In early 2016, when fellow farmers were despairing over plummeting yields linked to a major drought, Hamdi was busy harvesting maize from his land. He got 5.6 tonnes instead of the usual 4 tonnes from his one-hectare (2.5-acre) plot, despite living in West Nusa Tenggara, one of Indonesia's driest provinces where agriculture is at the mercy of extreme weather such as that brought by the El Nino climate pattern. "El Nino did not affect those practicing conservation agriculture, but those who weren't suffered a lot," the 38-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a sunny afternoon in Pemongkong village on Lombok island. Hamdi, who goes by one name only, was among the first in his village to adopt the natural farming method in October 2015, just before El Nino hit.
He was initially attracted by talk of possible savings because conservation agriculture requires less fertiliser, as well as less labour for weeding and preparing land. But the greatest benefit so far has been its ability to help Hamdi weather the long drought. Lombok farmers who practiced conservation agriculture were more resilient to the effects of El Nino, harvesting about 70 per cent more than those using traditional methods, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
"Conservation agriculture is about renewing the life of the soil," said John Weatherson, an advisor to the FAO. "It's about stabilising yield so when the shocks come, the farmers are sitting pretty." The method has always been around, but rising pressures from a changing climate, growing population and shrinking arable land have prompted "a search for more sustainable, ecologically conscious practices", said Catherine Chan-Halbrendt, an expert on the issue at the University of Hawaii.
In conservation agriculture, soil disturbance is kept to a minimum, using permanent planting holes fertilised with compost instead of chemicals. The soil surface is covered with crop residues as mulch, and farmers rotate crops or inter-crop between cereals and legumes.
These practices help reduce erosion and water run-off, and increase soil fertility and crop yields, experts say. Pemongkong villagers, who have tried the method for two planting seasons, say yields have risen. Alongside lower costs for fertilisers and labour, they have more money in their hands. Conservation agriculture is being adopted in other places, including Siberia which has millions of hectares of degraded cropland and Canada, where crop rotation has added organic nitrogen to the soil and broken cycles of pests and diseases.
In Indonesia, growing nutritious plants as cover crops has improved the diets of Pemongkong villagers, with many now eating long beans, soya beans and mung beans regularly. Saimah, 50, a rake-thin farmer whose two-hectare plot was affected by El Nino, used to have just one meal a day, but her crop yield has nearly doubled with conservation agriculture.
"Now we eat eggs regularly and meat once a month. I can finally have savings," she said. Despite its benefits, the concept was alien to many farmers when the FAO introduced it in West Nusa Tenggara and East Nusa Tenggara, two eastern provinces with high food insecurity, low rainfall and weak agricultural productivity, said Ageng Herniato, the agency's assistant representative in Indonesia.
"The biggest challenge we faced was changing their mindsets," Herniato said. Conventional farming requires heavy soil preparation and burning of unwanted biomass, which releases the carbon stored in it, contributing to climate change - none of which happens with conservation agriculture.
The FAO partnered with the Indonesian Agency for Agricultural Research and Development, and used demonstration plots to show farmers the new approach. It has now been taken up by nearly 13,000 farmers, and the FAO is working with the Indonesian government to incorporate it into national agricultural policy, the U.N. agency said.
Yet challenges remain, especially because many farmers are so used to conventional practices. The FAO provided Pemongkong villagers with high-quality composite maize seeds produced through open pollination, which can be reused several times and perform better during extreme weather conditions, said Herniato.
Yet Hamdi, who enjoyed two successful planting seasons, has no seeds left. He sold them all, partly because the price of maize was so good, and partly because he was worried yields would fall if he continued to use composite seeds. For the coming season, he plans to revert to hybrid seeds, which cost between 50,000 and 65,000 rupiah ($3.76-$4.89) per kilo. Farmers say about 30 kg are needed per hectare. "With hybrids, I know I will have to buy them every year and I will spend more money," he said. "But hybrids are easier to find in the market and more resistant to pests." This highlights how much needs to be done for farmers to grasp the pros and cons of different seed varieties, said FAO advisor Weatherson, who practices conservation agriculture in Swaziland where he lives.
Hybrid seeds have very high yield potential but require irrigation, or at least predictable rainfall and good fertilisation, he said. "I think what the farmers need more than anything else is... to be given all the technical advice they need to be able to make informed decisions," he said. - Thomson Reuters Foundation