Lessons Learned from Farmer Field Schools
“You see these cassava leaves here that are yellow?” Haje says as he points to leaves that are beginning to curl around the edges and are streaked with a yellow hue. “You see these leaves here that are all green and different? This healthy kind is a new type brought here- and you can see the difference!” Abdul Haje António (known in the community as just Haje) is the coordinator of the Primeiras & Segundas program in the districts of Moma and Pebane, and he is reinforcing the visual differences between local and newly introduced varieties of cassava during a recent trip to a Farmer Field School. P&S collaborates with several organizations in the community, including AENA (National Association for Rural Extension) whose June report states that: “Between the months of December 2011 and January-February 2012, 4 varieties of improved cassava were introduced into the FFS (FarmerFieldSchool). The varieties were Eyope, Orera, Colicanana, and Nziva which were grown along with local varieties.” The FFS’s serve as a communal plot of land where farmer associations are able to compare new farming techniques and varieties of plant species, and as AENA describes, “learn through the basis of direct observation and participation. The school is a gradual process of learning day by day. The rural farmer accompanies the growth and development of the plants, trying to take away lessons and conclusions based in experience, experiments, and through DRP’s (diagnostic rural participative analyses).” Farmers are able to compare different farming methods and determine for themselves which techniques are worthy of adopting.
The farmer association A Vida Commeça Assim (Life Starts Like This) is located in the community of Namuatho in the district of Moma. They meet weekly to prepare and tend to their communal plot of land, and also to sit and learn from their community demonstrator, Noroberto João Sene. Their farm is divided into 8 parcels, with each demonstrating a different type of experiment that will help the farmers determine whether new varieties of crops, new techniques, and pairing amongst different types of crops is something that they should use when tending to their personal farms. Several members of the association talked about what they’ve learned this year and how participating in the Farmer Field School has affected the way they prepare their fields. In response to the introduced technique of mulching (grass covering used to reduce moisture loss due to the harsh sun and to suppress weeds) and to abandon the practice of burning fields to reduce prep labor, Carlos António said “Conservation agriculture is different than our traditional method because burned land can only be used for 1 or 2 years and then the soil is poor. With these techniques, we can use the same land for many years.” Zakina Ali Jamal echoed his claims when she picked up a handful of soil and explained to the other participants “Mulching increases the fertility of the soil so we can use [the plot] for years. Without burning, the soil is more fertile and we keep worms in the soil that help the plants.” All members of the group agreed that mulching actually helped to slow the growth of weeds and they thus had to work less to keep their field clean. The participants were surprised to discover this because the traditional method of burning is used to quickly clear a plot so that it does not have to be cleaned by hand, but it was noticed how rapidly weeds grow back on burned plots as compared to these plots using the introduced technique of mulching.
Another valuable lesson learned through the FFS was how to organize the space to get the maximum amount of yield while still giving each plant sufficient room to grow. “Our traditional way is to burn the land and plant cassava in zig-zags, in whatever form, but not in lines. But now in FFS we have learned to organize in lines and we are leaving our old methods to start using this new technique,” Manuel Momade explained as we observed two plots side by side showing cassava planted in the unorganized traditional manner, and the other planted in organized lines at the instruction of the FFS demonstrator. The spacing allows the farmer to get a larger yield because each plant is given enough space to grow (and cassava underground tubers are given space to expand without competing for nutrients from overcrowding), while also maximizing the number of cassava that are planted to use the entire field. Planting other crops in the same area has a double effect of efficiently utilizing a small space, and increasing the fertility of the soil in the case of certain kinds of beans.
A major component of the Farmer Field Schools was also to introduce new varieties of cassava (a Mozambican staple crop). Many local varieties have succumbed to disease, as Haje pointed out to the participants. Yellow streaks on the cassava leaves mark a plant that is infected, and the effects are that the tubers are much smaller and that the vitamin-rich leaves are not as good to eat. The 4 new varieties were grown in the same FFS plot as local varieties so that farmers could see for themselves if these introduced strains were actually better. The results were astounding; according to AENA’s report: “It was found that the yield of the improved varieties was greater in relation to the local varieties. The varieties Eyope and Nziva presented an average of 5 kilograms of tubers per plants and the local variety presented an average of 1.5 kilograms per plant.” The members of A Vida Commeça Assim all said that they now have more food to eat at home and they have a better opportunity to increase their income selling fresh and dried cassava.
All of the members of the Farmer Field Schools in Namuatho and in Muelahipa (also in Moma) said that they will start using the techniques they learned during the upcoming planting season. Noroberto emphasizes “I don’t want to go back to traditional farming because I have seen the benefits of these new techniques. I am already using them in my own farm.” Farmer Field Schools are just one way in which the Primeiras & Segundas Program is engaging the community to take charge and play an active role in their own development. By giving them the resources and means, community members are being empowered to make their own decisions.