Conservation agriculture can be economically beneficial for many countries, while also promoting restorative soil management by improving soil nutrition and fertility, according to the Conservation Agriculture Group at Cornell University.
A recent study, co-authored by Rolf Derpsch, Dirk Lange, Georg Birbaumer, and Ken Moriya, consultants and extensionists in conservation agriculture and rural development with over 20 years of experience, found that smallholder farming systems in Paraguay fall behind middle- to large-scale farms in the development and support of conservation agriculture practices. Conservation agriculture is characterized by three principles: minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover, and crop rotation.
Typically, Paraguayan smallholders farm less than 20 hectares and these farmers comprise the majority of the country’s farming population, approximately 240,000 farm families. However, these small-scale farms are susceptible to bureaucratic, structural, and technical shortcomings, which can work against the adoption and sustainment of CA, according to the Derpsch et al study. In contrast, export-driven middle- to large-scale farms, particularly in the Paraná basin in eastern Paraguay, are the biggest practitioners of CA in the country. This is made possible by the secure access to widely-distributed production cooperatives, which help them to develop a robust infrastructure, trading network, and knowledge base conducive to the continued use of CA practices.
Small-scale farms in Paraguay continue to experience highly degraded soils because the farmers lack funds and access to obtain fertilizers and seeds for cover crops, both crucial assets to the success of CA. The study also points to the challenge of cultivating a better understanding among smallholder farmers of the importance of no-till, and green manures – principles of CA – which can return biomass to the soil.
In addition, farmers implementing CA on highly degraded soils may not see significant improvements in soil fertility for many years, and can even experience initial crop yield loss in cases of extreme degradation. Transitioning from conventional to CA can take over seven years and several phases of rehabilitation to obtain healthy, sustainable, and fertile soils, says the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The study’s authors suggest that this could be a contributing factor to the lag of smallholder adoption of CA.
Despite the challenges smallholder farmers and stakeholders face in implementing CA in Paraguay, the authors of the study cite potential for success via the cultivation of regional systems of development that ensure “research, extension, credit, input supply, and markets are functioning in a timely, opportune, and synchronized way.” One example, referenced in the article, can be found in Edelira, Paraguay, where extension workers and farmers joined forces in 1992, eschewing a “one-size-fits-all transfer-of-technology approach” for considering each farmer’s system on an individual basis. In this way, the work in Edelira has proven to be successful and sustainable, indicating the need for continuous technical support and incentives, and partnership between farmers, extension services, governments, and development organizations.