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Carl Wahl out in the field, far right.

Carl Wahl’s interest in farming was sparked during a stint with the Peace Corps in Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa. His work on maternal and child health and nutrition led him into agriculture as he sought to integrate edible legumes into local farms and diets. Wahl returned to the U.S. to study agroecology at CALS and then went back to Africa, first with the Peace Corps and now with the Ireland-based charity Concern Worldwide, which he serves as the conservation agriculture coordinator in Zambia and neighboring Malawi.

What’s your understanding of “conservation agriculture”? Conservation agriculture (or CA) is a practice to retain moisture and nutrients in the soil to boost short-term crop productivity and long-term sustainability of farmland. CA is essentially a combination of three principles: minimum tillage, retaining soil residues and crop rotation with legumes.

It is similar to what is increasingly a practice in the Midwest. However, in Zambia, Concern Worldwide is working with the poorest (i.e., resource-limited) farmers, who essentially have a hoe and possibly an axe as their entire repertoire of farming tools and farm in an incredibly less forgiving environment. Therefore we include such sustainable agriculture aspects as agroforestry, supplemental mulching and microdosing of inputs (fertilizer, manure, compost, indigenous tree leaves, wood ash, etc.) in order to better translate limited funds and labor into greater yields.

How does conservation agriculture work in Zambia and Malawi? In either country, the word “food” means maize (corn), specifically maize meal for a dish called nshima. Both countries consider nshima a staple food to the extent that they rank in the world’s top three per capita direct consumers of maize. However, a heavy feeder like maize in an environment with limited nutrient (fertilizer) supply and undependable rainfall is an unreliable crop. In Malawi and Zambia, CA practices help mitigate much of the risk associated with growing maize. Additionally, CA’s capacity to include legume crops provides more protein to the household’s diet.

How have you seen conservation agriculture help people? The Western Province of Zambia, where I work, is situated on a drift of eolian sand that is roughly the size of Wisconsin. In the 2012–2013 season, our cumulative rainfall was above normal; however, instead of being distributed over four to five months as usual, we received two-thirds of it over 4.5 weeks and the other third in three days. All the conventional maize failed. Though the CA farmers were also affected, nearly everyone reported that without CA, they would have had no maize whatsoever. That is a pretty powerful incentive to adopt the technology.

What projects are you most excited about?  The first is our effort to engage and develop certified seed grower groups on a larger scale to provide a variety of quality seed to farmers at lower cost. We are over 300 miles from most of the seed producers in Zambia, so bringing that resource closer can really relieve the chronic pressure of getting an adequate and high-quality seed supply.

The second is use of the burgeoning mobile phone network to send text messages that can pass on Extension messages as well as market information to farmers, enabling them to both produce more and sell more at a better price. The potential ability to transmit information quickly and cheaply could be a real game-changer in our agriculture picture in both Zambia and Malawi.