Small Farm 2 - Kasame
Low Productivity of Traditional Farming Methods
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A key issue in understanding the contribution of the agricultural sector to the economy of Zambia is the low level of productivity from the small-scale farms. As you walk around the farm there are a number of clues to why the level of productivity are low. There is very little machinery and much of the heavy work is done by hand or by the single oxen that the farmer owns. The farmer's family has to walk considerable distances to the small plots of land that are being worked. There are a number of reasons for this low level of productivity:
- Poor soil fertility
- Traditional farming techniques
- Low levels of technology
The low fertility, resulting from the acidic soils in the region, does not allow farms to be permanently located. Instead forms of shifting cultivation are adopted. The most common is Chitemene, a type of slash and burn method of cultivation. With this type of land management the time that the land is used to grow crops is small compared with the time that it lies fallow.
The villagers cut branches from trees in the area that they are going plant their crops. The branches are then laid out to dry. Before the rains start in November they are gathered up, heaped where the land is to be cropped, and burnt. The crops are then grown in the ash-enriched soil. The plot will be farmed intensively for 4-5 years growing maize and other crops such as ground nuts, millet, and beans. After that it is abandoned and left fallow for 20-30 years during which time another field is opened up for cultivation.
It has been estimated that Chitemene can only support 2-4 people per square km. It also relies on a high level of rainfall to guarantee the long-term fertility of the land is maintained. In addition there is an obvious need for trees.
As the population of Zambia grows such systems become difficult to sustain. The land is used more intensively with cropping periods becoming longer and the periods of fallow becoming shorter, often down to 12 years. Soils become increasingly infertile and crop yields decline. Each km of land becomes less and less able to support the family or village that farmed it.
In the 1970s and 80s this put pressure on small-scale farmers to break with traditional slash and burn methods and adopt more modern techniques that raised the productivity of the land. Since Independence the government subsidised small-scale farmers by ways of providing cheaper low cost imported fertilisers. However with the agricultural reforms in the 1990s by President Chiluba's government in response to the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the IMF, these subsidies have been reduced or cut back forcing up the price of fertiliser. Many small-scale farmers have been unable to afford the new prices or the cost of transporting it from the warehouses and have had little option to return to Chitemene. However now the population density in many areas has risen to 12 people per sq. km, a level that cannot be sustained with slash and burn agriculture. This will only further decrease crop yields and increase land infertility. Perhaps the ideas of the Reverend Thomas Malthus are relevant here.
There is also some evidence that even those farms that are able to continue intensively grow maize in response to government requests are experiencing decreasing crop yields due to lack of crop rotation and the negative effects of overusing chemical fertilisers.
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Related Glossary Items:
The Impact of Farming on the Environment
The Structural Adjustment Policies of the IMF
Malthus and the law of diminishing returns