The final installment of a three-part series on conservation agriculture, Mary Maluleke, junior resource economist with ASSET Research, gives a short practical guide for farmers wanting to convert to regenerative conservation agriculture, and casts a vision for what would happen if all farmers in SA converted.
In her previous article, Maluleke answered the question on whether it actually pays to convert from conventional farming to regenerative conservation agriculture. In the article she unpacks how Mpumalanga farmers, William Mahlangu* and Vera Manzini*, have benefitted from taking a leap towards conservation agriculture.
After Mahlangu and Manzini did a financial analysis for their farms and realised how degraded and dependent on chemicals their soil was, they sought to do things differently by choosing to go with the climate-smart regenerative conservation agriculture system (CA/RA). Although not an easy decision, they could not ignore the potential positive impact this could have on their total direct allocated variable costs and overall profit margin.
However, they needed practical steps on how to convert it in an effective, efficient and financially feasible way.
This is a predicament that most farmers face. They often find it difficult to start not only because of fear and uncertainty but also because they need new knowledge, practical skills and localised examples.
The problem with this is that no one farm is the same as the other in terms of their diverse climate variables, soil and vegetation types, farming activities, equipment and agricultural performance. However, research and farmers’ experiences across the globe, including South Africa, show that CA/RA principles can be applied and adapted on all farms in a wide range of contexts in an informed and strategic way that is suitable for each farm.
Filling in knowledge gaps
Various organisations have provided substantial information about CA/RA. National organisations include: RegenZ (Your Guide to Regenerative Agriculture in South Africa – regenz.co.za)); Grain SA (Conservation Agriculture – grainsa.co.za); The Maize Trust (Conservation Agriculture (CA) – Maize Trust); ASSET Research (Project: Conservation Agriculture – Asset Research) and others. While global organisations include the FAO (Conservation Agriculture | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – fao.org).
These organisations, of which most involve farmers’ experiences and adaptation, supported with a compendium of applied research studies, provide the necessary proof and guidance that most farmers are needing.
As a first step, they all stress the importance of a mindset shift to that of custodians and managers of nature, which should be nurtured and farmed in a manner that will restore and protect itself to produce climate-resilient crops and food with high nutritional value. Farmers must understand that the improvement of food nutrition and farming systems must prioritise soil, plant, animal and human health.
As a next step, they also suggest farmers should try out and adapt a few simple and practical principles, namely minimum soil disturbance, maximum crop diversity, maintaining a living root within the soil, and livestock integration.
What can farmers do?
With the right mindset and correct understanding of the value of a CA/RA system and its principles, farmers can start their journey by taking the following practical steps within their own context:
- Gather a good understanding of CA/RA systems, principles and practices, as well as knowledge of how nature works, specifically soils, climate and biodiversity. By starting there, farmers can expect to realise a better understanding of and relationship with nature and how to farm closer to it. This will enable them to make informed decisions on how to navigate their journey to soil and ecosystem restoration and how to implement and adapt CA/RA principles and practices on their farms.
- Include cover crops as part of the rotation system for various purposes, such as fodder for livestock, nutrient cycling and protection against erosion, and maintaining a living root in soil. The right combination of winter and summer cover crops for their region and goals is key.
- Diversifying crops through crop rotations, sequences and associations, instead of monocropping, promotes biodiversity and various other benefits. It is important to design cropping systems best suited for their farms, climate and soil types.
- Adopt the minimum or no-tillage practice by obtaining or adjusting a no-till planter and sprayer. This practice will help to restore their soil organic matter which will lead to increased yields, reduced soil erosion, improved water holding capacity, and reduced greenhouse gas in the atmosphere through carbon sequestration.
- By integrating livestock in their crop production systems, farmers will benefit from increased soil microbial biomass and organic matter through cattle manure. They will experience a decline in fertiliser use as nutrients will be cycled from the manure. Regenerative grazing systems that are in sync with nature will also allow land recovery in between grazing periods thereby allowing maximum plant growth cycles to take effect. Farmers will see a reduction in their feed expense as their cattle graze on cover crops, thereby reducing the cost of managing cover crops as well. An additional income will also be realised from the livestock.
What to look out for
This regenerative path is not instant, but a long-term journey of learning and adaptation. It takes time for the soil to restore, for farmers to acquire the right knowledge, skills and equipment, and integrate sufficient livestock in their crop production.
The speed of the impact of CA/RA depends also on the soil types and climate, the degree of soil degradation and the financial position of farmers. Although some farmers consider the transition phase costly, there are strategies that can be put in place to ease the high initial (transition) costs.
Farmers can start by diversifying their crops and add the right winter and summer cover crops into their rotation system. Those who can afford a no-till planter can quickly adopt the no-till principle, while those who cannot afford one can strategically minimise their tillage as they budget for one, or adjust existing planters.
Similarly, those who have or can afford to buy sufficient cattle can integrate them wisely. But those who do not have and cannot afford to can start buying as little as they can while strategically budgeting to increase their herd. Any successful investment and integration of cattle will serve as an additional revenue stream.
Whatever the financial position of farmers, there is always a financially feasible way to start. The gradual switch to CA/RA is a viable option for most farmers’ financial reality. Farmers are greatly encouraged to conduct a thorough financial analysis which will help them to decide on an affordable and financially feasible way to start and plan their journey. In most cases, farmers are advised to learn and plan at least a year in advance of their transition.
They can dedicate a small portion of their land (usually 10%) to try out CA/RA and then up-scale over time when they learn how to do it, and see the changes and benefits. They should however eliminate soil compaction and acidity before starting CA/RA. Starting small allows most farmers to build the finance required for the equipment and livestock investment needed for their farms.
The great collaboration
CA/RA is truly the future of farming considering the problems predicted for climate change, biodiversity loss and soil degradation. It restores land to produce resilient crops and nutritious food. If all farmers in South Africa start their journey as soon as possible, this would substantially revolutionise the agriculture sector.
It will also improve household livelihoods since they spend more than 70% of their income on their food, meat, bread, cereal, milk, cheese, eggs and vegetable.
By adopting CA/RA, farmers will experience a continuous, long-term decline in production costs which will lower the producer prices and selling prices. Food prices would decrease enabling more people to afford more food which means fewer people will be exposed to high levels of hunger.
Household income spent on food would decrease, making more money available for other living expenses. Ultimately it will reduce the cost of living (to some degree) and increase farmers’ earning percentage of national income from an average of 3% pa.
Because CA/RA provides more nutritious food, this could help to reduce the degree of malnutrition in our country and strengthen our immune systems. Consumers are already demanding more nutritious and environmentally friendly food, which provide farmers with a golden opportunity to provide such food.
As custodians of the land and champions of food production and security, farmers are encouraged to start this journey in regeneration, conduct the necessary analyses of their farms, ask difficult questions, learn from other people, especially experienced CA/RA farmers, and decide to take the first steps to implement it on their farms.
The words of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (by Mark Twain) may serve as inspiration to those farmers who want to start their journey – “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”
*William Mahlangu and Vera Manzini are pseudonym names used to protect the identity of farmers.
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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