Straw Mulches aid farmers battling drought

   TwitCount
Roshan Subedi (CEAPRED)
Sumita Basnet (CEAPRED)
Kamala Timalsina stands before her trellis in Kalchhe Besi, Nepal.
Photo: CEAPRED

As she planted her batch of bitter gourds in Kalchhe Besi last year, Kamala Timalsina was unsure if they would survive. She wondered how her gourds and those of her fellow farmers’ would fare in the dry spell in the late winter. 

This year, the bitter gourds did come around. In fact, they fared relatively well, even during the driest of seasons. This year, she earned about NPR 70,000 selling bitter gourds alone — a substantial sum for the area.

Located in Patalekhet VDC, Kavre Palanchowk District, Kalchhe Besi is a village of about 25 homesteads. The village is accessible by an agricultural road that shoots south of the Araniko Highway before the bus stop in Tin Pippale. With hot humid springs, and even hotter summers, the streams here are seasonal and dry up during summer. Irrigation is an ever-present problem for farmers, and with no steady supply of water, summer poses the most difficult times for the village.

In May 2014, the Center for Environment and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED) and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), brought the resilient mountain village (RMV, once referred to as climate smart villages) project to Kalche. Agricultural technicians from CEAPRED introduced modular and affordable technologies village farmers could adopt easily and replicate in their own homes. 

Photo: CEAPRED

Technicians demonstrated how straw mulch in cucurbits ─ cucumber and bitter gourds ─ could solve drought problems by limiting water requirements in plants and retaining soil moisture. 

Mulching is not a new practice to agriculture. It involves covering plants with dry paddy straw and is extensively used in dry seasons to retain moisture and provide conducive temperatures for crop growth. 

Technicians introduced the application of straw mulches in combination with Jholmal, a home-made bio-fertiliser and bio-pesticide, as a climate smart practice. They field-tested this climate-smart practice in small agricultural plots next to conventional plots, to present a daily visual comparison.

Changes across the two plots were immediately evident. Crops grew healthier, and started spreading their vines in plots with straw mulches while in conventional plots, plant growth was stymied even with daily irrigation. 

Inspired by this demonstration, this spring, Ms Timalsina applied straw mulches to her bitter gourd vines growing in a patch of land that spanned 500 square metres. She was the first woman farmer to have tried this technology a year back. 

As a lead farmer and Secretary of the Shramjivi Mahila Krisak Samuha, a community-based organisation, in Kalche, Ms Timalsina was instrumental in driving the adoption of straw mulch. She held daily sessions on the practice for members of her organisation resulting in farmers reducing their irrigation needs by twenty-five percent through the use of mulch. Gradually, all Kalche farmers adopted the technique and found mulching the only option to save their plants during this year’s prolonged drought. 

A year after its introduction, straw mulch can be seen in all bitter gourd patches across Kalche. Mulching is a viable option as farmers have no additional costs and save crops from wilting and dying. 

Ms Timalsina confided, ‘Earlier, we watered our crops daily. This year, we used straw mulch and watered our bitter gourds twice per week, even during the dry season. We put in a fourth of our efforts to irrigate our crops, and still had a bountiful harvest’.