Close your eyes and image a corn field. Green stalks stretch to the sky. Tassels sway in the wind. Plump cobs sit tucked at the center. It’s an iconic scene. But, as Tatiana Isabel will tell you, all corn fields are not so perfect -- not by a long shot. Stalks can be brown, green and everything in between. Tassels vary in length. Cobs come in all sizes and conditions. And that’s just the start of it.
Tatiana’s family home and small farm is in Inhambane, a beautiful costal district in Mozambique, a southern African nation. But today, we meet Tatiana 1,500 kilometers from home in the inland Mozambican city of Ulongwe. Here, she is studying agronomy at UniZambeze, an agricultural university. She is equipping herself for a career in ag by taking classes that cover everything from producer-level practices such as planting and weeding, to the supply chain world of inputs, farm services and post-harvest handling.
Through the university’s partnership with the Feed the Future Resilient Agricultural Markets Activity -- Beira Corridor (RAMA), Tatiana is also learning about practices that enable farmers to build resilience to weather-related shocks such as hot dry spells and erratic rainfall. Funded by USAID and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit affiliated with Land O’Lakes, Inc., RAMA’s aim is to improve agricultural production by supporting smallholder farmers, the local private sector and universities such as UniZambeze.
Like many people in Mozambique, Tatiana’s family has a small plot of land where they grow vegetables and corn (or maize, as it’s called in Mozambique) for selling and for their personal use. Back when land was more abundant, farmers would purposefully leave plots uncultivated for a season or two, allowing the soil to naturally regain fertility.
However, increasing pressures on land have forced farmers to grow the same crop on the same plots season-after-season. This practice depletes the soil’s fertility and limits what they can grow. Farmers like Tatiana’s mother need to adapt to current growing conditions, but with limited access to affordable inputs such as improved seeds, technology, fertilizer and agronomic expertise, time is not on her side.
“This is knowledge of the past,” Tatiana says. “It’s important that young people learn and get involved in agriculture to move us forward. Agriculture is the base of development in Mozambique.”
This is where RAMA, and students like Tatiana, have an opportunity -- to help farmers adapt, with an alternative method to restoring soil fertility. Compelled by this opportunity, and by her curiosity to know the science behind how plants grow, Tatiana is preparing herself to lead her country into the future of farming.
The field is the best classroom
As part of its sustainability curriculum and through its partnership with RAMA, in 2017 UniZambeze launched a new program that give students like Tatiana a hands-on learning opportunity to practice improved farming practices on campus demonstration plots.
Using these demo plots, Tatiana and two other students are practicing what they learned in the RAMA trainings by prioritizing use of improved seeds, no tilling, proper seed spacing, and the practice of mixing fields with legumes such as pigeon peas, cowpeas and lablab. These perennial, nitrogen-fixing cover crops replenish soil fertility, repel pests (more on this later), limit weed growth, and even provide an additional source of food from the beans and leaves. Healthier soil can also help plants withstand heavy rainfalls and drought.
“Soil is like a sponge,” says Nic Dexter, RAMA-BC chief of party. “Poor practices such as tilling and monocropping destroy the sponge, making it unable to absorb water when it comes. Just a few small improvements on-farm can replenish soil health, which will result in more water retention and more resilience during drought.”
A challenge for the next generation
While traditional farming practices in Mozambique go back generations, Tatiana’s up-and-coming generation of farmers are facing more and more new challenges. One of them, a new pest to Mozambique (and to the African continent in general), is the Fall Armyworm (FAW). In its larval stage, it feeds on more than 80 plant species, including maize, rice and vegetables. If not managed, FAW can result in significant yield losses for farmers (FAO, 2017).
Tatiana is no stranger to this new pest -- it’s a frequent visitor to the plots she manages at UniZambeze. But, with support from RAMA, she is learning preventative techniques to combat the FAW. Last month, she received training from scholars at Villa Crop Protection, a South African crop protection company co-owned by Land O’Lakes, Inc. Here, she learned about a method for suppressing FAW called “push-pull.”
Luckily for Tatiana, it turns out that RAMA’s trainings on planting legumes already cover the “push” portion of the model. Legumes act as a repellent to the moth as it is trying to lay eggs. The “pull” portion, which involves planting attractive grasses around the perimeter of the field, pulls egg-laying moths of pests away from vulnerable crops. This practice not only help farmers combat FAW, but other invasive pests as well.
It’s harvest time
Three months into the new planting season, Tatiana and her peers are monitoring the UniZambeze demo plots. Since then, she has been learning as the plants grow, and sharing the lessons with her family back home and her peers in the classroom. But they won’t be the only ones learning from Tatiana. After graduation, she plans to bring Mozambican farmers into the future of farming by becoming an extension agent.
“I want to spread the word – about these technologies and about what I’ve learned,” she says.
And she’ll have a lot to tell. The results of the demo plots are already visible. With healthy, green maize stalks towering over her, Tatiana walks through a row of legumes to inspect a plant. She’s happy with the health of the RAMA-supported plot, and the improved yields she’s seeing. Without saying a word, she stands on her tiptoes and points over to the neighboring plot, where traditional practices are being used. These maize plants have a yellowish hue and are looking tired.
Tatiana’s eyes say it all – all corn fields are not the same.