Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Managing soil and water in Burma's Central Dry Zone

ACIAR Graduate Research Officer, Jack Koci, recently travelled to Burma to understand research opportunities to improve land and water resource management in the Central Dry Zone (CDZ)...

A small scoping team from ACIAR recently met with stakeholders in Burma to determine priorities for improving agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers in the CDZ. Research into sustainable land and water resources management was identified as a high priority.  

Onion farmers preparing for harvest
Burma is one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia and has among the lowest social development indicators in the region, ranking 149 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.  The CDZ, located in the middle part of Burma, has some of the highest levels of poverty and food insecurity in the country.

Across the CDZ, rainfall variability is high, water-use efficiency is low, vegetation cover is sparse and the soil is severely degraded – eroded and of low fertility. Smallholders farming in these environments face considerable challenges in achieving food security, while land managers lack the resources and capacity to support sustainable agricultural development.

Land suitability mapping is one approach that would benefit both smallholders and land managers. This technique involves looking at the characteristics of the land and matching it to appropriate crops or other uses.
Salt crusting in the Central Dry Zone
presents a serious challenge for farmers

An example of its applicability is in managing soil salinity. Salinity is a particularly serious issue in the CDZ due to saline sub-soils, high evapotranspiration rates and restricted outward drainage of groundwater. In salt-affected areas, prevention is always better than cure. If high-risk areas are identified before they are used in agricultural production, interventions (such as improving drainage or planting salt-tolerant crops) can be put in place to minimise the impact.

On a field trip we visited several smallholder farmers to get a better understanding of the challenges they face. An onion farmer near Mandalay told us he was concerned that his yields were declining as a result of irrigating with saline groundwater. On a dryland farming system near Nay Pyi Taw, we saw how rising saline groundwater had left a crust of salt on the soil surface.

Researchers discuss farming challenges with a smallholder farmer
The biophysical conditions of the CDZ are similar to many Australian agro-ecosystems, such as the Murray–Darling Basin and the Burdekin in North Queensland. Australian scientists have good experience working in these environments and can offer their expertise in managing land in Burma.

Land suitability mapping will be crucial in enabling Burmese smallholder farmers to plan for and practise sustainable agriculture, to get the most from their land.

By Jack Koci, ACIAR Graduate Research Officer

More information:
ACIAR has a multi-disciplinary program in Burma covering crops (rice, legumes), fisheries and livestock production, and a socio-economic component designed to support the commodity-based components and provide capacity development:

AH/2011/054 Improving livelihoods of small-scale livestock producers in the central dry zone through research on animal production and health in Myanmar, led by University of Queensland

ASEM/2011/043 Strengthening institutional capacity, extension services and rural livelihoods in the Central Dry Zone and Ayeyarwaddy Delta regions of Myanmar, led by University of New England

FIS/2011/052 Improving research and development of Myanmar's inland and coastal fisheries, led by the WorldFish Center

SMCN/2011/046 Diversification and intensification of rice-based systems in lower Myanmar, led by the International Rice Research Institute

SMCN/2011/047 Increasing productivity of legume-based farming systems in the central dry zone of Myanmar, led by University of New England

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Kau kau is a key to improving livelihoods in Papua New Guinea

ACIAR Graduate Officer Rebecca McBride recently travelled to Lae, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG), to visit two ACIAR projects that are directly and indirectly looking at sweetpotato production, processing and marketing.

Sweetpotato, or 'kau kau' as it is called locally, is a key staple in PNG. It makes up 43% of the total dietary intake there. Although annual production is estimated at 3 million tonnes, only 2% of this is sold in markets. The rest is used for household consumption or fed to livestock.
Sweetpotato at the markets. They are commonly sold in piles at a set price.
Piles at the same price can vary significantly in quantity and quality.
(photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)
The first project is focused on the sweetpotato value chain and has surveyed retailers and consumers to determine their preferences and demand for product. The major focus for the project is on sweetpotato quality, which was found to be of low importance to producers, compared to quantity. The project aims to demonstrate to farmers the value of better harvesting and postharvest techniques.

The project team interacts directly with a group of women farmers and recently conducted a simple business training session with them. Some of the women admitted they hadn't previously considered costs of labour, transport and lost product when calculating their profit from selling their sweetpotatoes. After this training they were eager to learn more about how they could improve their businesses. The project leaders and their local partners are going to focus their future training on improving postharvest handling, sorting and selling sweetpotato.
Group photo - sweetpotato processing workshop
(photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)

The second project is indirectly related to kau kau, as it explores the sustainability of establishing mini feed mills at the village level. The aim is to use cheap, local feed resources where possible to maintain livestock productivity and improve farm viability. Smallholder farmers are already beginning to develop their livestock operations, including the use of commercial feeds for improved nutrition, but the high costs of imported ingredients leave them vulnerable to significant losses.

