Modern Cropping Techniques for Smallholder Agriculture Development

By December 1, 2011 Agriculture 2 Comments

Nuru’s Agriculture Program provisions small loans of agricultural inputs (fertilizers and seed) to farmers and trains farmers to generate a permanent and significant increase in crop yields.  The beginning of the long rains season (December to July) marks the busiest time for the agriculture program and for millions of Kenyan farmers who are investing in their future.  In the 2011-2012 season Nuru is helping some 3,000 farm families to produce enough maize for their food security and income generation on one to three acre plots throughout Kuria, Kenya.

In the November Ag blog, we learned about farmer empowerment through base education – an event from which over 3,000 farmers graduated (with 2,000 of these farmers brand new to Nuru).  At base education, farmers learn the basic theoretical tenets of Nuru.  Afterwards, farmers attend a series of practical and timely technical trainings, beginning with ground preparation, pacing, planting, and gapping.  These farm management basics, plus the essential farm input loans, take farmers from yields of three bags of maize per acre to fifteen and twenty sacks of maize per acre.

The technical training series diverges from traditional agriculture extension in ways that help it adapt to the cultural and societal context.  During base education farmer groups were organized by the same members who comprise them.  The group learns farming best practices together, works the land together, and pays the loans together.  This group concept plays off Kenyan culture.

Groups form support networks within the community and draw out community members to serve as trainers and leaders.  The agriculture program staff, themselves farmers from the same rural communities, teach the group chairman, who in turn pass on the knowledge to the members of their groups.  This training of trainers encourages a type of grassroots development as community members learn from their neighbors, who themselves eventually become the next leaders and Nuru staffers.

The agriculture team also employs best management practices such as demonstration-based learning, appropriate language and technology, and close supervision of farm activities following trainings.  While Nuru International supports local and traditional knowledge, the agriculture program teaches modern farming practices based in principles of ease of implementation, proven science, and sustainability (especially for the natural and economic environment).  Importantly, maize agriculture is relatively new in Kuria, Kenya, and has been largely unsuccessful because of lack of agriculture inputs and traditional farming methods.  Nuru promotes a more intensive investment and care for the land and crops, with the aim of eliminating the period during which people go hungry (the hunger season).

Traditionally, ground preparation was not planned for optimal crop establishment.  In some areas, steep or very rocky sites were chosen and cleared, with resulting erosion.  In other areas, there was too much shade or soil was too compact for proper crop development.  Nuru teaches farmers to choose flat, sunny areas with live and dead barriers to prevent soil erosion.  Tillage and composting with animal and green manures are also promoted, and burning is discouraged.  These practices strike the balance between environmental concerns, and proper crop development.

Farmers traditionally used inexact plant spacing and fertilizer amounts, resulting in wasted land and inputs.  During pacing training, farmers learn to measure their land by walking the length and width, each pace having been measured to equal a number of meters.  These measurements are essential to ensure that farmers use the correct plant spacing and fertilization rates on their plots.

The Nuru planting method ensures proper spacing for nutrients and sunlight, freedom from competition from other vegetation, and appropriate development of grains.  Planting training teaches farmers to use the appropriate amount of fertilizer and one maize seed per hole, each hole having been precisely spaced at 25 cm by 75 cm.  This new teaching differs drastically from traditional practice, where farmers would broadcast seeds randomly, or use a stick to poke a hole in the soil and pour in a few seeds (dippling).  The spacing was highly irregular, resulting in a field with patches of overly dense and other overly sparse areas.

Planting practices also did not provide the jump start of fertilizer that maize requires in the highly weathered soils of Kuria, Kenya.  Compounding the problem, two or more maize seeds competed with the same meager supply of nutrients, and farmers, thinking more is better, would let all of them grow with resultant poor production.  The last technical training is gapping, during which farmers learn to replant in any areas where seeds did not germinate correctly.  Nuru teaches planting methods that correct the problems found with traditional crop establishment methods.

Together, the technical training series forms the basis of proper maize production, setting farmers on the path to food security and income generation.

Matt Lineal

About Matt Lineal

Agriculture Program Strategic Advisor — With multi-disciplinary training in social, economic and environmental sciences, Matt is working to increase crop yields, food security and income for Nuru's smallholder farmers. Previously, Matt worked with The Nature Conservancy and Peace Corps in Honduras; and earned his BA in Government and Spanish from Lawrence University and his MS in Forest Sciences from Colorado State University.

2 Comments

  • Hi there,

    good initiatives, but you could improve the sustainability aspect of agriculture(and ultimately combating structural rural poverty) by employing fully organic agricultural techniques. Less external input (fertilizer) = lower costs (and dependency) for the farmer + structural improvement of soil quality.
    Shoot us a mail if you’re interested to know a bit more about this approach. We’re running a program to teach young people organic farming in Ghana and have been promoting organic farming and agri-environment projects for over 20 years in former Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It works!

    Best wishes for your work in 2012,

    Jeroen (Netherlands)

  • Fundamentally, Nuru seeks to work with rural poor to together elaborate and implement the correct choices that will help those rural poor lift themselves out of poverty. Until now, this has meant (for agriculture) a focus on input-fueled maize production that provides a substantial and permanent boost in farm productivity and food security. Our approach is not limited in scale or scope in terms of crops and cropping techniques. We are developing and piloting new crops and methods on an on-going basis.

    We are very interested to learn about your specific approach to implementing and introducing organic agriculture in developing countries. Thanks for the contribution!

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