Proper care of crops during growth is important

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To get a good harvest, farmers have to exercise high standards of crop management and adopt sustainable farming practices that minimize crop pests and diseases and maintain soil fertility. It is important to plan ahead and get equipped with the right information.

This will prevent and tackle challenges associated with weeds, soil nutrient degradation and pests and diseases; sustainable practices that can be used to manage your crops:

Pests and disease management

Pests and diseases are responsible for between 20 to 80 per cent of crop losses but sustainable pest and disease management practices can minimize their negative health and environmental effects.

Below are some useful tips for farmers:

1. You should monitor and examine your crops closely to accurately diagnose and understand the nature and source of pest and disease problems in your farm.

2. Physical control measures are the first options to consider. They include simple handpicking, erecting insect barriers, using traps, tillage, mulching, soil solarization and adopting protective structures such as shade net houses and greenhouses.

3. Beneficial insects (called natural enemies) like wasps, ladybirds, spiders and hoverfly larvae which feed on plant eating pests like aphids and caterpillars, eliminate or reduce pests. In this way, they provide adequate pest control with minimal environmental impact. You should therefore conserve and manage habitats for natural enemies of the target pests to thrive by, for example, planting hedges and windbreaks, avoiding use of broad spectrum pesticides and growing flowering plants that provide food for beneficial insects.

4. Instead of using chemical pesticides, use biopesticides, which are made from naturally occurring pathogens (fungi and bacteria) that kill insects.

5. An integrated pest and disease management strategy can also be adopted, that is the integration of both biological, physical and use of biopesticides. It is, however, recommended that you first consult organic input suppliers and sustainable agriculture extension officers in your area.

6. You should as much as possible adopt other farming practices in addition to pest and disease control such as;

• Use of certified or disease-free seed and nursery stock to prevent the introduction of disease into the farm.

• Use of disease tolerant and resistant crop varieties.

• Adopting crop rotation, intercropping and green manure planting. Grow crops with pest

repelling characteristics like African marigold, onions, leeks and garlic.

• Keep planting beds clean. Remove any diseased or infected plant material.

• Clean and sterilize farm tools such as jembes and pangas immediately after use in infected plots.

Soil fertility management

Healthy soil produces healthy plants that resist attack from pests and diseases. To improve and maintain soil fertility, dig less, mulch more and apply compost at all times.

Dig less

Start by digging deeply to break up the hard pan, remove hard layers in the soil profile and apply compost. In subsequent years, disturb the soil as little as possible. The compost can be worked into the soil at the beginning but subsequent applications should be done on the soil surface at the base of the plants.

Mulch more

Mulching is the process of covering the soil surface with a layer of plant residues to conserve soil moisture, keep it cool, protect it from erosion and develop surface crust, minimize compaction, improve soil structure, enhance infiltration, suppress weeds and add nutrients to the soil through decomposition. Mulching can be used before and after planting, as well as around young plants. It is especially useful for high-valuable vegetable crops, and for growing crops in dry areas and in places where the soil is easily eroded by heavy rains.

Apply compost at all times

Compost is nature’s fertilizer formed out of decomposition of plant, insect and animal residues and wastes. Its application helps in maintaining the soil structure so that it is easy to work, is resistant to erosion and also supports pest and disease control.

Weed management

Weeds pose a serious risk for small-scale farmers as they adversely affect agricultural production. The oxford dictionary defines a weed as a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants. It is, therefore, "a plant in the wrong place", meaning that it may be beneficial in another set-up.

Weeds may be unwanted on our farms for a number of reasons. Firstly, they interfere with food production in agriculture. They must be controlled in order to prevent loss or diminished crop yields. Weeds can also be of concern for environmental reasons where some weed species compete for nutrients with crops. They interfere by:

• Competing with the desired plants for the resources that a plant typically needs, namely, direct sunlight, soil nutrients, water, and space for growth.

• Providing hosts and vectors for plant pathogens, giving them greater opportunity to infect and degrade the quality of the desired plants.

• Providing food or shelter for animal pests such as seed-eating birds or eve fruit flies that otherwise have died after the previous crop was harvested.

To control weeds develop the habit of scouting every week to remove or cut them down. Use the right tools and techniques to ease weeding. The bigger your weeds get, the more difficult they are to control.

a) Hand-pulling is one of the ways that one can use to control weeds.

b) Mulching also helps in weed control - spreading a thick layer of mulch, keeps the light from reaching weeds. Without adequate light, the weeds will die. Mulch reduces the ability of weeds to make enough chlorophyll, which retards their growth. Most of the weeds weaken and die before you even notice them.

c) Hoeing: Separate by cutting the stems from the roots just below the soil surface. Hoeing is best done when the weeds are very small seedlings or newly emerged shoots of perennial weeds.

Farmers can get a list of important Biopesticides in TOF No. 108 and on Infonet-Biovision website: http://www.infonet-biovision.org/default/ct/793/recipesForOrganicPesticides. In addition, you can use plant extracts, traps and bags to control pests naturally.

>> Share your experiences with TOF and fellow farmers. Send email to admin@theorganicfarmer.org,  leave a comment below this article or SMS to 0715 916 136.

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