Determining the potential for smallholder organic production among three farming groups through the development of an empirical and participatory decision support tool.
Thamaga-Chitja, Joyce Magoshi.
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Organic farming is increasingly viewed as a plausible production system for sustainable agriculture for smallholder farmers. However, there is not enough scientific evidence and knowledge to advocate certified organic farming for African smallholder farmers who face several constraints related to production, storage and marketing. The potential for organic farming for smallholder farmers, faced by these constraints, is not clearly defined. As a result, this study set out to evaluate the production potential of organic agriculture among three smallholder farmer groups. Production questions were used to investigate and evaluate the potential for organic agriculture among three smallholder farmer groups and constituted the following subproblems: · What crops can be grown in the three study areas, based on climatic data ? · Do farmers concur that these are the most suitable potential organic crops? · How useful do the farmers find the decision making tool? · What constraints threaten commercial production of the identified crops for these farmers? Participatory methodologies that included the use of Force Field Analysis, discussions and workshops were used to identify organic production constraints related to production decisions. Farmers faced constraints related to finance, capacity enhancement, technical knowledge, fencing, irrigation, and a lack of, or inappropriately trained extension officers. As a response to identified production constraints, a decision support tool was developed. Natural resource data, including climatic and agronomic data, was used to create a specially calibrated Microsoft Excel spreadsheet interface that functions as an empirical organic production decision support tool for organic and aspirant organic smallholder farmers, by providing answers for farmer-prioritised production constraints. A list of potential crops for each of the three study areas was subjected to a series of checks against suitability for climate and disease conditions and nutrient requirements. A limited supply of manure, to meet the enormously high requirements for organic production in the poor soils of these areas, is the major constraint to exclusive organic production and renders certified organic production difficult and unsustainable. Farmers disagreed with some of the crops on the list, arguing that familiar crops were rejected by the model, but they were excited by the prospects for production of “new” crops suggested as suitable by the decision support tool, but not yet grown in the study areas. End users welcomed the model and expressed the opinion that it would be useful in decision making related to organic crop production. The study concludes that, although a number of agronomically-suitable crops can grow in the study areas, organic production is restricted by rather high manure requirements, lack of compost making skills, lack of knowledge on natural pest and disease control and poorly nourished soils, leading to poor yields. The rainy season creates a disease-supporting environment, rendering organic farming risky for rain-fed smallholder farming. Risk in certified organic farming for smallholders was further exacerbated by a hardly inconducive policy environment that low literacy levels exist amongst farmers. This study is innovative for three reasons. First, farmers were true participants and drivers of the research. Second, trans-disciplinary expert seminars were attended by experts from different disciplines who critiqued the conceptualisation, design, and implementation of the study. Third, the development of a practical decision-support tool shows innovation towards solving complex smallholder farmers decisions. If organic farming is to be promoted, commitment by government is needed in order to establish policy and legislation on organic farming to direct and govern training, information provision and marketing. Intensive training and knowledge building of organic production for smallholder farmers and extension officers is critical. There are also agroecological risks associated with organic farming for smallholder farmers. Recommendations for future research include comparison between organic agriculture and conventional agriculture, where sustainability of certified organic farming and economic viability can be conducted in the South African context. Improvement of the decision making tool will require involving information technology specialists so that the tool can be installed in community centres, extension offices and other accessible places for farmers and others.
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