessive amounts of nitrate (NO3--N) may enter either ground or surface water. This can have long term damaging impacts on the environment, specifically waterways.

Managing nitrogen inputs to achieve a balance between profitable crop production and environmentally tolerable and sustainable levels of nitrate (NO3N) in water supplies should be every farmer’s goal. The behavior of nitrogen (N) in the soil system is complex, yet an understanding of how human and environmental interventions result in varying levels of nitrogen in the environment is essential for guiding and supporting small holder farmers and the agricultural sectors in developing countries in which we work. 

One of ACIAR’s research projects in Myanmar which was well represented at the conference was SMCN/2014/044: Management of nutrients for improved profitability and sustainability of crop production in Central Myanmar, with researchers from Myanmar and Australian presenting and attending.

Myanmar, like other countries in Asia, has made great efforts to intensify the production of rice (Oryza sativa L.) to feed a rapidly growing population. It is widely recognised that the underperformance of rice crops in Myanmar is closely related to the inadequate supply of nutrients, particularly nitrogen.
Most of these efforts have been concentrated on lowland paddy fields with irrigated double rice cropping systems. Nitrogen (N) rates applied by Myanmar farmers are generally low and do not consider economic aspects. 

Mineral nutrient management is crucial to boost rice production as nitrogen (N) is the most limiting nutrient. There is substantial potential to raise rice production by increased use of nitrogen (N) fertiliser, which will increase regional demand for fertilisers and the supply of rice in the international market in the near future. At this pivotal time in Myanmar’s development, this ACIAR project is working with researchers at the Yezin Agricultural University and the Department of Agriculture in Myanmar to expose the biophysical and socio-economic factors that lead to financially and environmentally viable intensification of rice production based largely reliant on nitrogen (N) fertilisation.

-          This is the embedded link of the video:
Another ACIAR project with strong representation is the conference was SMCN/2010/083: Improving the sustainability of rice-shrimp farming systems in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

Rice-shrimp farming has become increasingly difficult in parts of the Mekong due to increasing soil and water salinity. This ACIAR research project has investigated risk factors for rice-shrimp farming, described pond and rice field processes, and generated much needed environmental and farm management data-using stable isotope analysis to develop a better understanding of the contributions of rice and shrimp to the production system by describing nutrient pathways.

Of great interest was the research data which demonstrated that the rice-farming system in the Mekong Delta already has high nitrogen concentrations and adequate phosphorus. This system does not require fertiliser. This means farmers can increase the profitability of the farming system by reducing or eliminating fertiliser. A challenge not commonly faced by other developing countries in our region.

The project is now looking at how to disseminate information and training programs on better farming practices to government extension staff and policy makers, and for lead farmers and farming groups. This aims to ensure that there will be adoption of better management strategies to improve productivity and sustainability of rice-shrimp farming systems, and lead to opportunities to increase farmers’ incomes and food security.

There was also global collaboration on an innovative tool was highlighted at the conference. The N-footprint tool allows individuals and institutions to calculate and reduce their nitrogen footprints. Despite its ‘clean and green’ image, Australia has the largest N footprint both in food and energy sectors among all countries that have used the N-Calculator model. Beef consumption and production is the major contributor of the high food N footprint, while the heavy dependence on coal for electricity explains the large energy N footprint.

There was a piece published earlier in the week on The Conversation, Nitrogen pollution: the forgotten element of climate change, co-authored by ACIAR’s RPM, Rob Edis and the University of Melbourne soil science team. This explains the complexities of the issue of nitrogen use and pollution in the context of the conference. 

A global outcome of the conference was allocation by the United Nations Environmental Program and the Global Environment Facility for a global advisory platform on sustainable nitrogen use, the ‘International Nitrogen Management System’ (INMS). This USD $60 million is a first for the world in terms of agreement and support for responsible nitrogen use. The agreement aims to spearhead integrated management of the nitrogen cycle for clean water and air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and better soil and biodiversity protection. 

Professor Mark Sutton, from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) said, ‘Nitrogen pollution represents a huge waste of a valuable resource. In the EU alone, the fertilizer value of nitrogen losses from agriculture is around Euro 14 billion per year. This is equivalent to losing 25 per cent of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget (or 10 per cent of the entire EU budget) up in smoke or down the drain.’

International events such as these, where Australian and international researchers can share their knowledge and expertise generate positive results of increased awareness of global food security, climate change and associated environmental challenges of nitrogen use.
The conference went into great detail on aacknowledging the great benefit of reactive nitrogen to increase agricultural productivity and feed the fast growing world population, as well as acknowledging the strong tie between food production and population growth that speaks to the need to increase food access for the poorest sectors of the globe. Most importantly was the affirmation that we are all part of the problem and also part of the solution, and that optimising nitrogen management requires engagement across all of society, from farmers and energy providers to consumers.


ACIAR has published a number of research publications on nitrogen and its use in the agricultural sector.

·         Working with Rhizobia

·         Nitrogen fixation in Acacias

  Water and nitrogen management in wheat-maize production on the North China Plain