On-farm participation crucial for CA research

SA Graan/Grain editorial team
Published: 27 October 2020


Conservation agriculture (CA) refers to an agricultural management system based on the simultaneous application of three principles: minimum mechanical soil disturbance, an organic soil cover throughout the year and the use of crop and animal diversity, including crop rotations and associations as well as livestock integration.

Dr Hendrik Smith from ASSET Research (formerly positioned at Grain SA) is the conservation agriculture facilitator for the Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovation Programme (CA FIP). He believes that CA requires a radically different approach to both research and extension – it requires the development of innovation systems to adapt CA principles to local conditions.

SA Graan/Grain spoke to him about the aim of the CA FIP as well as recent changes to its structure and current projects.

Strategic goals
The CA FIP was established to manage, facilitate and coordinate the Maize Trust funds allocated to CA for well-selected CA projects and partners (especially producers) who wish to investigate, adapt, develop and adopt CA systems in their local contexts.
It was set up to:

  • Identify and select target regions and to choose research locations and participants.
  • Implement appropriate on-farm research.
  • Implement a monitoring and evaluation framework and process.
  • Create wider awareness and innovation capacity in the selected study areas and the broader grain production region on the practices and benefits of locally adapted CA systems.
  • Support stakeholder facilitation, governance, administration and reporting processes.

Structural change
For the past seven years the CA FIP has been implemented under the banner of Grain SA with the aim to research, develop and adapt CA in all the different contexts of grain production in South Africa, which include smallholders, semi-commercial (new-era) and commercial producers. Since 1 October 2020, the same programme falls under the banner of ASSET Research, which makes it accessible to all producers.

‘As the CA facilitator, I will coordinate the processes necessary to govern and implement the CA FIP. I will be supported by the ASSET Research team (Dr Andre Nel, Dr Jaap Knot, Gerrie Trytsman, Prof James Blignaut and the Mahlathini Development Foundation) and by people from key stakeholder groups, such as Grain SA (Grain Research and Policy Unit) as well as producers,’ says Dr Smith.

Dr Hendrik Smith is the conservation agriculture facilitator for the Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovation Programme.

In Ottosdal, North West, the CA FIP will continue with the project where CA systems are implemented for sustainable crop intensification in semi-arid, sandy soil conditions. In the last seven years more than 80 on-farm trials have been implemented in collaboration with the Ottosdal No-till Club and several successful awareness events were held, such as the annual CA conference.

The new Maluti project was established when the team met with producers from Ladybrand, Clocolan, Ficksburg, Fouriesburg and Senekal to get a general idea about the group’s strength, activities, vision, problems, opportunities, solutions, needs and possible actors (capacity) and their interest in a regional CA project. The group unanimously expressed their need and willingness to participate in such a project, which is the key criterium for any CA FIP funding. The main trials will be established at Ficksburg and Marquard.

In Mpumalanga another new project will research, develop and adapt CA systems with the participation of local producers. The main trials will be established at Standerton and two at Secunda.

On-farm trials in KwaZulu-Natal communal areas will form a crucial component of this adaptive and participatory systems research with smallholders, through bringing on board a team of appropriate researchers for quantitative data collection and monitoring.

On-farm trials
The objectives of on-farm trials are to improve experiential learning, improve understanding and adaptation of technologies to local producers and conditions, increase awareness among farming communities and facilitate producer-to-producer extension.

On-farm experimentation (trials) has three goals that support the vision of the CA FIP:

  • The generation of data on which to assess technology performance under realistic producer conditions.
  • To assess and understand how the CA technologies fit into the broader farming and livelihood strategies of producers.
  • Encouraging producers to actively participate in the trials to stimulate producer experimentation with and adoption/adaptation of new technologies and practices.

The main trials (also called ‘mother trials’) will be a complete randomised block design, consisting of three replications with the following treatments:

  • Conventional tillage systems.
  • CA (current system) with maize/soybeans/sunflower rotation.
  • Regenerative low input CA (ideal, future CA system) with cash crops (maize/soybeans/sunflower), (relay) inter-cropping, diverse cover crops and livestock integration as part of a four-year rotation system.

Appropriate measurements will be done on the trials, such as soil health, productivity, infiltration, economics and erosion. Various CA treatments (also called ‘baby trials’) will be tried out by as many producers as possible.

With an emphasis on on-farm research and the experiential learning that this generates, the CA FIP programme places the producer in the central role of establishing sustainable agricultural production systems.

For more information contact Dr Hendrik Smith at smith.hendrik@gmail.com.