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Building Resilient Soils To Fight Irregular Rains

We sat eating our freshly steamed elote while Alfredo spoke of the planting season underway in his community of Nuevos Bracitos. But rather than speaking with the excitement of an impending harvest, he spoke with hesitance and uncertainty—sentiments mirrored by campesinos across the country. He looked across the table to Trinidad Recinos, Semilla Nueva’s Program Director, for answers to an unprecedented question: Why has Guatemala’s usually dependable rainy season suddenly become irregular?

The month of May marks the official planting season along the coast of Guatemala. Farmers anxiously await the rain, like racehorses anticipate the sound of the starters gun. When the first rain falls, corn planting begins. But this year was different— the first rain fell but was then followed by a short dry spell causing many farmers seeds to rot in the soil. “Irregular rains,” Alfredo remarked, “I’m concerned that I lost my seeds and if I did, I’m not buying more because I don’t have enough money.” Alfredo feels like he is playing a losing hand against Mother Nature.

The rainy season in Guatemala has become shorter, the frequency and intensity of rains have increased, and dry spells are lasting longer. Rains that used to come in April are not arriving until in the end of May. A recent publication by the Ministry of Agriculture of Guatemala illustrates how climatic variability – in particular, the substantial rainfall increase during the last few years – has affected yields for 15 of the 27 crops it examined. Corn was among the most affected crop, with average yields decreasing from 2.58 to 1.99 tons per hectare, a 30 percent reduction.

Few farmers have irrigation infrastructure and thus rely on the rains to provide food and income for their families. However, more erratic patterns of rainfall have interrupted farmers’ planting schedules, making it difficult to know when to plant, jeopardizing their harvests. In many places, when expected rainfall does occur it falls with such intensity and variation that it often leads to flooding, soil erosion and seed loss.

Farmers need technical assistance to adapt their soils to these changing conditions and Semilla Nueva is working to provide just that. By promoting sustainable agriculture techniques such as no-till and the incorporation of crop residues, farmers will naturally build up the quality and nutrition of their soils. Healthy soil is essential to provide protection against erosion during heavy rains, and increase water retention during droughts. In the midst of 2013’s droughts, our farmers’ sustainable agriculture trials showed an average farmer could increase their income on corn by $180, enough for a year’s schooling for one of their children, while restoring the soil’s structure and protecting against heavy rains or droughts. Simply by ceasing to burn fields in between harvests, farmers make use of nutrient-rich organic crop residue left over after harvest, providing natural fertilizer to the soil and enriching its resilience to climate shocks and stresses.

Like Alfredo, smallholder farmers are experiencing climate changes’ impact more than anyone, and are motivated to test, refine and adopt sustainable agriculture to make their soil more resilient. Join Semilla Nueva in working to equip farmers with the conservation tools and techniques that will support resilient crop production and healthy livelihoods in a changing climate.

Interested in sponsoring a farming family so they can participate in Semilla Nueva conservation agriculture programs and experiments? Click here!

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