On Scaling Up Conservation Agriculture

On Scaling Up Conservation Agriculture

Internship Experience with Canadian Foodgrains Bank
By Jess Nicksy, MSc student from the University of Manitoba 

The two greatest gifts of being an NSERC CREATE Climate Smart Scholar are the incredible people you get to meet, and the chances it gives you to broaden your mind beyond your specific research project. Nowhere did these two aspects of the program come together more beautifully for me than during my internship with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), working on evaluation of their Scaling Up Conservation Agriculture (SUCA) program.

At the start of 2020, I joined a team of Canadian and East African project staff, who had spent the last five years working with farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania to implement conservation agriculture (CA) principles of minimum tillage, soil cover, and plant diversity. My job was to help understand what impact their CA practices were having on soil health and on their crop yields.

Before I could contribute much to the team, I needed to understand the systems we were working in. I spent a lot of time reading literature on CA in tropical climates, and talking with Canadian project staff, but this learning felt superficial compared with the chance I got to go to Kenya in February of 2020. I met project staff from all three countries, and visited farmers that had been practicing CA for years.

Jess and John, a Kenyan conservation agriculture specialist,
evaluating water infiltration in the field.

Meeting staff and farmers in Kenya made me ask new questions about CA. For example, CA’s capacity to sequester soil carbon and mitigate climate change is often discussed in the literature, and was one of the reasons I was so interested in the project. And indeed, bolstering soil organic matter is important for healthy, productive soils, and may help farmers adapt to extreme weather associated with climate change. But should we really be framing this as a climate change mitigation strategy? What responsibility do small-holder African farmers have to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions produced largely by northern countries? I stopped seeing CA as a broad policy strategy to mitigate climate change, and instead began to see it as a practice that could help individual farmers produce more food for themselves and the market.

While my work focused on the soil science, I got to learn about how CA could influence gender dynamics, with women often being the first to adopt CA practices. I learned about how groups of CA farmers could work together to store and sell their grain at optimal times, getting a better price for their harvest, and how new legume varieties which met the CA principle of diversity could also provide important human nutrition. I began to see that healthy soil was interconnected with all of these things in a complex system.

During my time with CFGB, I wrote a plain language brief on the impacts of CA principles on soil health, and I analyzed yield data from farmers in each country comparing their CA and their conventionally managed fields. One of the things that stood out to me in both of these projects was that CA principles are usually not practiced alone (except in academic research settings). When farmers implement CA practices, they may also implement improved fertility management and optimal plant spacing, among a host of other local best practices that project staff refer to as “CA Plus”. In my analysis of CA fields (including CA Plus practices) with conventional fields, I found yield increases under CA management between 23% and 440%. Yield is an important indicator of soil health, suggesting that these improved yields are probably coming from healthier soils.

I was incredibly lucky to have the internship I did, travelling to Kenya just before the whole world went on lockdown, and meeting smart people from across the globe who expanded my understanding of CA and small-holder farming systems. It felt very distant from the research I was doing for my MSc, but I think that is what made the experience so valuable.

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