Package 43, Script 5
A Woman Farmer Fallows with Trees
Jennifer Zulu is a farmer in a small village in Zambia. She is the mother of five children. Jennifer works a small piece of land, about two hectares, that was loaned to her by her brother. She works it alone. She grows maize, cotton and groundnuts. When the rains are good she can grow enough maize to feed her five children. But in the drought years, yields are low and she has to buy maize.
Jennifer used to buy fertilizer but now that there are no subsidies she can no longer afford it. If she wants to buy fertilizer she has to get a loan and sell her goat.
And there are other problems. About once a month Jennifer and her children hire an ox-cart and spend the day collecting firewood from woodlands far from her village. If she does not have any money for the ox-cart, they go on foot. Fuelwood is more and more difficult to find.
She says soil infertility and low yields were not always a problem. The old men say there used to be trees on her land, and the leaves from the trees fertilized the soil. In those days people grew different crops such as millet and cassava. They were not cultivating hybrid maize and using fertilizer.
Farmers in the area used to give the soil a rest by using grass fallows. That means growing only grasses on the land for a few years. Now there are too many people competing for the same land. If Jennifer left her field as grass fallow, other people, especially her neighbours, would come in and take over. They would plant one ridge at a time, taking more and more of her field.
So Jennifer, like hundreds of other farmers in the area, has looked for another solution to her problems. For the past two years she has been trying a new way of doing fallows using trees.
Using these new fallows is easy. Instead of letting the land rest with grasses, she plants trees. The trees she plants are called sesbania trees (Sesbania spp.) Sesbania trees are a good choice because they grow naturally in her area. And they add nitrogen to the soil. She plants the trees one metre apart in rows across the field. The rows are also one metre apart. She lets them grow for two years. At the end of this time, the trees are about five metres tall. Then she harvests the wood for fuel or poles.
While the trees are growing, many leaves fall onto the ground. These leaves decay and provide the soil with plenty of nitrogen. After two or three years, the trees can be cut back or removed easily, often just by pulling them. The roots that remain in the soil will slowly decompose, adding more organic matter to the soil.
So when Jennifer is ready to plant her next maize crop, the land that has been resting for two years with the trees is more fertile. It is true that she can't grow maize in her field for two years. But at the end of those two years when she can plant maize again, she gets a better yield. The soil is more fertile and full of life.
Fallows are not new. Farmers have always used fallows, but conditions have changed and grass fallows are no longer practical, especially with the pressure for land. The fallows with sesbania trees work for Jennifer Zulu because they help to solve her most immediate problems - declining harvests and pressure for land. They allow her to rest her land, retain ownership of it, and build its fertility all at once.
Jennifer Zulu is a member of a women's club with 22 members from nearby villages. The club meets in the afternoons, after the daily chores are finished. They share information they get from researchers at the Zambia/International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) project and from technical officers and extension workers from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Since 1986 the Zambia/ ICRAF agroforestry project has been working to increase yields and to improve the management of natural resources in the area. Researchers have been testing several agroforestry methods, including fallows with many species of trees and shrubs. Species tested include Sesbania macrantha, Tephrosia vogelii, Leucaena leucocephala, Gliricidia sepium, Senna siamea, Cajanus cajan, Senna spectabilis, Flemingia macrophylla, and Calliandra calothyrsus. So far, the most successful of these has been Sesbania sesban. The project has been working with specimens of this species collected from all over southern Africa.
For more information about this research contact:
Dr. Freddie Kwesiga, Project Leader, Zambia/ICRAF/AFRENA Agroforestry Project, c/o Provincial Agriculture Office (Eastern Province), P.O. Box 510046, Chipata, Zambia. Fax: 260-62-21404
- This script was adapted from "Farmers who fallow with trees" by Joan Baxter in Agroforestry today, July-Dec. 1995, volume 7, No. 3-4, pages 8-10. Published by the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, ICRAF House, United Nations Avenue, Giriri, P.O. box 30677, Nairobi, Kenya.
- The production of this script was made possible with the generous support of Nancy's Very Own Foundation, Toronto, Canada.