Razed farms take a toll on crop yields

The practice of burning maize stalks on farms by most farmers who find no use for them after the maize harvest is working against them with agricultural officers sounding the alarm that the practice is responsible for destroying soil matter and ultimately fertility.

This may come as a shocker to thousands of smallholder maize farmers who have made it a habit to burn the stalks where they harvest the maize. The reasoning is that transporting the stalks is tedious and costly. They therefore prefer to harvest, and burn the stalks at the harvest point. Rita Kemunto one such farmer from Nakuru knows now more than ever the dangers of burning stalks.

Scientists now say that the practice of burning of the stalks in farms is responsible for the dismal fertility rates of Kenyan soils. “Burning crop waste is a tragedy to the soil’s productivity capacity. You merely destroy the organic matter needed to enhance the soil fertility,” said Julius Khaemba, a soil science lecturer at Egerton University.
Khaemba said the organic matter such as maize stalks is important in improving the water holding capacity of the soil.

This, he said, prevents quick crop withering during the dry season as there is a surplus supply of moisture.
With the rising concern over the declining levels of fertility in the agricultural lands in the country, the crop waste provides an organic remedy according to the soil expert.

“The organic matter provides something like a sponge to which the nutrients such as potassium, magnesium and calcium attach themselves to. And so, once you burn the crop waste, you are basically destroying the nutrients needed for crop growth,” he said.

Studies done by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, have shown declining soil fertility in the high potential areas across the East African nation. The researchers attribute this to poor farming practices which involve inappropriate methods of land preparation which expose the soil to erosion and therefore carrying away the nutrients to areas where they are not needed.

Even though, burning of the crop waste becomes an easy way for the farmers to deal with bulk in their farms, Khaemba said, adding that it is detrimental to the sustainability of the environment due to its extended effects.
“The soil washed from the farms ends up in the rivers causing siltation. Some of the soil also contains the pesticides which are harmful to the aquatic organisms,” he said.

Kevin Ochieng’, an environmentalist, said burning of the crop wastes results to an increase in the release of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere thereby speeding up the rate of global warming. “The process of burning the organic matter converts the nutrients into carbon dioxide, the gas that highly contributes to global warming, an eventuality that is influencing shifts in the rainfall patterns,” he said.

He said there is need for rural farmers to be informed on better ways of disposing off the crop waste instead of burning it. Although, the rural small scale farmers contribute to 85 percent of the total food production in the country, comprehensive accessibility to information on productive and sustainable means of farming is still a concern as informed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation.