Ethiopia: Crop rotation, intercropping, and mulching help farmers improve soil fertility and productivity

| March 31, 2019

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Two goats sit side-by-side in front of a mud house, waiting eagerly to catch the morning sun inside Markos Chneshu’s wood-fenced compound. His two children are cheerfully playing, chasing each other around the house.

At the back of the compound, Mr. Chneshu is holding a panga knife. He’s clearing land in his half-hectare field in readiness for the coming growing season.

Mr. Chneshu practices conservation agriculture on his farm by using mulching, rotating crops, and intercropping. Today, he’s busy cutting dried maize and pigeon pea residues, and placing them on his field as mulch.

Mulch covers the soil, thereby reducing the evaporation of soil moisture. By covering the soil, crop residues also suppress weeds. In addition, when they decompose, the residues add nutrients and organic matter to the soil, improving soil structure. And when the mulch is a leguminous crop such as pigeon peas, it boosts soil fertility.

Mr. Chneshu says: “Two years ago, agricultural experts told me that I can get increased production by intercropping and rotating crops at the same farm. I resisted the idea at first … but the result I found after starting was good.”

He lives in Damote Weydae village in the Wolayta zone of southern Ethiopia. Amanuel Mmmo is the agricultural expert in this zone. Mr. Mmmo says that crop rotation, mulching, and intercropping are helping many farmers like Mr. Chneshu to improve soil fertility and increase crop productivity.

Mr. Mmmo adds: “Climate change, soil degradation, and depletion of natural resources are becoming the most prominent challenges for crop productivity and environmental sustainability in Ethiopia. To overcome this challenge, we need practices like intercropping and crop rotation.”

He says that some farmers have already adopted these practices, particularly crop rotation. He explains: “They rotate crops [planted in the field] between one season and the other … some practice crop rotation every year. They are producing more crops, which they supply to the market to earn some money.”

Mr. Mmmo says that farmers consider various factors when selecting crops to rotate. The most common rotation crops in the area are maize, lablab, and pigeon peas. Others include beans, cassava, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, pumpkins, and cowpeas.

Mr. Mmmo adds: “The major criteria farmers follow are the ability of the crop to improve soil fertility, the ability of the combined crops to complement one another, and the ability of the crops to cover the soil.”

Many of these same crops can be combined through intercropping—planting two crops in the same field at the same time. To be effective, the growth pattern of the intercrops should complement each other, such as maize stalks providing support for beans or leafy vegetables providing cover for the soil.

According to Mr. Mmmo, many farmers in Wolayta zone learned these conservation agriculture practices through hearing farmers share their experiences on interactive radio programs on Fana FM.

Pneta Orchelle is another farmer in Wolayta zone who is practicing intercropping and mulching. Before he started using conservation agriculture techniques on his farm, his harvests were small. He was unable to harvest more than 50 kilograms of lablab and maize combined from his 40 square metres of land.

But after using mulching and intercropping, Mr. Orchelle harvests 300 kilograms of maize and 100 kilograms of lablab a year.

He says, “The big impact I have seen in the intercropping method is improvement in the fertility of the soil. In addition, it gives me an opportunity to grow more than one crop at a time.”

He adds, “This means I provide more types of food to my family—which ultimately helps to reduce the cost of buying food at the market.”

Mr. Chneshu says he will continue practicing mulching, crop rotation, and intercropping on his farm because he has seen the benefits of improved soil fertility and increased yields.

He explains, “I have found that the soil fertility is increasing. I got three quintals (300 kilograms) of maize and half-quintals (50 kilograms) of pigeon peas.”

This work was created with the support of Canadian Foodgrains Bank as part of the project, “Conservation Agriculture for building resilience, a climate smart agriculture approach.” This work is funded by the Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada,