Our Best Practices Notes (BPNs) are concise summaries of interventions or approaches that have consistently proven to be effective in improving the lives of small-scale farmers in parts of the world where resources are limited. The practices discussed in each BPN are those that ECHO staff are most familiar with, based on first-hand experience or on reports from ECHO's network of development practitioners. Usually the practices mentioned in a BPN have been featured in previously-written Technical Notes or in our quarterly agricultural bulletin, ECHO Development Notes. References to these and any other sources of information are noted.
Each BPN, therefore, is an excellent gateway to a wealth of ECHO materials on significant farmer concerns. Every BPN begins with a description of the issue or topic being addressed. Next, recognizing that there is rarely a solution that applies to every circumstance, important principles are presented that can help guide decision-making in selecting and implementing the best practices that follow. At the end of each BPN, there is a list of resources for further reading, with links to supporting publications or presentations.
Below are the BPNs developed to date. We are eager to hear your thoughts on agricultural practices that you find to be most effective, as well as any suggested topics for future BPNs. If you have suggestions or feedback on Best Practice Notes please contact us.
7 Issues in this Publication (Showing 1 - 7)
By integrating legumes into cropping systems, small-scale farmers in low-resource settings can invest in the long-term health and resilience of their soils. Success or failure depends largely on choosing the right legume(s). With that in mind, this document presents insights on legume selection that ECHO has learned from comparing legumes across parts of Southeast Asia and through five seasons of legume screening and intercropping trials in South Africa.
Green manure/cover crops are plants used to cover and improve the soil, as well as to positively impact the ecology of the land and other crop plants. Many plants can be used as GMCCs, but this document focuses on legumes—plants belonging to the Fabaceae family. They are known for their ability, in conjunction with soil bacteria, to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into ‘fixed’ nitrogen that plants can take up. This process is called biological nitrogen fixation.
Farmers in many parts of the world, because of human population growth, have little choice but to crop their land continuously, with scarce resources to replace nutrients withdrawn by each successive crop. Crop residues are often lost as a source of organic matter and mulch, usually through burning or by removal for animal feed or cooking fuel. Especially where nutrient reserves are already low, and topsoil is exposed to erosion, soils lose their capacity to sustain adequate crop yields. Additionally, extreme weather events, adverse changes in climate, human conflict, and sickness can all work against smallholder farmers’ abilities to sustain the productive capacity of their soils. Conservation Agriculture attempts to address these problems.
Conservation agriculture (CA) is a resource-saving land management approach that optimizes and sustains the capacity of soils to produce food. In CA, sustainability is linked to the ecological preservation of agricultural landscapes. This is achieved through 1) minimal soil disturbance, 2) keeping soils covered, and 3) crop diversification. Implementing these three elements requires a combination of practices, for which there are many options. Thinking of CA as an overall system, rather than a fixed set of techniques, gives farmers and practitioners the freedom to evaluate and adopt a set of CA-related practices appropriate to local needs.
Yearly production of grains, pulses, and vegetables depends on a reliable supply of quality seed. This is true for the farmer growing a crop to feed their family as well as for the agricultural worker evaluating and growing out seeds of a new crop species or variety that could improve lives. In both cases, seeds need to be stored during the interval between the harvesting of one crop and the planting of another.
Focusing on the needs of agricultural development workers, there could be multiple reasons for needing to learn more about seed storage. Perhaps seeds or promising crops are brought to a project area, but they cannot be planted immediately. Seeds of valuable, local varieties may need to be stored for future observation trials or to be grown out in anticipation of a community seed exchange event. Proper seed storage techniques can be crucial to maintaining not only the viability of seeds, but also the credibility of agricultural change agents and the ultimate success of a plant introduction.
