Exploring farming systems and the role of agroecology in improving food security, productivity and market access for smallholder farmers.
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Most smallholder farming areas in developing countries including South Africa are inhabited by resource constrained farmers, many of whom lack appropriate technologies. The farmers have largely had little education and up to 80% of those involved in agriculture are women. Smallholder farmers in these areas engage in farming activities oriented at subsistence and/or selling of surplus as a survival strategy. Most farms in South Africa where smallholder farmers reside are found in poorly developed areas in former homeland areas presided over by traditional authorities. These areas are characterized by less productive soils and poor and erratic rainfall. These farmers face many challenges including water shortages and lack of irrigation. The land is exposed to increased land degradation, and often they lack finances and cannot afford basic inputs and implements for farming. As a result of these challenges, farmers’ food security is affected. This study examined the smallholder crop production systems in these areas and explored the potential role of agroecology as a strategy to enhance their food security and markets access. Exploring farming systems which smallholder employs is important for providing a useful framework within which to examine agricultural development strategies and interventions impacting smallholder farmers in South Africa. The research was conducted in KwaZulu-Natal, Swayimane area under uMshwathi Local Municipality which is located within the uMgungundlovu District Municipal area (29°25’S; 30°34’E). A sample of 80 smallholder farmers was purposively selected for the study. About 300 farmers in Swayimane practiced agroecology, 26% of those were interviewed for the study. The aimed to establish whether smallholder farmers applied agroecological principles or conventional farming. Primary data was collected using structured questionnaires and key informant interviews. Focus group discussions were also conducted to generate detailed information on which farming system was incorporated in their farms and whether agroecological principles can enhance productivity on their farms. The sample consisted of 64% women and 36% men. In terms of age, most participants 36.3% fell between the ages of 46-60. Also most of the farmers attended secondary school 63.7%. The results show that different types of farming systems were practiced in the area. Smallholder farmers were practicing conventional farming, organic farming with conventional farming and agroecological principles in farming. The farming systems practiced were mostly affected by shortages of water. Farmers were forced to diversify their crops to those which are drought resistant which affected their profits as there was no established market for such crops. In addition, their food security was affected as there was less diversity of crops produced as a result of the water shortages. In employing these production systems, findings revealed that smallholder farmers considered yields, economic benefits, social and environmental factors when evaluating different farming systems to use in their farms. Hence farmers diversified their farming system by cultivating drought tolerant crops. In terms of agroecology, farmers were aware that agroecology is not a relatively new concept in South Africa as these methods were also applied by their forefathers. However as much as farmers were aware and also applied agroecological concepts and principles to their farming practices, many still used industrial fertilizers in a large part of their farms and a few farmers used organic farming. Farmers acknowledged that some agroecological principles including organic farming were very helpful as they are environmentally friendly. Despite benefits of practising agroecological methods of farming, farmers were still somewhat reluctant to converting from using conventional to agroecological methods of farming because of the perceived difficulties associated with practicing some of the methods of agroecology. The most commonly mentioned disadvantages included low yields from producing food using organic fertilizers and lower profits made from selling such produce because the yields were much less compared to those produced conventionally. With regards to market access farmers argued that markets demand consistency and quality. Hence farmers were not selling food produced organically because of low yields and the longer time it takes to mature. Accessing markets also comes with lots of institutional and social challenges which farmers find it hard to deal with and resorted to selling in informal markets. However, such produce was regarded by farmers as being healthy and methods of producing were less harmful to the environment, hence some farmers allocated smaller land portions to produce organic food products for household consumption. Results also showed that training farmers in terms of using agroecology was important as those who have attended training were applying some of the methods in their farms. However, the trainings given to farmers did not yield the expected outcomes as farmers were still somewhat reluctant to changing their methods of farming. Hence as part of the recommendations for training smallholder farmers should be on practical on-farm training and should involve practical work. This type of on farm training could be more beneficial than sitting and listening in the training room. The training given should involve relevant stakeholder in the community including the Department of Agriculture. For the future, the research be expanded to include two study sites for comparison purposes, perhaps another province to see whether the results would be similar so that one can then give a reliable recommendations as to what really is the suitable farming methods for small farmers to employ.