If you walk along the main roads and pass through the sparse villages, you will see stretches of maize fields covering the flat plains of Mchinji district, about 110 kilometres from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Most of the land here is bare, exposing the soil to sunlight, heat, and rain. Ashes from burnt crop residues are a feature of many maize fields, while roaming goats and cattle happily browse on the residues.
Some farmers in the area use conservation agriculture techniques such as reduced tillage and crop rotation, but only a few use crop residues as a soil cover. Gerald Mika from Kachere village is one of them. He spreads maize stalks on his field soon after harvest. When he plants again, he leaves last season’s stalks in place to conserve moisture in the soil. This means he does not need to till the soil to make ridges. Using crop residues also helps manage weeds, reduce soil erosion, and improve soil fertility.
But Mr. Mika only managed to cover half of his one-hectare farm with crop residues after last harvest.
He explains: “I did not cover my whole maize field with the maize stalks this season because I had fewer crop residues. But there are many benefits of this conservation agriculture since it does not require labour for weeding, and the field always has moisture because it is not exposed to the sun.”
Mika says that, apart from having fewer maize stalks, the other challenge he faces is termites that feed on the maize stalks and also eat the new maize plants after they germinate.
Steven Chimsera is another farmer from Kachere village who practices conservation agriculture. He says mice are also a challenge because they hide under the maize stalks and emerge later to eat the maturing cobs.
Mr. Chimsera adds that people hunt mice for food in his area. In the process, they destroy his crop residues by either burning them or pushing them aside to find mice.
Aside from these challenges, Mr. Mika says he harvests more maize on his conservation agriculture plot than he does on the plot where he does not cover the soil with crop residues.
He adds: “When I use conservation agriculture, I harvest more. Last season, I harvested two oxcarts full of maize on half a hectare, compared to the other half where I managed to get only one oxcart.”
Although using crop residues has numerous challenges, Mr. Mika is optimistic and encourages farmers in his area to adopt the technique.
He explains: “I would like to urge my fellow farmers that this conservation agriculture technique reduces labour and you do not weed and till the land.… Instead, you just spread the maize stalks and plant your maize, giving you time to concentrate on other work.”
Fishani Kaizo is the agricultural extension worker in the area. He encourages farmers to use crop residues as a soil cover because it keeps moisture in the soil, improves soil fertility, and reduces labour. He says: “Tilling the land is labour-intensive and it also disturbs the organisms in the soil. Farmers [who] use crop residues use less fertilizer but harvest a lot of food.”
Daniel Kampani is a farmer from nearby Chithumba village who didn’t use crop residues this season because of challenges such as fires and uncontrolled livestock that browse on the maize residues.
Mr. Kampani explains: “There is a need for the community to come up with some bylaws that can help people to stop grazing their animals in our fields, and also prevent people from setting fires unnecessarily.”
Mr. Kampani says it can sometimes be difficult to practice crop rotation while keeping residues in the field. For example, Mr. Kampani grows tobacco on ridges, and ridges require tillage. In order to rotate his crops, he had to till the maize stalks to prepare the ridges for tobacco.
But Mr. Mika says that he will continue using crop residues because the benefits outweigh the challenges. He says: “I want to try to put my whole maize field under conservation agriculture by covering it with maize stalks. Previously, I used to harvest less, but now I am having bumper yields because of conservation agriculture and I now sell the surplus to support my family needs.”
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, www.international.gc.ca 
Gerald Mika and his wife and child in their field