Seeds deteriorate quickly under high heat and humidity. Seasonal variations exist within both dryland and humid tropical regions; however, the humid tropics are especially likely to have extremes in both heat and humidity. At the same time, resources to create ideal storage conditions are limited in many parts of the tropics. Electricity for seed drying, air cooling and de-humidifying storage rooms may be non-existent or erratic. This document outlines practical steps and techniques that can be used to store seeds under such conditions.
ECHO frequently receives questions from members of our network, asking how available land could be used to grow food and/or create income to augment an otherwise non-agricultural project. Broadly speaking, they are asking how to begin an institutional agriculture project—a coordinated agriculture effort undertaken by an institution or community of people, for the purpose of creating economic, environmental and/or nutritional benefits.
Some examples of institutional agriculture projects are:
- 40 laying hens which provide eggs for an orphanage
- a medicinal plant garden on the grounds of a village medical clinic
- Four hectares of rice, three hectares of fruit trees and 20 beehives operated by a vocational school
- a moringa seedling nursery at a small, private primary school
This Best Practices Note explores common pitfalls and challenges related to design and implementation of an institutional agriculture project. It also outlines proven principles and practices that a development practitioner can implement in a variety of settings.
Pastoralism is a livelihood whereby people depend upon herding domesticated livestock. In East Africa, pastoralists depend primarily upon cattle, sheep, donkeys, goats and camels— listed in order of least resilience as one moves into drier and more arid lowland areas. Pastoralists play an important, though often underappreciated, role in safeguarding animal genetic resources and indigenous breeds. In caring for their animals, pastoralists have a unique ability to utilize vast remote, droughtprone areas by regularly moving their herds to the best grazing areas. In fact, East Africa’s most celebrated large conservation areas exist today partly because of pastoralists’ capacity to traverse and defend grazing areas, which helped create buffer areas of reduced encroachment by agriculturalists.
To better understand the migratory aspect of the pastoralist’s life, it is helpful to be aware of the terms “nomadism” and “transhumance” used to describe the primary forms of pastoralism. Nomads do not create permanent settlements but move to or carry temporary structures with them; their migratory pattern can change from year to year. East African pastoralists are “semi-nomadic,” having a permanent home base where some of the family stays while others are out with the herds. The diet of nomadic pastoralists is based largely on livestock and food gathered from the wild. During the dry season and droughts, animals are sold to buy staple food.
Smallholder farmers and agricultural development workers are reporting changes in climate. For example, during the 2012 ECHO Agricultural Workshop in Asia, 63 attendees representing at least 25 agriculture and community development organizations from across Myanmar were polled about their observations and opinions related to climate change. The vast majority of the respondents indicated that they were not only aware of climate change, but that they had also noticed change in the local climate or weather patterns.
Climate change refers to any significant change in the measures of climate (e.g., temperature, precipitation, or wind patterns), lasting for several decades or longer (EPA Glossary of Climate Change Terms). While opinions vary as to the extent and causes of climate change, its effects are very real to smallholder farmers struggling to produce food in areas where droughts, floods and unreliable rainfall exist. With smallholders numbering about 1.8 billion, and managing 22.2 million square kilometers of the earth’s surface (Simpson and Burpee, 2012), small-scale agriculture is key to reducing hunger and mitigating against adverse effects of climate change.
The UNCCD estimates that over 250 million people are affected by land degradation, and about 1 billion people in over 100 countries are at risk. According to the WMO, 33% of the world’s land surface is vulnerable to land degradation. Degraded lands lead to overall reduced productivity and reduced crop yields which directly impact population health.
Degraded lands are typically a more significant problem in areas with fragile ecosystems (deserts, semi-arid, volcanic islands, rainforests, etc) and in places with heavy population loads where people are forced to over-use the same land with no alternatives. Degraded lands are also associated with areas where the land is the main resource for everything: human food, animal food, building materials, fuel, income generation, etc. These pressures create constant “withdrawals” that, if not reversed, lead to exhaustion of the land resource.
This ECHO Best Practice Note details the problem of land degradation, and provides priciples and best practices for improving degraded land.