Smallholder farmers live off their land. They depend on the strength of their agricultural systems, using their land to grow food to feed their families while harvest surpluses are sold in markets for supplemental income. Generally, the success of agricultural systems depends on sound agronomic practices, access to and utilization of high quality seed and inputs, and the environment. In most agrarian societies or countries, deforestation, burning of croplands, mono-cropping and tillage are persistent issues that can undermine the efficiency and productivity of agricultural systems.
I experienced some of these challenges firsthand when I served as Peace Corps Agroforestry Extension Agent in Senegal from 2009 to 2012. I lived with a host family and worked with them and other smallholder farmers throughout my region. I witnessed firsthand the dependence that these women and men had on natural resources and the struggles they encountered on a daily basis – such as access to water and markets. In order to achieve high crop yields and diversify their incomes to include products other than staple crops, many barriers had to be overcome.
My host family grew rain-fed millet, maize, and groundnuts. They prepared the land, sowed the seeds, and weeded and harvested the crops by hand. The food that we grew had to last us until the next harvest. During my second growing season in Senegal, our village experienced severe droughts during the rainy season. Young crops were starved of water and struggled to survive – growth and productivity of the crops were inhibited. To help address this challenge, I trained my village and other on the benefits of planting trees around croplands. The root systems of trees increase the water and nutrient retention of soil, as well as provide partial shade to minimize water loss from the soil due to sun evaporation. I explained that when droughts occur, young seedlings have a higher chance of survival if trees are planted near them.
My time in Senegal taught me the value of training smallholder farmers on building resilient systems that can withstand shocks such as droughts. As climate change continues to threaten agricultural productivity, finding ways to help farmers protect and nourish the environment to mitigate against crop losses and yield declines will become increasingly important. Inspired by my Peace Corps experience and eager to build on my knowledge, I obtained my Masters in International Agriculture and Rural Development and joined the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Development Initiative.
The Clinton Development Initiative empowers farmers to maintain and protect existing natural resources while improving and re-building degraded systems wherever possible. Working across Malawi, Tanzania and Rwanda, CDI supports more than 85,000 farmers by: (1) integrating trees into cropping systems, (2) encouraging practices such as mulching and limited tilling to protect the soil, and (3) promoting crop rotation to minimize losses due to pests and disease. Resilient agricultural systems are stronger and more productive, and help to build a buffer for smallholder farmers to withstand environmental variables, ultimately leading to enhanced food security and higher yields.
In order to have enough food to provide for a nutritionally secure and economically thriving population, there must be strong and productive agricultural systems. By understanding what these systems need to reach their potential, we can protect the environment, substantially increase farmers’ incomes, and contribute to a healthier future.
In recognition of Earth Day, the Clinton Foundation is showing how climate change and sustainability are at the root of many pressing global issues. Our Earth Day 2015 series will feature different voices across our initiatives, to highlight the ways in which the Earth can be used as a valuable resource to advance progress within our focus areas on an individual, community, and global level.