Spring is just starting in Eritrea. The season begins in April and it starts to rain in the highlands and some parts of the adjoining eastern escarpments. The early and short rains, which usually start in March and continue until May, help plough the land with ease and sow crops that take long to grow. The main rainy season in the highlands lasts between July and September.
In spring, farmers in Eritrea till their fields in preparation for the growing season in July and for planting of the long-cycle crops. They level their fields and engage in soil and water conservation activities.
The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) assists farmers through the provision of seeds and fertilizers and through training programmes on different farming techniques such as crop rotation, the use of pesticides and how to take care of the farms. Regarding this issue, Mr. Kahsay Negash gave us a briefing.
Mr. Kahsay, director of the Crop and Animal Production at the MoA, stated that the MoA plans to distribute around 3200 quintals of quality seeds among farmers as part of its annual commitment.
Most farmers in Eritrea have good knowledge of agricultural practices. For instance, crop rotation and intercropping are widely practiced even if farmers have a tendency to grow food in their fields according and in response to market demand. But to help practice farming more effectively, the MoA has formulated a plan of integrated farming that was slated for implementation between 2021 and 2025. The aim of the draft plan is to administer around 500 thousand hectares of land in an integrated fashion.
Within the five-year period, the MoA plans to achieve a more balanced ratio in terms of grains, legumes and oil seeds that will be planted. In 2022, 60 percent of the land will be planted with grains while the remaining 40 percent will be planted with oil seeds and legumes. In the following year, 55 percent will be covered with grains and the remaining will be covered with oil seeds and legumes. In 2024, the share of grains will be 50 percent and the remaining is to be covered with legumes and oil seeds. In 2021, the share of legumes was only about four percent while that of oil seeds was nine percent.
As crop failures due to shortage of water occur intermittently, farmers have developed a copping mechanism to deal with crop failures. At the beginning of the growing season, a late maturing crop is planted. If the crop fails due to shortage of water, flooding or insects, it is replaced by an early maturing variety. And if crop failure becomes a pattern, farmers often prefer to grow drought tolerant crops.
The MoA promotes the practices of crop rotation, intercropping and planting leguminous crops. Intercropping – growing a mixture of crops in the same field – which is traditionally practiced in Eritrea, helps balance the nutritional content of the soil, satisfies the dietary needs of households and minimizes the risks associated with weather. It also yields considerably higher harvests compared to crops that are planted separately and helps farmers to identify crops that resist water shortages, pests and diseases.
Regarding fertilizers, Mr. Kahsay stated that the MoA is promoting the use of natural organic fertilizers, thereby minimizing dependence on chemical fertilizers that had been widely used in the past. This gives multiple benefits to the farmers. Organic fertilizer is plentiful and inexpensive, and by using organic fertilizers, farmers ensure the overall health of the soil and plants. Also, whereas chemical fertilizers may be effective for one season, organic fertilizers ensure the health of the farmland for the future.
The practice of crop rotation may vary from one place to another. Agricultural experts advise farmers not to plant in their field after three years of plantation. Seasonally leaving the farm fallow improves soil fertility.
In the last five years, the MoA has been focusing on improving the awareness of farmers through agricultural experts who have graduated from Hamelmalo Agricultural College and other training centers. More than 25 percent of the MoA’s workforce are assigned to work on the field with farmers. This will replace the strategy of working through agricultural extension workers which was viewed as having limitations. The MoA is planning to give “on farm training” to farmers accompanied by practical training rather than focusing on classroom sessions. Farmers have understood the advantages of this strategy and their participation in the training sessions is increasing.