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What a Difference a Month Makes!

A belated Happy New Year to everyone.  Oops, I am a month late.  Have you ever let something important slip away only to find out a month later that the bill was due, or a deadline was missed, or that library book was not returned? There is usually a price to be paid.  Farmers in North America know very well the importance of on-time planting and the subsequent reduction in yield due to late planting.  

The pictures below, on the left, were taken December 10th, 2016 and indicate the healthy growth of corn on my demonstration farm.  Corn was over 9 feet tall and in tassel and a good harvest was promising.  It had not rained on the farm since late October yet there was enough soil cover (including nitrogen fixing beans and old crop residue) to protect the soil from the hot sun and protect the soil moisture that was present.  The middle picture shows a well-developed cob. The picture on the right shows amaranth and sorghum which are traditional varieties and are somewhat drought resistant.


One month later, January 18, 2017,  the same demonstration farm looked totally different. What appeared to be a promising harvest resulted in approximately 50% of the expected yield.  The combination of no rain at tasselling time, together with no rain at all in November, December and January and above normal daily temperatures (in the 90’s F) resulted in a disappointing harvest.  However we did get a harvest.  Some cobs were of a good size, others were poorly fertilized at tasselling and many were small.  The farmers we work with who planted a month later than I did received no harvest.  In fact,  many of their corn seeds did not germinate due to lack of soil moisture and the seeds that did germinate produced young plants which experienced drought stress and soon withered and died.  The situation in many rural villages is becoming desperate as farmers are about to run out of food to eat.



The pictures above, taken January 18th, are from the same spot on the demonstration farm as the picture on page 1 with Jannetta.  The corn is totally mature and dried off.  The beans, which are drought resistant, are still alive.  The mature corn stalks will be used as soil cover to protect the soil from the sun and possible soil erosion in heavy downpours.  With rain, the non-edible beans will continue to grow, feeding the soil with nitrogen which the next planting of corn will benefit from.

World Renews Conservation Agriculture trainings continue to focus on the use of drought resistant crops as well as encouraging farmers to plant legumes to build the soil health.  Our trainings are also focussing on the subject of reduced soil cultivation as a means to preserve soil moisture.  A new technology that we are introducing is known as ripping the soil – farmers in North America would call this chisel plowing or deep cutting of the soil. In the Lake Zone area here in Mwanza, we have identified a soil hardpan about 5 inches below the surface of many fields. This very hard soil layer, approximately 4 inch thick, is the result of shallow cultivation by hand hoe, shallow plowing by oxen pulled moldboard plows, compaction by the fact that animals graze the fields after harvest and mono-cropping ( planting year after year of corn on the same land).  The corn plant root system is not strong enough to penetrate the hardpan and therefore the roots tend to develop horizontally, rather than going deep down vertically like a tap root would.  Imagine the soil temperatures close to the surface of the soil and the lack of soil moisture during a drought. It is a tough environment for a corn plant resulting in poor plant growth and subsequent plant failure.



A traditional oxen pulled single furrow moldboard plow.  Phil’s design of a ripper replaces the moldboard.  The cutting disc is used to cut any existing crop residue which may be on the soil.

A 4 ox team pulls the ripper.  The goal is to penetrate the ground a minimum of 8 inch to cut through the hardpan and to develop a deep trough which will collect water when it rains.  The rip line should be deep enough to add manure.  Corn seed will then be planted on the rip line.



Fabricating the ripper attachment.   A ripper has been developed for farmers who do not have oxen but have access to a 2 wheel tractor (power tiller).  Shown above is a 14 Hp Kubota  (hurrah, hurrah) which is being demonstrated with a deep ripper and a cutting disc.  If traction allows, we can rip up to 10 inches deep.  Note the rip line of previous pass’s which show the trough shape we desire to achieve.  Below is the ultimate ripper, a 2 tine ripper capable of penetrating the ground up to 20 inches and requiring a 70 Hp diesel tractor.  




It is our prayer that the rains will come and that farmers will implement what has been taught in order to improve the soil health and soil structure of farm land which is “tired”.  World Renews Conservation Agriculture trainings on soil cover, green manure and cover crops, crop rotations and minimal soil disturbance together with some early introduction to mechanized agriculture will hopefully result in sustainable agriculture and food security for the farmers,  their families and the communities where World Renew is conducting trainings.



I was given some cooked corn (grilled over a wood burning outdoor fire) which was delicious.  The large basket in the background of the picture on the left is the storage for the corn which has been harvested in 2016 and shelled by hand (note the shelled cobs in the picture on the right).  The corn storage basket holds just over a metric tonne (2200 lbs) of dried corn which should be enough corn to feed this family of 10 for 10 months.  

Reasons for thanksgiving.  We are healthy and well and are thankful for protection as we travel to conduct trainings in the villages. We are thankful that the AICT Makongoro Health Centre, where Jannetta volunteers, has moved into their new facility.  We will share more about that in our February newsletter.

Reasons for prayer.  We ask for prayers for rain.  The lack of a harvest from the normal short rainy season (October to December) in many parts of Tanzania now places many vulnerable families at risk of not having food to eat.  The prices of dried goods (corn, rice, flour) in the markets are already increasing.  These food items become out of reach for people who have limited money to purchase food.  The next anticipated rains are expected to start in March and extend through to May.  Farmers are counting on these rains to provide for their families and it is our prayer that there is enough food in storage around the country to bridge the gap.   


Phil and Jannetta VandenBerg

Global Associates    

World Renew Tanzania.