While there are few substitutes for the high protein component of these feeds, the imported sources of carbohydrate can be swapped for local sweetpotato and cassava, significantly decreasing the cost. The team are currently trialling different feeds to determine the optimum compositions for feeding fish, poultry and pigs.
Sweetpotato packaging. Bags are large and, as you can see,
can get very heavy! (photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)

These two projects have the potential to complement each other nicely. The first will train farmers to sort their product into consumer grade and unmarketable material. The second project could provide a market or value-add option for the ‘seconds’ or leftover sweetpotatoes. Both projects will improve the profitability of smallholders and semi-commercial enterprise in PNG.

P.S. We spent a week at the National Agricultural Research Institute just outside of Lae, in the picturesque Markham Valley. One meeting-free morning we drove into town and visited the local markets to look at the fresh produce including the kau kau. I certainly got a first-hand feel for the transport issues caused by local road infrastructure!

Lae, a port city, is situated at one end of the Highlands Highway, the main road connecting the highlands region to the coast, used regularly for transporting produce. I only travelled on a small section, but could understand how the road - or rather where the road itself is missing(!) - causes a lot of the produce losses during transport. Though I didn’t see one myself, I was assured you could lose whole vehicles down some of the pot-holes. The question is – are they still called ‘pot’-holes at that point?!

By Rebecca McBride, ACIAR Graduate Officer

More information:
ACIAR projects:
ASEM/2010/053 Enhancing role of small scale feed milling in the development of the monogastric industries in Papua New Guinea is led by the South Australian Research and Development Institute.

An integrated approach for systemic change and sustained development of the Papua New Guinea sweetpotato value chain is led by the University of New England.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Boosting breadfruit in Fiji

Training land owners in breadfruit propagation techniques could provide a big boost for a crop that could potentially become one of Fiji’s most important food industries.

A trial of a novel approach to establishing breadfruit has given a group of young landholders the ability to propagate breadfruit plants for their own farms and for commercial sale.

Fiji farmers with breadfruit suckers (photo: Livai Tora,
Koko Siga Ltd  Fiji)
Conducted by Fiji’s own Tutu Training Center (TRTC), with funding through ACIAR’s Pacific Breadfruit Project (PBP), the initial training attracted over 100 male and female farmers from Vanua Levu villages.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Upcoming Publication: Crop yields & global food security

An invaluable reference book on opportunities for crop yield increase to feed the world to 2050 will be released by ACIAR in May 2014. This will be published in ACIAR’s Monograph series (No. 158). Download a flyer.

CROP YIELDS AND GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY: will yield increases continue to feed the world? is aimed at agricultural scientists and economists, decision-makers in the food production industry, concerned citizens and tertiary students.   The authors, Tony Fischer, Derek Byerlee and Greg Edmeades, are all world-renowned agricultural scientists.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Glimmer of hope amid cocoa devastation in PNG

Mrs Odelia Virua Taman (photo: A. Gavin, DFAT)
Mrs Odelia Virua Taman is a progressive cocoa grower in East New Britain who is reaping the rewards of controlling cocoa pod borer (CPB), which has devastated much of Papua New Guinea’s valuable crop.

Monday, 31 March 2014

SIMLESA becomes kid’s business

ACIAR’s Dr John Dixon recently heard great news from the SIMLESA (‘Sustainable intensification of maize-legume cropping systems for food security in eastern and southern Africa’) Program in eastern Kenya.

A farmer group (known also as a ‘local innovation platform’) at the Kyeni SIMLESA Program site is enthusiastically participating in the program; thanks in part, they say, to John’s interactions with them. The group has tested the program’s maize and legume varieties and various conservation agriculture (CA) practices. Their tests have led to two CA tillage methods being endorsed by the community, and two maize and three bean varieties being chosen for wider adoption, both within and beyond the initial program sites.
The Kyeni farmer group presenting John with 'SIMLESA I'
(photo: A. Micheni)

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Private sector engages in Philippines papaya research

A new ACIAR project in the Philippines and Australia is partnering with the private sector to help papaya growers come up with better ways to manage serious crop diseases.

Papaya researchers at the Institute of Plant Breeding,
University of Philippines Los Baños
In the Philippines, papaya is an important and continually expanding crop. The papaya industry produces close to 160,000 tonnes each year. Most of this is used for domestic consumption, but about 5% is exported as fresh, tinned or dried products. In comparison, the Australian industry (mostly in Queensland) is small, with an average production of 13,000 tonnes per year.