“Too often we forget that the land is alive,” said Abdelaziz Ben Hammouda on his way to his farmland in the Mateur region of northwestern Tunisia.
The 63 year-old farmer has been sewing a variety of produce - including wheat, alfalfa, and beans – on his 200-hectare property since 1976. Ben Hammouda first started dabbling in conservation agriculture in the mid 1990′s – well before he had even heard the term. When he began to suspect that tilling was damaging his land and ultimately impacting his annual yield, he switched from the conventional plow to a less intrusive tilling methods.
Conservation agriculture is based on “no-tillage” farming, which aims to reduce the impact of farming on the environment and on the farmland itself. It is characterized by three principles, namely: minimum mechanical soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover, and diversification of crop species grown in sequences and/or associations. These methods represent an alternative to conventional agriculture, which is seen as increasingly unsustainable.
Conservation agriculture was formally introduced in Tunisia in 1999, through an initiative of the French Development Agency, the Center for Agricultural Research for Development, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, despite strong investment in this form of low-impact farming, particularly from international organizations, many farmers have been reluctant to convert. Today it is estimated that less than 5,000 hectares of land are farmed using this method.
Agriculture represents Tunisia’s third most important economic sector, accounting for 11% of the nation’s GDP. Approximately 20% of the working population in Tunisia depends on agriculture for its livelihood. However, according to an African Development Bank report, only 7% of Foreign Direct Investment to Tunisia was directed towards the agro-alimentary sector between 2000 and 2007.
One of the main challenges stalling the advancement of conservation agriculture in Tunisia is the initial financial overhead for the individual farmer. The price of a Semeato planter machine, which inject seeds into the earth without tilling, ranges somewhere between 30,000 and 42,000 dinars – fully three times the price of a regular planting machine. However, only 7% of this cost is subsidized by the Tunisian government – the same percentage as for regular planting machines.
“When you want to re-orient a sector, you need to give an advantage to those who want to get started – and the primary incentive is always financial. The state must set the example,” argued Ben Hammouda.
The price of these machines is out of the reach of the average individual Tunisian farmer – 65% of farmers own less than five hectares of land, and 80% own less than 15 hectares. In France, farmers have formed cooperatives to share the costs and the use of their farming equipment, many of which are grouped under the Coopératives d’Utilisation du Matérial Agricole. In a country like Tunisia, where only about 4% of farmers own over 150 hectares, farming equipment cooperatives could be a solution. Ben Hammouda said it takes approximately ten years for one of these machines to begin paying for itself.
At the same time, he pointed out that there are immediate benefits that translate into concrete financial gains. Ben Hammouda said that over a one-year period, he saves approximately 30% on fuel costs, decreased his use of herbicides by a third, and noted significant improvement in the fertility of his soil.
Importantly, no-till agriculture has almost entirely eliminated the occurrence of erosion on his lands. Erosion is a significant issue in northern Tunisia, where approximately 65% of lands are hilly. Furthermore, the region usually receives between 400 and 800 millimeters of rain per year. This year’s weather has been particularly severe; heavy rains have caused extensive damage and flooding, wreaking havoc on crops.
Through the process of erosion, the top 30 to 50 centimeters of soil wash out rapidly. This top crust is considered the most arable land. For Ben Hammouda, it constitutes the “farmer’s true capital.”
According to Ben Hammouda, the reticence towards conservation agriculture is also a question of mentalities. “For your average farmer, conservation agriculture is either a rich person’s affair, or it’s for eccentrics,” he said. He grew agitated, stressing that conservation agriculture wasn’t just “a sentimental affair,” or a “trend.”
“We’re talking about real gains, about cash,” he stated.
His results certainly are impressive. He operated the conversion from conventional to no-till agriculture over three years, between 1999 and 2002, starting off with just five hectares of his property the first year and rapidly expanding to a total of 175 hectares. “After the first five hectares, I was 90% convinced,” he said.
In 1999, he sowed two different five-hectare parcels of land with hard wheat – one in no-till and the other in conventional agriculture. The conventionally farmed parcel yielded 3,000 kilograms per hectare, while the no-till parcel yielded 5,000 kilograms per hectare, according to Ben Hammouda.
Driving over a road that cuts through his land, Ben Hammouda pointed to one side – almost intact, and the other – a sight characterized by mangled chunks of arable soil, displaced towards the road by a stream of trickling rainwater.
Why did only the land on the left-side of the road resist? “Ten years of no-till,” Ben Hammouda declared with satisfaction. “The government needs to come here to see this, to know … If we can’t analyze this and draw conclusions, then there is a problem,” he said.
It is also estimated that conservation agriculture could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Research cited by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization shows that the extra carbon dioxide retained by the soil in conservation agriculture, a process known as carbon sequestration, could offset approximately 40% of the estimated annual increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon credit payments for conservation agriculture farmers are currently being considered, which could result in an additional financial incentive for farmers to make the switch.
It seems that what is now needed is a state initiative to help subsidize the material costs of conservation agriculture, and to help raise awareness among farmers.
However, for Ben Hammouda, the real issue lies with the investors, such as the French Development Agency (AFD). In 2006, the French Global Environment Facility (FFEM) launched a €1.4 million initiative to help establish conservation agriculture. In spite of such projects, Ben Hammouda estimated that today only 4,500 hectares in Tunisia are farmed according to conservation agriculture practices, down from a peak of approximately 10,000 hectares. “The intensity of the beginning has lost its momentum… I cannot explain why,” he said.
Ben Hammouda has been involved in non-profit initiatives to promote sustainable agriculture, but was frustrated by the pace of change and by what he saw as inefficient use of funds. He wanted to launch his own group, a Union for the Cereal Farmers of the North, in which farmers could exchange their experiences in conservation agriculture. This project was supplanted by a larger-scale initiative, the Tunisian Farmers’ Union, whose commitment to conservation agriculture remains to be seen. Ben Hammouda also called for the formation of a lobby to explain the benefits of no-till practices to Tunisian lawmakers.
“The farmers need to be enlightened. They need to be shown the staggering numbers, the staggering losses,” said Ben Hammouda.