Farmer Talita Matutu in Zimbabwe twists open an under-sized maize cob in a field she stopped tending after no rain came for months and most of her crop wilted.
“If the rains were normal, I would be harvesting a bigger cob with fat grains,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“As you can see, the small cobs are not mature and when you cook them they will be hard to eat.”
Many small-scale farmers across large swathes of Zimbabwe are suffering a failed harvest this year due to a drought linked to the climate pattern El Nino, which followed two years of good rainy seasons. The east was recently flooded after a cyclone.
Farmers like Matutu, 54, who have traditionally relied on rain to water their maize crop are experimenting with vegetable-growing and more effective drip irrigation to bolster yields and incomes hit by drought.
This type of irrigation, which delivers small amounts of water directly to plant roots, comes under an approach known as “climate-smart agriculture” (CSA), promoted by some scientists as a way to adapt farming methods on a warming planet.
Matutu grows maize – and now vegetables – on a five-hectare plot, half of which is arable.
After poor maize harvests, she started cultivating tomatoes, cabbages, butternut squash, rape and leaf vegetable choumoellier, using water-saving drip irrigation.
She is now putting it in for her maize crop too, although too late to rescue this season’s harvest.
Some small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe’s arid Matabeleland Province have adopted CSA technologies, which include more resilient seeds, as well as methods to save water and enhance soil nutrients, such as mulching and zero tillage.
But climate-smart techniques are still not working for many others because of a lack of supportive policies, extension advice, awareness and investment, they say.
“It is too hot, so the crops wilted as if they had a disease and I gave up on tending even though I had used improved seed and practised conservation agriculture,” Matutu said on her farm in Rangemore on the outskirts of the city of Bulawayo.
Conservation agriculture includes practices like minimising disturbance to the soil and rotating crops, to enhance fertility, prevent soil erosion and ward off disease.
Its proponents, which include the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, say it can help farmers increase yields and incomes while adapting to more extreme and unpredictable weather linked to climate change.
In late February, the United Nations and Zimbabwe’s government launched a $234-million appeal to help 2.2 million of the nearly 5.3 million Zimbabweans who will need humanitarian assistance until June due to poor rains and an economic crisis.
The government, which has announced plans to slash the civil service under cost-cutting measures, has limited resources to deploy extension staff to promote climate-resilient agriculture.
Climate-smart farming is boosting yields and incomes, and reducing farm drudgery while conserving the environment, said Oluyede Ajayi, senior programme coordinator for the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA).
The centre in 2017 launched a 1.5 million-euro ($1.7-million) regional project to help more than 150,000 smallholder farmers in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe cope with climate change.
It has enabled farmers in the three countries, who are vulnerable to weather extremes and food shortages, to use mobile phones to access weather information and to take out insurance.
Smallholder farmers have also adopted drought-tolerant seeds and started keeping livestock.
So far, the programme has shown that an approach combining different climate-smart solutions in a partnership between government departments, producer organisations and the private sector works best for farmers, Ajayi said.
Prosper Chikwara, a farmer in Umzingwane District in Matabeleland South Province, switched from rain-fed maize farming to horticulture production three years ago.
He grows sweet pepper, cabbages, onions and water melons using drip irrigation, which he says saves water by 90 per cent compared to normal flood irrigation.
By adopting climate-smart methods, Chikwara – who has also diversified into rearing small animals and free-range chickens, as well as mushroom farming – said he had improved the quality of his crop, fetching high prices at the market.
Drip irrigation is not labour-intensive, he noted.
“We just install the system and open our tap,” he said, adding that his yields for green pepper increased from 3 kg (6.6 lb) per plant to 7 kg.
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