Wednesday February 26 2014

Soil: Important but mostly ignored asset on the farm

By Andrew Ndawula Kalema

Farming can be frustrating sometimes. Take the current dry spell as an example. Farmers have to look on helplessly as their livestock and crops wither away under the scotching sun. Located in the famous cattle corridor, my farm has not been spared.
We spend almost four hours a day drawing water from the bowels of the earth, using a primitive pulley system. But I’m not complaining. My neighbours have to walk miles to get clean water, after the nearby community borehole gave up the ghost.

Classic guide
You need a lot of inspiration to continue farming in such circumstances. In the past I used to turn to the bottle for inspiration. Not anymore. Instead I now reach for my online copy of Ten Acres Enough.
In case you haven’t read it, which is a shame; Ten Acres Enough is a classic guide to successful sustainable farming on a very small piece of land.
Written in 1864, the book details the farming experience of its American author, Edmund Morris, who abandoned the corporate rat race in the city and moved his family to the countryside to resurrect a rundown 10-acre farm.
By carefully nursing the soils back to health, which had been grossly abused by the previous owners, using the resources around him, Morris eventually became the proud owner of a highly productive 10-acre farm, easily meeting every need of his large family.

Drastic drop
Besides the inspiration, the book helped me realise that like everything else, soil responds well to TLC. You take good care of your soil and it will reciprocate with bountiful harvests every year.
As a recent study reveals, we are already paying a heavy price for neglecting this simple yet important principle.
The study, conducted in different parts of East Africa, shows that poor farming practices are draining the soil of nutrients without replenishing them, leading to a drastic drop in crop yields. It is like constantly drawing money from a bank account, without making any deposits.
Agronomists call it nutrient mining, and its partly to blame for the current rapid depletion of Uganda’s forest cover, as desperate farmer open up new land to grow more crops, to compensate for the dropping yields. For crops such as bananas and maize, the yields have dropped by as much as 50 per cent.

Low fertiliser use
In addition, the study indicates that the drop in yields is threatening the income and food security of millions of people in the region, who derive their livelihood from agriculture.
Banana yields in the areas covered by the study are between five and 30 tonnes per hectare compared to a potential yield of over 70 tonnes per hectare.
The researchers found out that the levels of important soil minerals that sustain plant growth were low.

The researchers say the problem is compounded by the fact that East Africa has one of the lowest rates of fertiliser use in the world. At the same time, the region has a rapidly growing population that has to be fed. Those are sobering facts.
Friends and clients planning to go into farming, usually invite me to accompany them to different parts of the country to scout for arable land. Those trips are usually a learning experience for me.

Besides the price of the land, priority is usually given to issues such as road access, availability of water and power, local security and ownership.
The prospective farmers will spend money on clearing boundaries, establishing ownership, negotiating access, and identifying potential water sources.
But very few bother to take samples to find out the biological and chemical makeup of the soils on the land they are buying. All they want to know is the land fertile? That is enough.

Some realities
After acquiring the land, even fewer put in place arrangements to improve the soils and make the land more productive.
This would involve establishing a cheap and reliable source of fertilisers to enrich the soils, when their natural fertility eventually gets depleted. However, very few farmers plan for this.
This often turns out to be a very costly oversight, as the farmer ends up spending heavily on expensive organic and chemical fertilisers transported over long distances.
There are some realities that farmers in Uganda cannot run away from. The earlier we face them, the better it will be for us and the entire industry. One of them is land scarcity.
While the rate of population growth is going up, the land is not getting any bigger. That means we have to make full use of the limited land we have.
In many rural areas, you will find farmers claiming their land is too small or not fertile enough for commercial agriculture.

Depleted soils
Many people sell off their land cheaply because it is barren or the soils are exhausted. Instead of selling off the land, the owners should find out what caused the barrenness, and how it can be overcome.
The barren soils are the result of years of mining or removing nutrients without replacing them.
According to the Africa Union’s Abuja Declaration on fertilisers, any effort to reduce hunger on the continent must begin by addressing its severely depleted soils.
The declaration sends out an appeal to African states to increase fertiliser use from the current eight tonnes per hectare to at least 50 tonnes per hectare by 2015 in order to boost agricultural production.

Ironical situation
The most common excuse farmers give for not using fertilisers is that they are too expensive. I have no idea how much fertilisers cost, because I never buy any.
Why buy when I can get them free at the farm? The author of Ten Acres Enough used to make his fertilisers from the animals he reared at the farm.
But even if you had no animals at the farm, you can still get fertilisers from plants.
For instance there is this plant called Tithonia, which grows as a weed in many parts of Uganda. Its leaves are extremely rich in potassium, which is very crucial in banana farming.
In fact many banana farmers have to hire workers to clear it from their land. How ironical!

According to another study, which was conducted in Uganda some time ago, the estimated 100 trucks of banana bunches consumed in Kampala every day deplete 1.5 million kg of potassium (K) and 0.5 million kg of magnesium (Mg) from the soils in the rural areas each year.
That potassium and magnesium has to be replaced, or else there will soon be no bananas.

The author is a farming journalist and a consultant.