How crop farmers can outsmart erratic rains
Farmers are increasingly getting confused by the changing weather patterns and their easiest way out of this predicament is blaming the weatherman for not giving accurate predictions. But even for the department that is charged with predicting the weather and advising the farmers accordingly, it has been a challenge to get the facts right. So has climate change made it harder to accurately predict the weather, and what should farmers do to minimise the effects of erratic weather?
It is now widely acknowledged that climate change is real and is affecting communities all over the world. However, smallholder farmers are most affected as they depend, to a large extent, on rain-fed farming. In Kenya, more than eight in every 10 farmers rely on rainfall to water their crops.
So, what is climate change? Climate change can be identified by changes in the averages of weather aspects over a long period of time, which is usually beyond 10 years. Weather properties include rainfall, wind and temperature, among others. So when the average temperature over a long period of time has changed, then scientists would describe this as climate change.
Causes of erratic weather patterns
While climate change can happen naturally, human activities have increased the rate at which these changes are happening. The fumes and gases from the machines we use such as cars, airplanes and those in factories are creating a layer of blanket above the earth which means the heat on earth cannot escape. This is made worse by the fact that the trees which would absorb these gases have been cut down. Over time, the heat which comes from the sun is trapped, making the earth warmer. This is what scientists call global warming – which is what causes climate change.
Over the last 20 years, farmers in Kenya have perceived the crop growing season to be shortening, rains and rainy season onset to be becoming more erratic, rainfall to be becoming increasingly intense, and dry spells during the growing season to be worsening. One example of the erratic rainfall pattern is the heavy rains that were experienced across the country in November and December, last year.
In mid-November 2019, scientists reported that equivalent of two years’ rain fell in a single day in Kenya, causing severe flooding in many parts of the country. Maize farmers in the Rift Valley who were harvesting at this time had difficulties drying their maize, which caused them huge losses.
These widely accepted local beliefs about changes to seasonal rainfall or rainfall patterns have been echoed by weather records over time. As an example, weather records from the Kenya Meteorological Department for Kisumu over a 50 year period (1960-2010) shows that rainfall has been very unpredictable, making it harder for farmers to plan their activities.
What climate change means to smallholder farmers
The unpredictable rainfall patterns and extreme weather events such as drought have had serious negative impacts on smallholder farmers as they depend mostly on rain-fed agriculture. The direct effects would include damage to crops and other property while indirectly, climate change is making the problem of low agricultural yields or food scarcity worse. Low agricultural productivity (e.g through water stress) may also be as a result of other factors such as declining soil fertility, population pressure, reduced access to fertilisers, wider economic events), rather than climate alone.
Measures farmers can take to cope
Smallholder farmers have always perceived the risk of crop failure even before the climate change. Most farmers plant many crops and practice some form of mixed farming even when they have small sizes of land which helps them to cope in the event of failure of some of the crops. Due to the unpredictable nature of rainfall patterns, farmers are falling back to traditional knowledge such as observation of birds’ behaviour and the flowering pattern of particular trees to predict the likelihood of rainfall. This would then allow them to plant their crops on time.
In some parts of the country such as in Nyanza and Western Kenya, most farmers have resorted to growing small grains like millet, sorghum and tubers such as cassava and sweet potatoes, which can still withstand the long drought period. This trend clearly portrays that farmers understand the importance of cultivating small grains and drought-tolerant crops.
Crops are grown in diverse mixtures, aiming at increasing farm productivity and avoiding the risk of crop failures. Due to water shortages associated with long dry periods, farmers who live near rivers have responded by growing vegetable crops and tubers such as beet roots near the rivers. Similarly, many farmers living near water towers (e.g. Mt Kenya, Aberdare Ranges and Mt Elgon) have organised themselves and tapped water from the forest reserves. While this has helped farmers to irrigate their crops, it has sometimes caused shortage of water for people living downstream.
Due to limited knowledge and lack of resources, farmers may not be able to fully adapt to climate without support.
The writer is a researcher at JKUAT