When Tasila Tembo’s drunken husband deserted her and left her to care for four children, her only option was to make a living as a farmer. But she couldn’t afford fertilizer.
So she joined the conservation farming group in her village and learned how to conserve soil and produce food without using costly fertilizer.
Mrs. Tembo lives in Rukuzhye village, in Chief Chanje’s area of eastern Zambia. With other group members, she learned conservation farming techniques from Miriam Phiri, the area’s lead farmer.
Miss Phiri says the most important things for farmers who practice conservation farming are to disturb the soil as little as possible, rotate key crops, and keep crop residues in the field. Harvesting water, using composted manure, and agroforestry practices are also beneficial.
Miss Phiri says, “When left in the field and spread evenly all over the ground, crop residues protect the soil from sun and wind.”
She explains that, during the rainy season, rain can wash away soil. But crop residues not only protect soil from being washed away, but also reduce the amount of water that evaporates from the soil. As a result, moisture in the ground is available to crops for a longer period.
She tells group members that, when crop residues decompose, they mix with the soil, and improve its texture and fertility. This is of particular benefit for farmers like Mrs. Tembo who cannot afford to buy fertilizer.
But Mrs. Tembo faced challenges when she started conservation farming. When the grass dried up, the boys who look after the animals burnt the bush to hunt for mice. And whenever she left crop residues in her field, the boys let the cattle free to graze. When the cattle entered her field, their hooves loosened the soil and most of the topsoil was blown away by strong winds. Whatever loose soil remained was washed away by the first heavy rains, leaving only poor subsoil that needed chemical fertilizer to produce good yields.
Mrs. Tembo complained to cattle owners, asking them to restrict their animals’ movement and stop burning fields, but her complaints didn’t help.
After struggling for years, in 2012, Mrs. Tembo shared her problems with the other members of the conservation group. To her amazement, many were facing the same problems.
When the lead farmer heard about it, she helped the group appeal to Chief Chanje.
The chief invited lead farmers and the extension worker to form a committee to draw up conservation guidelines and by-laws for the area.
The committee included men and women with livestock, and those who had none.
The guidelines state that cattle owners must respect the welfare of farmers without cattle, and vice versa. Mrs. Tembo was a committee member, and she made sure that the guidelines and by-laws were fair to conservation farmers like her.
The guidelines prohibit all free-range grazing. They also require farmers with cattle and goats to employ responsible herd boys to ensure that animals graze only in specific areas, away from farmer’s fields.
Owners of livestock that eat crops, crop residues, or even trees in anyone’s field, garden, or woodlot pay a fine equal to the damage caused. Failure to pay results in confiscation of livestock and removal to the chief’s palace.
Mrs. Tembo says farmers with livestock did not comply at first, because they thought that the guidelines favoured farmers without livestock. But Chief Chanje signed the by-laws, and sent copies to every village leader. The committee appointed a disciplinary committee to enforce the by-laws.
Mrs. Tembo says, “The results of the by-laws were immediate, and I am now able to leave crop residues in my field without any fear that cattle will come and eat them up.”
She has also been able to use crop residues to make compost. She adds: “I also spread some all over my field so that when the rains came, they were mulch that protected the soil from erosion and increased moisture retention. As a result, despite the scanty rains during the 2012/13 season, I was able to get higher yields.”
In fact, many members of her conservation farming group got good yields. When farmers in nearby chiefdoms saw how effective the by-laws were at controlling grazing, they petitioned their own chiefs to intervene.