Agriculture is undoubtedly as intricate as it is a noble art. The working of the soil is the heart and soul of industrialisation, as well as the day to day fuel that runs an economy. But what happens when such a sensitive industry is faced with an ever-escalating challenge of diminishing resources such as labour, against a surging population?
Modern agriculture invented the monoculture system of farming as a solution. A type of cultivation where farmers put their land to extensive production of one given crop, year after year. In Kenya, this could well be tea, coffee, maize or any other crop that has dominated and ruled the soils for decades. But have you ever thought of the effects this popular system of farming could be causing your farm?
Scientific research has proved that monoculture system reduces labour costs for a farmer. Better still, it simplifies the process of farm mechanisation, thus easing such processes as weeding and spraying.
Contrasting research findings have however painted a grim picture of monoculture. So dreadful that even developed countries and regions such as the European Union have put in place firm regulations that entice farmers; even compel them; to practise farming systems that encourage diversity and foster a healthy ecosystem.
This drastic switch was not easy to adopt. Indeed it was fiercely contested by policy makers and the farmers themselves. In the long run, it was proved that monoculture did indeed kill the soil, and was not a sustainable farming system. As a result, millions of tax payer’s money is now being used to help the region gradually adopt diversification and crop rotation as measures to heal the soil and environment.
While such policies are being implemented in developed countries, many Kenyan farmers are still oblivious of the harm they are causing their soils through monoculture. As a farmer, you need to start thinking about the health of your soil, and put in measures that will naturally replenish the life in the soil before it is too late.
Recovering the right balance of the soil properties such as the carbon percentage, mineral balance and optimum population of soil microbes can take decades, and cost you millions in the long run. It is thus important for farmers to make a gradual switch to a more sustainable system, which should include crop diversification and rotation.
Why diversify? Crop diversification is the growing of different plant species within a given farm. For successful implementation of this system, it is important to ensure you grow plants that interact positively to the benefit of each other, the soil and the environment.
One could for instance plant plots of beans or Lucerne within a maize farm to break the monoculture. While beans will offer additional nutritional benefit to the farmer’s kitchen, they will also help replenish the soil through the nitrogen fixation process.
Lucern, on the other hand, is a popular animal feed which is rich in protein, and extremely effective in nitrogen fixation in the soil.
This replenishes the soil, and can highly boost yields of crops such as maize in subsequent seasons. Besides, the perennial animal feed helps bind loose soils by its root system, and thus prevent soil erosion. It also aids in healing of a damaged soil structure among other benefits.
Crop diversification is also handy in preventing epidemic spread of crop pests and diseases. Since a given pest or disease would thrive in a given type of organism, diversification interrupts their spread by introducing a different crop species. Although mixing different species of crops in a farm cannot eradicate disease and pest infestation, it is effective in keeping it under control.
Total crop failure
The single most important factor pushing farmers to adopt crop diversification is probably the risk of massive crop loss. This predicament has cost farmers millions of shillings each passing year, and with the complications of climate change, things can only get worse.
The Ireland’s monoculture tragedy.
One of the most glaring incidences of total crop loss is the Ireland’s potato famine which resulted to the death an inconceivable one million people and the emigration of more than two million. The nearly total crop failure in mid 1800 led to a sudden crush of Ireland’s population. To date, the once thriving “potato” economy is yet to recover from the devastation caused by the sudden withering of the lumper potato, which was to Ireland, what maize is to Kenya. It is however in the power of every individual farmer to prevent such a disaster. Instead of relying on one or two types of crops in your farm, diversify to a few other crops to caution you in the time of need, and heal your soil at the same time.
The writer is a science communication expert, consultant, and university lecturer