WSU grad helps Malawi farmers go green

Dan TerAvest stands in a field with farmers.
Dan TerAvest, right, leads a field day in Malawi, explaining conservation agriculture results to dozens of farmers.

WSU researcher Dan TerAvest helped farmers find ways to sustainably feed a growing world during a three-year sojourn in Africa.

TerAvest, who graduated in May with a doctorate from Washington State University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, worked with farmers in the southeast African nation of Malawi from 2011 to 2014 to find out how sustainable techniques like crop rotation and conservation tillage affected maize, their underperforming staple crop.

Below, TerAvest answers questions about his Malawi experience:

What challenges do Malawi’s farmers face?

Malawi is a small country of 16 million people, and is one of the poorest countries on the planet. Agriculture is mostly subsistence farming. Land holdings are small. Most land on smallholder farms is planted with maize, the staple crop. But maize yields are low, five times less than the U.S. average.

Traditional land preparation is very difficult. Everything is hand labor; even animal traction is limited. Malawi’s subtropical climate makes for highly weathered soils. There is little use of fertilizer, compost or manure, so soils are depleted of nutrients.

What were you trying to do in Malawi?

My objective was to increase food production without putting too much pressure on the environment. I worked with Total LandCare, a non-governmental agency that helps rural communities improve agricultural production and sustainability. I evaluated the sustainability of three systems: Continuous no-till maize, which is the current model of conservation agriculture that’s most widely promoted in Malawi; conservation agriculture rotation, a very diverse system of rotation and intercropping; and conventional tillage with crop rotations.

What is conservation agriculture?

Conservation agriculture is defined by reduction or elimination of tillage; year-round soil cover using crop residues or mulch; and crop rotation. It has a lot of potential benefits: increasing moisture retention, improving soil fertility and quality, reducing erosion and suppressing weeds. It can save a lot of labor; you remove that intensive practice of hand-hoeing these big ridges, and it allows farmers to plant earlier in the growing season. With new crops, you can break up disease cycles and improve soil fertility.

You made a point of working alongside farmers. Why?

Too often, farmers are told that they ‘don’t know anything, they must listen to anything a field officer says.’ In fact, they know more about their land and their conditions than anybody else on the planet. Farmers may have better ideas about what will really work on their ground. There needs to be a conversation where farmers and those who are trying to help them adapt and meet in the middle.

I would go in the field with farmers; we all worked together. If you are just the supervisor sitting under the tree, you’re not going to get the same level of respect, and it’s not going to be as easy to work with farmers. Roll up your sleeves, go out and sweat as much as everybody else. You’re not coming to make them work, you’re coming to work with them.”

Which conservation practice had the greatest effect?

Rotation was the most dramatic practice. Most farmers would grow maize, maize, maize. A three-year rotation, planting different crops every year, was something they’d never done.

We used different rotational crops: cassava, pigeonpea, cowpea, and soybean in low-lying Nkhotakota province, sweet potato, pigeon pea and beans in higher Dowa province. My questions were: ‘Are these ideas feasible? Can farmers make enough money to do it?’ There answer was a big yes for increasing maize yields. The final year, we got 5 to 6 tons per hectare, three times the national average. The farmers had never gotten anything close to yields like that. They really saw the advantage of extensive rotations.

Did any results surprise you?

I wanted to look at conservation agriculture under different agro-ecologies. Everybody says it is the best thing – for soil moisture retention, infiltration, climate adaptation.

I found that in one district, the lower, wetter Nkhotakota district, this was true – it improved the capture and efficiency of rainwater. But in the higher, dryer Dowa district, we got no benefits. That’s counterintuitive. Most research on conservation agriculture says that the dryer you get, the more effective it is. But the wet area acted dryer.

My take-home lesson was that if you want to really be successful, you’ve got to be site-specific. Pay attention to individual situations and smaller regions. Ask what works and what doesn’t.

Why is this work important?

Malawi is a small country with a growing population. Globally, we are facing the same issues: How do we feed an ever-growing population without significant environmental degradation? Sustainable intensification is critical to both achieving food security and also reducing environmental damage, especially reducing the deforestation that results from expanding agricultural production onto lands currently under forest.

What are you working on now?

I am exploring uses for a handheld plant-monitoring device in a joint project between Michigan State University and WSU. I’m working with contacts in Malawi to see how this device can improve research and agricultural productivity in developing countries. It’s trying to take a big-data approach – if we can get a ton of data, farmers can get real-time feedback, for example, suggesting the best place to apply fertilizer. It lets farmers, development organizations, and governments better target limited resources.

• Learn more about the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at WSU.