Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Conservation Agriculture: 3 Keys to Reducing Soil Degradation

Soil degradation, often caused by a combination of physical, chemical, and biological factors, is a serious issue that the majority of farmers throughout the world face. Although degradation occurs globally, it is of particular concern in tropical regions due to numerous factors including topography, climate, and highly weathered soils. Furthermore, climate change is exacerbating the problem, with heavy rainfalls and extreme weather events such as storms and floods causing increased soil erosion. Many of Partners’ F2F volunteers work with smallholder farmers and farmer associations throughout LAC to minimize soil degradation in their cropping systems, frequently through the use of conservation agriculture.

F2F volunteer Dr. Andrew Egan investigates soil erosion and its impact on the Dominican Republic's Yaque del Norte watershed in March 2015.
Conservation agriculture is a set of three soil management principles that greatly reduces deterioration of a soil’s structure, composition, and biodiversity:

1) Maintain soil cover at all times. Maintaining soil cover throughout the growing season may include the use of intercropping, mulching, and reducing plant spacing to decrease soil exposure. During the offseason, farmers can maintain soil cover by mulching their field using crop residues and other organic matter and/or growing a cover crop. Maintaining soil cover in this manner can help increase the soil organic matter, available nutrient levels, and soil water holding capacity. It will also help protect the soil from erosion caused by wind and rain.

2) Minimize tillage. Tillage should only be performed enough to sow the seed. Excess tillage, especially in the tropics, leads to rapid decomposition of organic matter and major soil losses in heavy rainfalls. Depending on the climate, vegetation, topography, biota, and parent material, it can take at least 100 years to form an inch of top soil. As tropical soils are frequently low in organic matter and fertility, it is critical to protect the little that exists.

3) Practice regular crop rotations. Rotating crops will help reduce pest and disease pressure in the soil. Additionally, since different plants have different nutrient requirements, this can allow soils to replenish their nutrient bank – especially when rotating with nitrogen-fixing crops.

Using these principles and other soil conservation practices, Partners' F2F volunteers continue working with hosts throughout LAC to reduce soil degradation and help farmers develop more sustainable cropping systems. For more global research and resources on conservation agriculture, please visit: http://conservationagriculture.mannlib.cornell.edu/

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