By Edgard Ramirez: Cordoba, Argentina
Farmers everywhere want to grow enough crops to sell to others. That’s how we survive here in Argentina: From our farm in La Carlota, a small city on the plains known as the Pampas, we grow corn, soybeans, and sometimes wheat. And we sell much of it to customers in other countries.
That’s not all we can export, though. I’ve also learned that farmers can export ideas—and that’s what I’m trying to do through my involvement with African agriculture.
The idea is no-till farming, which allows us to make the most of our limited access to water as well as to protect our soil. Rather than breaking up the earth every year as we till the soil, we try to disturb it as little as possible as we go about planting and harvesting. We keep the soil protected with cover crops to improve the efficiency of water use. This way, we protect the moisture in our fields and also fight soil erosion.
In Argentina, no-till agriculture has made a big difference. In conjunction with other practices and technologies, we’re growing more food on less land than ever before.
That’s excellent news for a world with an expanding population and rising environmental pressures.
Because I’ve seen the big benefits of this approach, I’m a member Aapresid, the Argentinian No-Till Farmers Association. I’m also the director of the International Program for No Till Knowledge and Technological Transfer.
Two years ago, the African Development Bank (AfDB) contacted us and asked whether we thought the no-till systems that are working so well in Argentina also might work in the African savannah, which shares several conditions similar to northern areas of Argentina in the east and west.
In other words: Could we export one of our best ideas?
Farming is different everywhere. Just because something works in my country doesn’t mean that it will work in yours. I’ve even seen this on my own farm: Crop production can vary from acre to acre, sometimes for reasons I understand but occasionally for reasons that remain mysterious.
Yet, it’s possible to share knowledge and adapt it to local conditions—and that’s what we’ve tried to do in Africa. First, we visited the Ivory Coast, where the African Development Bank has its headquarters. We facilitated a workshop and determined that no-till farming can work there. After that came Ghana, which also shows promise. Soon we’ll begin in Guinea, our second country, all at the request of and in partnership with the AfDB.
The most significant difference between farming in Argentina and farming in Africa is that at home, we can rely on a wide range of resources. We have agronomists, contractors, scientists, and others who understand farming and are ready to serve the needs of individual growers. We can rely on good equipment, good companies, and a lot of know-how.
That’s not true in Africa. The continent lacks machinery—and even if it had an abundance of tractors, planters and combines, it wouldn’t have people who know how to use them, at least not initially. In Ghana, you’ll find corn farmers, but not necessarily corn farmers who can take advantage of the crop-protection technologies that we take for granted.
What’s more, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what no-till farming can accomplish. On my farm, for example, we make do with about 700 mm of rain per year. Many of the farms in the African savannah receive 1000 mm of rainfall—but farmers there often assume that unless they irrigate, they can’t grow anything.
This just isn’t true. So we’ve made it our mission to export our expertise. We’re teaching these farmers how no-till agriculture can help them grow more food where they have not before.
The AfDB believes that no-till agriculture can help millions of acres of African savannah support crops. If they ever do, they’ll help a troubled land meet its food-security challenges.
No-till farming won’t work like magic. African farmers need political stability, capital, infrastructure, machinery, and better access to technology, including biotechnology. Yet no-till farming is ready to make a positive difference right now.
As a farmer and agronomist, I’ve always believed in the power of ideas. We have to share experience and trade knowledge with other farmers. We have to learn from our mistakes, talk about what we did wrong, and think about how everybody can improve.
We have just one planet. We must protect it and make sure our farming, no matter where we do it, is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.
Edgard Ramirez, trained as an agronomist, grows corn, soybeans, and when the weather allows, wheat on a family farm near La Carlota, Cordoba, Argentina. Edgard is a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) where this column originates.