By Margret Masanga-John
The coming of the rains means different things to different people. For some it brings relief from the scorching heat, while others may find it a nuisance on a Sunday afternoon outing.
For subsistence farmers in rural Zimbabwe, it means a chance to produce food for their households to tide them over till the next harvest, and beyond. Recent successive dry spells have meant that most rural households in the area are chronically food insecure and dependent on food handouts. And so the prediction of normal to above-normal rainfall this summer cropping season has seen farmers move into “hyper-preparation” mode as they aim to make the most of the forecast downpours.
In Masvingo’s Gutu District farmers working with Oxfam have made considerable progress in this regard using conservation agriculture methods. While conservation farming is labour-intensive, it allows farmers to make use of the resources available in their environment, such as manure and grass, and equipment that is easily accessible, such as a hoe.
Raina Mukaratai (38) says conservation agriculture is best for farmers like her. “We do not have cattle for draught power, but now we do not have to beg those with draught power to lend us theirs.”
Poor crop yields have been blamed on poor timing, among other things, as farming activities are not in line with atmospheric conditions. Ephilda Manyonganise (45) says that by using conservation farming methods they are able to plant before those with draught power. Their fields are ready even before the first rains come. “We have real chances of a bumper harvest this year,” says Ephilda.
Farmer Daniel Mukove (45) says “practising conservation agriculture has helped me to be more focused in my farming activities than before. It gives me less to worry about, which ultimately enables me to plan well.”
The farmers also draw on the knowledge and experience of others by organising themselves into working groups. With assistance from Oxfam in the form of cowpea and sorghum seeds as well as fertilizers, these groups cultivate plots of land using conservation agriculture methods. This helps them share and improve their knowledge and skills. The farmers say they feel more committed and strengthened by the group and have developed ways of working to ensure that everyone utilises their full potential to farm.
For John Chinanga (48) applying conservation agriculture methods leaves him with less stress and more time to look after chronically ill members of his household. “I have cattle and a family of six members, but conservation farming seemed to be the best alternative for our family. More so because it produced a good harvest for others last season.”
It will be vital for these farmers to make the most of the forecast rains if chronic food insecurity is to be overcome. The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) recently warned of impending severe hunger between October 2010 and March 2011 when the next harvest is due. It is estimated that 1,3 million people will require food aid. But if this season turns out a good crop, farmers may be able to gain control of the situation.