Miles Durand (right), in Lesotho
Lesotho is a small, mountainous country in Southern Africa. There has been an alarming two third reduction in its food production since colonial times. The signs and causes are self-evident and can be seen on the landscape and within the population. There is an urgent need to move the existing agriculture, in decline, to one of ascendancy in food production, and return the soil to good health and fertility. Many of the ingredients needed for this transformation are located within the country and its neighbour of South Africa. And within the world wide sustainable / conservation agriculture community, accessible on the internet is all the knowledge, information and technology needed to make it happen.
Lesotho has a mountainous land form with heights up to 3,500 metres. It is the source of some major southern African rivers. The soil types are formed from sandstone and basalt. The majority of its rainfall occurs in the summer months of December to February. Significant snow falls occur in the winter months, June to August.
The primary cause of its present subsistence, low production agriculture is a lack of organic matter. Living and non-living organic matter is essential to maintain soil health and fertility. A healthy soil has a crumb-like structure held together with a glue like organic matter called humus. This crumb-like structure, consisting of soil particles called a ped, is the soil water reservoir and the soil nutrient bank account.
So, how can the lacking living and non-living organic matter be put back into the soil? Cow horns, weeds and worms can play a major part in this process.
Cow horns are used to produce 500, a substance from the Bio-Dynamics sustainable agricultural system. Cow manure from healthy cows is placed in a female cow horn. The horns are then placed en masse in the ground for the duration of the winter months. In the spring the cow horns are dug up, the contents of the horn extracted and, in a dilute form, sprayed onto pasture. This highly enriched organic bacterial compound will stimulate the formation of organic matter in the soil. Over a number of seasonal applications of 500 on the paddock the soil structure can form, and organic matter, soil health and fertility increase.
Unwanted plants or weeds can play a very important part in increasing soil health and fertility. Many of these plant species have extensive root systems with deep soil penetrating roots. This enables these plants to successfully compete with agricultural plants and survive harsh weather conditions. Potential plant mineral nutrients are brought up from the subsoil by the root system of these plants.
Compost worms can play a very important part in increasing soil health and fertility. Organic waste material can be converted to plant nutrients or compost. The liquid worm manure can also be sprayed on to unwanted plants or weeds. This will give them a growth benefit and make them more palatable to domestic animals.
Cow horns, weeds and worms
Plants use less than half of the energy / food that they produce from photosynthesis. The remainder is leached into the soil via the root system. This energy / food feeds the many different living organisms in the soil, such as bacteria species.
A strategy is needed for returning the soil to good health and fertility. Farming is a high risk activity at the best of times and within it timing is everything. Using a strategy will reduce the risk and help get the timing right, and return the soil to health and fertility.
In late spring the first rain falls. This is when the field is sprayed with 500, worm juice / compost tea. The reduced temperature and first rains will make these additional liquids stimulate soil activity and plant weed growth. The weeds are allowed to grow until the true summer rain is about to happen and before setting seed. Animals are put onto the plants. The animals eat the weed plants before setting seed. Just before the animals are put to pasture it is sprayed with diluted honey / molasses. This will make the weeds more palatable to the animals. The animals will fertilise the field with their manure. Then seeds are planted in no-till fashion, using an animal- or tractor-drawn seed planter. If the summer rain is not likely to be strong, grain requiring less water can be used — replacing maize, with its high water requirements, with millet species which requires far less rain, for example.
The weeds have broken up the compacted soil with their extensive root systems, and they in turn have been eaten by the cows. The weed seed bank in the soil is reduced. The soil organic matter content has been increased by the 500, worm juice, compost tea and the cow manure. The seed has been sown into soil that is now increasing in health and fertility. .
Risk has been significantly reduced. There here has been a considerable reduction in the need for fertilisers, insecticides, herbicides and ploughing. The crop can be quickly sown by the no-till seed planter, whether horse drawn or tractor. There is flexibility within its crop selection system. This is a low input system with potential for a high production. That the soil health and fertility is maintained and increased makes for a more sustainable agriculture.
This strategy, to my knowledge, has yet to be put into practice here in Lesotho. Many people talk about climate change and the decline in agricultural production. This is my way of making an attempt to do something about it. The principles of working with nature; protracted and thoughtful observation and working with what is at hand , are the heart of permaculture design. I would like to receive feedback from anyone using this strategy for sustainable agriculture in Lesotho. Imagine, Lesotho, an organic mountain kingdom in the sky.