One step closer towards successful agroforestry in Liming, China

Meile farmers examining a virus on tobacco plants. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Meile farmers examining a blighted tobacco plant. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

The World Agroforestry Centre held a follow-up training workshop with farmers in the remote and mountainous villages of Liguang and Meile in Liming County, northwestern Yunnan Province. The farmers assessed local conditions, identified management techniques for issues raised at an earlier training. A communications channel for trainers, farmers and scientists was also established.

Both workshops complement an agroforestry project that was launched in 2012 by Pur Projet and Zigen Fund, following a request from French skincare company Clarins, to set up a project that would help research rare Yunnan plants, whilst also protecting these plants. For Clarins, this Yunnan project forms part of the company’s “Seeds of Beauty” program, which regroups projects implemented in different countries, aimed at protecting biodiversity and the rare plant resources on which the company depends.

Partners in Liming are Clarins, Zigen Fund, and Pur Projet

Partners in Liming are Clarins, Zigen Fund, and Pur Projet

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) signed an agreement with Clarins in November 2014 for a new project phase that will help farmers safeguard unique flora among which they farm, improve their productivity with agroforestry, and diversify their incomes. ICRAF supported a first workshop in March for five farmers, finding issues with soil water-storage capacity, drought, soil erosion, water run-off and soil compaction. At the follow-up workshop in June, attended by 17 farmers, ICRAF researchers Dr Anne Ostermann, Dr Peter Mortimer and Tim McLellan stressed that increasing organic matter in the soil can help counter each of these problems and introduced management techniques to accumulate and protect soil humus.

Farmers discussed soil-related issues and their current management techniques in groups. Heavy rain is a main cause for compaction and erosion; farmers break soil compaction with tillage, and apply household compost and forest litter to protect the soil surface. Soil erosion, on the other hand, is managed with trees, grasses, terraces, and forest litter to cover the top soil.

A farmer from Liming introduces his soil management techniques. Photo: ICRAF East and Central Asia

A farmer from Meile introduces his soil management techniques. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

New management strategies

As water shortages proved a major barrier to successful agroforestry in Liguang and Meile, the ICRAF team introduced potential new management strategies that dealt with drought first. In the discussion that followed, farmers identified advantages and disadvantages of each management technique. Finally, three out of six possible techniques were agreed on and farmers motivated to try each of them on a portion of their land to obtain comparable results.

First, planting winter cover crops would increase soil organic matter, increase soil fertility and protect the otherwise bare soil in autumn and winter; some varieties would even provide fodder or increase soil fertility. However, cover crops do require additional water, which is already very scarce in winter. The ICRAF researchers suggested sowing the cover crops between the main crops at the end of the wet season, before the latter was harvested. Depending on the situation, cover crops with deep roots or with value as animal fodder could be selected. Dr Ostermann offered to examine local soil conditions in greater detail and to identify cover crops appropriate for the area and key soil issues.

A second technique – planting crops in rows along the contours of a slope – would drastically reduce soil erosion and water run-off, especially when combined with winter cover crops left in the ground and minimal ploughing.

Third, winter water loss could be reduced with post-harvest tillage. However, this technique accelerates the loss of soil organic matter, requires extra labour and cannot be combined with winter cover crops. Dr Ostermann will assess soil moisture in Liming next spring in order to compare the water storage of soils under different management techniques.

Not such a good idea: Vertical crop rows expedite soil erosion and water run-off. Photo: ICRAF East and Central Asia

Vertical crop rows expedite soil erosion and water run-off. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Hands-on assessment

On the second day of the workshop, the participants were invited to Mr Li’s farm in Meile. This allowed a more informal discussion of the management issues and gave the ICRAF team a chance to assess on-farm soil quality and to further discuss management options. Dr Ostermann demonstrated a simple technique to assess compaction and stability of the soil aggregates. Soil aggregates are groups of soil particles that bind to each other more strongly than to adjacent particles. According to a definition by the US Department of Agriculture, the space between the aggregates provide pore space for retention and exchange of air and water.

In the more seriously affected fields, Dr Ostermann suggested deep-rooted cover crops to break up compact soils. Dr Mortimer dug up leguminous plants to show farmers their root nodules, which contain clusters of bacteria that fix nitrogen in the soil, making it more fertile. If such nodules are absent on leguminous plants, it is possible to inoculate them with the necessary bacteria to kick start nitrogen fixation.

Mr Li’s farm also provided a case for horizontal crop rows, planted along the contours of the slope, as his vertically-planted crop rows already showed signs of erosion and water run-off. Horizontal rows would form barriers to vertical water flow, allowing a greater volume of rain water to infiltrate the soil and distributing soil moisture and crop development more evenly.

At the farmers’ request, the ICRAF team also inspected a disease that farmers claimed affected their tobacco and, potentially, other crops. ICRAF will communicate their management recommendations to the trainers.

Dr Anne Ostermann demonstrating a simple technique to assess compaction and aggregate stability. Photo: ICRAF East and Central Asia

Dr Anne Ostermann demonstrating a simple technique to assess compaction and aggregate stability. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Setting up a communications channel

China’s mobile communications network coverage is very good and special prices and plans for remote farming communities have connected even the poorest to the internet. Tencent WeChat (which somewhat resembles a lightweight version of Facebook) is one of the most wide-spread instant messaging applications and allows chat groups. As most farmers own smartphones, the group agreed to set up such a communications channel so that farmers from both communities could stay in touch with each other and with the ICRAF team in Kunming. They could also use it to communicate new techniques when they were training their own community members.

The ICRAF team will distribute training material, an action calendar for the coming year, and agreed to communicate new findings and analyses with the farmers via the WeChat channel. Farmers will start practising the new management techniques near the end of the wet season and ICRAF will follow up in the coming year.

Internet and smartphones are wide spread in China. Photo: ICRAF East and Central Asia

Internet and smartphones are wide-spread in China. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

s.vandemoortel@cgiar.org'

Sander Van de Moortel

After obtaining his master's degree in linguistics and, later, journalism, Sander Van de Moortel chose to  leave his native Belgium for more adventurous lands. After a stint as a product manager for a German IT firm, he landed in China in 2011 after taking a wrong turn on a bike trip through Viet Nam. Comfortably trapped in Yunnan by his linguistic ambitions and his somewhat complicated relationship with China, Van de Moortel has been responsible for communications at the World Agroforestry Centre's East and Central Asia office, and is now assisting the communications unit in the Southeast Asia office. His research is almost exclusively focussed on exploring Southeast Asia's colourful patchwork by bicycle.

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