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Sustaining Soil, Sustaining Lives

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 08/20/2015 More stories >>

Dr. Aliza Pradhan (fourth from left) visiting CAPS trials
with the SMARTS team.

Dr. Aliza Pradhan (fourth from left) visiting CAPS trials with the SMARTS team.

What grows—or won’t grow—in the soil, and why, is at the heart of natural resource and environmental management (NREM). Travis Idol, associate professor in NREM, focuses on nutrient cycling, conservation agriculture, and sustainable intensification, making him the ideal advisor for Aliza Pradhan in her research into the increasing problem of low crop yield due to poor soil fertility and erosion in the rain-fed uplands of her native Odisha, India.

Dr. Pradhan, who earned her PhD in May 2015 and has returned to India to continue her research, theorized that more sustainable conservation agriculture production systems (CAPS) would help to maintain soil quality, improving crop production as well as farmers’ livelihood. However, since the benefits of conservation agriculture may take a decade to fully manifest, she needed to identify shorter-term indicators to show whether the system was improving.

Travis Idol (second from right) with other SMARTS team members visiting CAPS

Dr. Travis Idol (second from right) with other SMARTS team members visiting CAPS trials.

Many Odisha farmers grow maize in single-crop systems using conventional tillage—repeatedly weeding, hoeing, and otherwise disturbing the soil. But recent research shows when soil is left as undisturbed as possible, erosion is reduced and soil nutrients conserved. Reduced tillage is an important CAPS practice, as is intercropping—growing compatible plants together instead of a single crop—and cover cropping, growing plants between crop cycles that enrich the soil and keep it from washing away.

Dr. Pradhan adapted CAPS practices to traditional Indian systems at a research station in Odisha over three years. She assessed the soil’s physical, chemical, and biological properties and processes, showing that reduced tillage, cowpea–maize intercropping, and cover-cropping with mustard—also an important Indian seasoning—not only improved soil quality; it increased system productivity by 124% and net benefits to farmers by 204% over traditional systems. And the longer the new systems continued, the greater their benefits.

Because the yield and income improvements were so striking, and because Dr. Pradhan used variations on familiar crops and technologies, she believes such CAPS should be acceptable and attractive for smallholder farmers in the area. Not only that, but using these systems creates a better soil environment for agricultural sustainability, allowing them to sustainably intensify crop production to meet increased future household income and nutritional needs.

The research was funded by USAID and Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) through a University of Hawai‘i and Orissa University of Agriculture & Technology collaborative project, Sustainable Management of Agro-Ecological Resources for Tribal Societies (SMARTS).