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Farmers reap double growing trees with crops

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Small­holder farm­ers in Kenya are em­bra­cing plant­ing trees that do not com­pete with crops for nu­tri­ents a ven­ture that is pay­ing off with some of the trees even fer­til­iz­ing the soils while of­fer­ing the farm­ers extra in­come.

The prac­tice known as agro­forestry has been cham­pioned by gov­ern­ment and other ag­ri­cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions as hav­ing re­turned im­press­ive res­ults in the other parts of the world like India and Vi­et­nam where it has been prac­ticed.

In Kenya it is being hailed as a prac­tice that is key in shield­ing farm­ers from the vagar­ies of weather that have be­come com­mon place.

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John Chep­soi a farmer in Na­k­uru has suc­cess­fully em­braced agro­forestry which is bring­ing nu­mer­ous be­ne­fits to him, his live­stock, crops, soil, and the en­vir­on­ment at large. They are Ni­tro­gen Fix­ing Trees (NFTs). It began when he planted a few trees on a sec­tion of the plot four years back. He ob­served that the soil in the area with the trees usu­ally looked fer­tile and alive. The crops were health­ier and yiel­ded more com­pared to the bare land. This led him to in­tro­duce more trees on his plot to in­crease fer­til­ity and in­crease pro­duc­tion. He has har­ves­ted pota­toes and his beans are blos­som­ing. He is ex­pect­ing a good har­vest this sea­son as he says all sys­tems are func­tion­ing well under this agro­forestry method of farm­ing.

He uses the trees as fod­der for live­stock and also as fire wood. When cut, he says that they are able to cop­pice again, hence avoid­ing the urge to in­vade the forest. Some of these trees in­clude: gre­villea, luceana, cal­li­andra, aca­cia and ses­bania ses­ban. The Kenya Forestry Re­search In­sti­tute (KEFRI) provides use­ful in­form­a­tion to field work­ers and farm­ers on dif­fer­ent use­ful trees that can be planted in farm­land.

One ex­ample of the aca­cia tree, which has long been com­bined with tra­di­tional farm­ing in Africa, is theFaid­herbia al­bida, also known as “Mgunga” in Swahili. It pos­sesses the unique abil­ity to pro­duce much needed ni­tro­gen for the soil and plants. With its phen­o­logy, Faid­herbia goes dormant and sheds its ni­tro­gen-rich leaves dur­ing the early rainy sea­son, when crops are being planted, and re­sumes leaf growth in the dry sea­son.

All nat­ural

Through an agro­forestry sys­tem, John farms without the ap­plic­a­tion of syn­thetic fer­til­izers (DAP/CAN) com­monly used by many farm­ers, but lets nature per­form this duty through NFTs. His style of farm­ing has been a pro­duct­ive and con­ser­vat­ive one, and he sees these as a long-term strategy and is happy he fol­lowed the path of agro­forestry. “The good­ness of agro­forest trees is that they are there to offer their free ser­vices all year round,” he adds.

He is plan­ning to es­tab­lish an agro­forestry nurs­ery in the fu­ture where he can raise and sell seed­lings to other farm­ers, in the ef­fort of spread­ing the be­ne­fits of agro­forestry in build­ing sus­tain­able fu­ture and earn­ing in­come.

John ex­plains that dur­ing the dry sea­son, from Decem­ber to March, some trees are able to shed their leaves, while oth­ers re­main green, which he uses to feed his live­stock. He fur­ther says that pro­du­cing staple food crops like maize, sorghum and mil­let under these agro­forestry con­di­tions dra­mat­ic­ally in­creases their drought re­si­li­ence in dry years be­cause of the pos­it­ive soil mois­ture and bet­ter mi­cro­cli­mate.

The fallen leaves, weeds and crop residues don’t go to waste. They are heaped to nat­ur­ally de­com­pose and later used to fer­til­ize the farm. John is keen not to throw away any of this, as he calls it a treas­ure. After they are heaped, they usu­ally at­tract many be­ne­fi­cial micro or­gan­isms, which feed on them. As we turn a heap to­gether, there were hun­dreds of earth­worms at work. Earth­worms are de­scribed as “eco­sys­tem en­gin­eers.” Charles Dar­win re­ferred them as “Earth ploughs.”

They con­trib­ute to en­rich­ing and im­prov­ing soil for plants, an­im­als and even hu­mans. Earth­worms cre­ate tun­nels in the soil by bur­row­ing, which aer­ates the soil to allow air, water and nu­tri­ents to reach deep within the soil. Earth­worms eat the soil which has or­ganic mat­ter. After the or­ganic mat­ter is di­ges­ted, the earth­worms re­lease waste from their bod­ies, called cast­ings, which con­tain many nu­tri­ents for the crops. As an im­port­ant ad­di­tion to their other roles, trees not only act as nat­ural fer­til­izers, but as niche for these hard­work­ing earth­worms and mi­cro­bial life.

Through con­stant prun­ing and cut­ting fire­wood, he is able to in­crease the or­ganic mat­ter (leaves) in the soil, which act as mulch, keep­ing it moist and well aer­ated, and in­creases the activ­ity and pop­u­la­tion of mi­cro­bial life in the soil. The leaves also act as humus, a very im­port­ant fea­ture in build­ing soil fer­til­ity.

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Other be­ne­fits

John also ac­know­ledges that trees are able to sup­press weeds, re­du­cing the time and en­ergy needed for weed­ing, and pro­mot­ing “easy to work” soil. Other trees, like lue­cena, at­tract bees dur­ing flower­ing. While col­lect­ing nec­tar, they help in pol­lin­a­tion and re­pelling harm­ful in­sects. Trees here are able to provide a mi­cro­cli­mate. The place is cool, and you could feel the breeze. John says he is able to work without feel­ing the hot sun, and the same ap­plies to the crops. “These trees pro­tect my crops from both dry sea­son and heavy rains,” John says. And adds that, “it con­serves soils and re­duces run off in my small plot.”

With grow­ing con­cerns about how small holder farm­ers can con­tinue to feed them­selves in their small farms without des­troy­ing local eco­sys­tems agro­forestry is the best thing to hap­pen to sus­tain­able farm­ing. I ap­plaud small scale farm­ers like John and hope that other small scale farm­ers will fol­low suit and plant trees on their farms for a bet­ter and more pro­duct­ive fu­ture.

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