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Diversifying conservation agriculture and conventional tillage cropping systems to improve the wellbeing of smallholder farmers in Malawi

TerAvest, Dan, Wandschneider, Philip R., Thierfelder, Christian, Reganold, John P.
Agricultural systems 2019 v.171 pp. 23-35
agricultural conservation practice, agroecological zones, alternative crops, cassava, conventional tillage, corn, cowpeas, crop production, crop rotation, diet, disturbed soils, ecosystem services, farmers, food crops, food production, household income, input prices, labor, market access, no-tillage, pigeon peas, production costs, profitability, rain, risk, small farms, soybeans, sweet potatoes, Eastern Africa, Malawi
Food production and the wellbeing of smallholder farmers are constrained by their limited financial resources, poor market access, and inadequate institutional support in southern and eastern Africa. Conservation agriculture (CA)–minimal soil disturbance, year-round ground cover, and diverse crop rotations–is being promoted to sustainably boost crop production, increase household income, and diversify diets for better nutrition. In this study, three cropping systems–continuous no-till maize, CA rotation, and conventional tillage rotation–were established on smallholder farms in the Nkhotakota and Dowa districts, two distinct agroecological zones in Malawi. Diverse three-year crop rotations in CA and conventional tillage systems included the alternative food crops sweet potato and cassava and the grain legumes common bean, soybean, cowpea, and pigeonpea. The effects of cropping system on labor use and financial returns, which served as a rough indicator of feasibility and farmer wellbeing, were analyzed for three years from 2011 to 2014. Over the three years of the study, continuous no-till maize produced the greatest gross and net revenues, despite also having greater production costs than CA and conventional systems. Although substantially less profitable than continuous no-till maize, the diversified CA and conventional tillage rotations were profitable for smallholder farmers, partially due to lower production costs. Sensitivity analysis was used to test the robustness of each cropping system under varying labor, input, and output price scenarios. Altering farmgate prices had the greatest impact on profitability, regardless of the crop grown. The input and output prices for maize were stable over the course of the study so that continuous no-till maize was the most robust cropping system. In contrast, high input cost and output price variability for alternative crops increased risk compared to maize, which may reduce their appeal to smallholder farmers. Reducing the risk of conservation agriculture rotations could provide smallholder farmers with more diversified diets and greater ecosystem services, such as greater rainwater infiltration and storage to withstand dry spells. Based on the results of this study, policies that reduce input price variability and increase farmgate prices of alternative food crops would have the greatest impact on the adoption of diverse crop rotations in Malawi.