Northern Uganda cotton farmers call for early seed distribution
As cotton farmers in northern Uganda cultivate their fields in preparation for the new season coming in a month’s time, they are calling for early seed distribution and better prices for their produce. However experts’ in cotton growing advise cotton farmers to not spend on chemicals to attain better yields since organic farming is cheaper especially because Uganda is blessed with a favourable agro-ecology.
Mr Musa Muwanga, a senior agriculturist with National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda said, Uganda’s agro-ecology is suitable for organic cotton growing and that many a farmer has to appreciate the fact that spending less on growing the crop makes the difference when it comes to profitability at harvest time.
Muwanga who advises cotton farmers to grow cotton using less or no pesticides and instead use organic methods says farmers can still get better yields yet fetch high prices for their produce since organic crops easily get access to international markets. International markets favour organically grown crops and, “we should use this as a weapon to produce and dominate the international market,” says Mr Muwanga.
Mr Cyprus Okello, a cotton farmer in Urua-B Village in Kitgum District says high costs of chemicals (pesticides) forced him to adopt organic methods because conventional farming was too expensive. “Before I started organic cotton growing, I had a small piece of land that required only 6kgs of seeds. However, I needed money to buy chemicals for spraying and fertilisers, which I could not manage,” Okello explains.
He recalls the time he used to harvest between 400kgs and 500kgs. However, in 2007, he has used the same quantity of seeds and used no pesticides, and, he harvested more than 500kgs yet he spent less on the farm.
“My cotton now even fetches a high premium price unlike before,” Muwanga adds.
For Geoffrey Ochieng, who until last season has been using conventional methods to grow cotton, he planted 12 kg of cotton seed on his six-acre piece of land in Acandano Village.
At harvest, he gets about 300kgs. Ochieng blames the prolonged dry season and regrets the money he spends on fertilisers, yet, a kilogramme of cotton fetched only Shs750 when the dealers learn that you used fertilisers on them.
The difference comes with soil management
Florence Adola, a housewife of Akwang Village, Paimol Sub County in Pader District last year planted 18kgs of seed cotton and harvested 2,400kg of cotton and sold Shs900 per kilogramme.
Also challenged with bad weather and storage, Adola used organic techniques and tractor services provided by Dunavant Uganda Limited who in turn bought her cotton.
With a month to the beginning of the season, farmers in these regions agree to one fact, organic cotton fetches more money, and it is sustainable when it comes to managing one’s piece of land.
In Kitgum where farmers have abandoned conventional cotton growing methods, a 50kg bag of fertiliser inputs costs between Shs50,000 to Shs80,000 and it requires two bags to grow an acre of cotton, which farmers say, is expensive. Kitgum farmers say, when they get seeds early it will enable them increase their output. The farming season in Lango and Acholi regions start between May 15 to June 15 and it takes cotton five months to mature.
Farmers who manage their land well and adopt sustainable technology have something to show for their sweat. Like Sam Akona, an organic farmer in Atapandam Village in Aromo Sub County in Lira who has opened 12 acres, he boosts of earning Shs950,000 from planting 15kgs of cotton seeds last season. Akona says he spends no money on farm inputs because he has his ox ploughs which help him cultivate the fields. He got the money to purchase the oxen from the savings he had with Shares Uganda LTD, a cotton dealer in his area.
Going organic or conventional
Muwanga advises farmers to maintain their soils yet, stay competitive in the international markets by going organic. “There is no big difference between conventional (use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides) and organic farming. If you look at all cotton farmers, they don’t use fertilisers and even many of the conventional farmers don’t use pesticides but still get good yields,” he says.
Muwanga, the Chief Executive Officer of Nogamu says: “If you want to increase cotton yields and productivity, we have to address soil fertility. He adds, the main cause of low cotton yields is the issue of soil fertility that needs to be continuously addressed by farmers using locally available resources and proper farm management. He argues that cotton farmers currently opening up land preparations in the Acholi and Lango Sub regions do not need chemical fertilisers but rather employ locally made fertility management practices that are accessible to small holder farmers.
Such methods are using green manures, composting, crop rotational practices and other traditional management ways. “If such practices are employed and implemented by the farmers, you will see a large increase in cotton yields without raising the costs of production due to availability of some resources on their farms, before looking at advanced methods of productivity increment like use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides which are not affordable to farmers,” Muwanga says. He recommends training for small holder farmers in the use of local technologies, so that they are able to produce and maintain high yields.
Muwanga says, the situation of small holder farmers cannot change because of land holding system and family system. “Our farmers own small pieces of land (3-6 acres) which imply the land belongs to the whole family for the entire livelihoods and has to be continuously divided. This is an underlying constraint which cannot allow large scale farming because it requires change of land holding system,” he adds.
Boxtel Olwa of Walera Village cultivates eight acres using his family and hired labour for weeding. “I used 30kg and harvest 1200kgs of cotton which I sold at Shs900 per kilo. I did not use any cost because I cannot afford it,” says Olwa whose major challenge is labour during weeding time. He says he would get better yields this time round because he has added an extra acre on his land hopes for increased yields after adding on the acreage, “This is achievable if the weather is good because I cannot afford irrigation and use of drugs.” Olwa says that organic cotton earned him a premium price and has enabled him better deal with his domestic expenses after he was trained on farm handling.
How to get high cotton yields
The yields of cotton both organic and conventional depend on how a farmer manages the crop. Dennis Kaijabahoire, an agronomist says a cotton farmer needs to consider five points to achieve high yields:
• Plant within the window (May 15 to June 15). A week after the planting window implies that a farmer loses about 300kg.
• There should be proper spacing of 90cm by 60cm between rows and plants respectively and leave two plants per plant station. This gives a plant population of 4,800 plants per acre or per 4,000sq metres.
• Timely thinning and gap filling; this comes from the date of planting to the 12th day. At this stage, a farmer ensures the crop and the root systems are not entangled. Any day beyond the thinning stage means a farmer loses 8kg per day for every acre.
• Control of weed pressure; It is recommended that cotton fields should be kept free of weeds like other fields. If a farmer doesn’t take care of the weeds, he loses two per cent of what would be the harvest per day per acre.
• If farmers can adhere to the five reasons, their yields per acre can be up to 1,500kg either organic or conventional depending on good weather and seed availability.
Compiled By E. Kasozi