In the third installment of a four-part series on conservation agriculture, Mary Maluleke, junior resource economist with ASSET Research, takes us through the ‘perfect practice’ elements of conservation agriculture.
Sometimes, it is the simple things in life that shift our worldview. There used to be a time when the idea of maximising utility led many towards the nightmare of over-consumerism, the horror of toxic productivity, and many other complexities.
Until the late 1950s and early 60s artists such as Carl Andre, Frank Stella, and Donald Judd exhibited their abstract art – which took an extremely simplistic form – at world-class museums. They opened the world to this new way of artistry that was at the time unorthodox.
Since then, this abstract thinking and approach (now called minimalism) has become a strong movement that infiltrated multiple industries, and became a lifestyle of choice for many. Over the years, we have seen such simplistic shifts in worldviews change how we live our lives, and seen their effects flow into our lives, societies, economies, environments, and the state of the world.
Similarly, our view of the phrase “practice makes perfect” has shifted. It used to make sense to choose a practice, do it repeatedly, and hope to perfect it or reach a perfect outcome.
But as the legendary coach Vince Lombardi argued, “Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”. His main point was that, what brings success in activities and life is “working on, and practising the right things over, and over, and over”.
Meaning, in this context, that farmers need to know the right principles (perfect practices) they need to repeatedly do that will carve a path to where they want to be (perfect outcomes).
Three principles of perfect practice
Perfect practice 1
If farmers want to increase their soil health, to increase their soil water holding capacity (perfect outcome), they should start by minimising their mechanical soil disturbance by practicing the principle of no/minimal till. This is hard to achieve in conventional agricultural systems that include mechanical tillage practices, such as ploughing and discing.
Perfect practice 2
Farmers can complement the first principle with that of permanent organic soil cover, which can help farmers to increase infiltration rates, reduce evaporation and runoff, and protect their soil against the negative impacts of climate, such as extreme temperatures and erosion, experienced when the soil is left bare. This can be done by leaving crop residues on the soil surface and by growing cover crops in rotation to recycle nutrients and protect soil until the next cash crop. The presence of living roots in soil, reduce the risk of soil erosion and loss of valuable nutrients. Living roots prolong the growth cycle, and lead to additional financial benefits (a perfect outcome).
Perfect practice 3
As a third principle, farmers can add the diversification of crops and the integration of livestock. They can diversify crops through implementing proper crop rotations, -sequences and -associations, such as intercropping and mixed cover cropping, to avoiding conventional mono-cropping. The introduction of livestock to graze on cover crops leads to various other benefits, such as the reduction of pests, diseases, and weed pressure, and increases in soil health and incomes.
Adopting these principles will create a perfect platform to implement various good (or perfect) agricultural practices, such as integrated soil nutrient, pest, and weed management.
The way to resilient and sustainable farming
Adopting these principles can be the perfect system that eventually leads to perfect, resilient and sustainable farming. Together, these principles, when done over, and over, and over – can carve a path to where farmers want and should be. That is a point of no soil degradation, enhanced soil health, effective nutrient management, stable high yields, reduced input/production costs and maximum return/profitability.
Farmers should also be aware that to keep on doing some of conventional tillage practices, might lead to a desired outcome (such as high yields), but only for a short term.
In the long run, it will further compromise soil organic carbon, encourage loss of valuable nutrients, cause pest build-up, increase weed cycles, and exuberate soil infertility and crop failure, which move further and further away from sustainable agriculture compromising the future of farming.
Many “perfect” practices and systems started as unorthodox ideas, but evolved and spread to greatly benefit the world as it positively influenced people’s worldviews and habits. As it stands, the World Economic Forum (WEF) highlighted that world economies are extremely vulnerable to changes in environmental factors.
It is our human duty to engage in activities (principles and practices) that will curb as much environmental degradation as possible and protect our soil. By 2018 our country had already lost 46% of soil organic carbon in cultivated soils due to tillage, and lose up to 70% of rainfall water from bare soil through runoff and evaporation.
The question is then, what is the future of our soil if these harmful practices are continued and a shift towards adopting the right practices is not embraced as a matter of urgency?
- Mary Maluleke is a junior resource economist with ASSET Research, currently involved with a conservation agriculture project led by Hendrik Smith. In 2019, she obtained a Master of Commerce degree in economics from Rhodes University.
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