PREPARING FOR EL NIÑO

The Farmer Entrepreneur - Larry LocaraEl Nino is in everybody’s mouth now. With that spite of rains on the last part of April, everybody thought that finally rainy season is here and many already plowed their farms. But the wave of dry spell dried the already moist soil. Iloilo lowlands are mostly clay loam and a long spell without rains will make it difficult for farmers to till the land. Production period will definitely be delayed. Good for the watermelon farmers who are now ending their season happily because of the extended dry period.

Meanwhile that there’s no rain and water from the irrigation canals, farmers need to find other sources of income and food. For rice farmers, the choices will be limited especially those who made their farms totally geared for mono-cropping. The dikes are small and probably grown with weeds that are quite tenacious and difficult to remove. Planting vegetables on small dikes is impractical because they will be disturbed when the farmer and his laborers pass through. If the farmer has not made provisions for a fishpond where he can draw water in case of water stress later, he will not also be able to raise crops and grow fish. A mono-crop rice farmer therefore would have difficulties earning from the farm in case of drought or lack of water.

Farming, be it crops or livestock, demands the use of water. Lowland crops like rice need several times more water than dryland crops. While some findings indicate that rice can optimally produce with intermittent water, our usual practice is to permanently provide water from planting to the time the crop is ready for harvest. Water management is most important in rice farming though. With intermittent irrigation, the rice plants are made to induce more tillers and thus more yield. With some planning and some investment however, a farmer can manage his use of water well.

A rule of thumb is to provide about 10% of the area for water collection so that excess water can be channeled to it. This pond area should be about 2 to 2.5 meters deep and lined well with clayey soil to minimize leakage. Fish fingerlings like catfish and tilapia can be seeded and harvested when they are about 5 months old. Kangkong can be planted to be used for pig feed and also for sale. Azolla and duckweed can also be seeded and grown so that they can provide additional sources of feed for ducks and chickens and as fertilizer for rice and vegetables. When needed, water from this pond can be extracted and used to irrigate the rice field or to water the vegetables. The 10% area reduced from the rice area should pay for itself in terms of fish produced and for the water used to irrigate the crops.

For dry land farming, simple technologies like mulching and the use of thick organic matter to minimize soil evaporation will help conserve soil moisture and sustain plant growth. Farmers should also be encouraged not to burn organic matter as they not only help conserve soil moisture but also return essential nutrients to the soil once decomposed.

When rice farmers learn of the climate forecast, they should plan their crop pattern to take advantage of the weather. For example if an El Nino is forecasted, they should opt to try a dryland crop like sweet corn and glutinous corn instead of the usual second crop of rice, especially if their farms are rainfed. They can also intercrop the corn with munggo so that they not only earn from an additional crop but also add to the fertility of their soils.

It is also essential for farmers to plan their crop calendar. Once they have learned of the forecast, they can decide which crop to grow to take advantage of the climate. For example, instead of planting corn and sugarcane, the farmer can opt to plant sorghum and cassava while in between these crops, they can plant legumes like munggo and soybeans then follow it with a crop of an early maturing camote or sweet potato variety.

If dry land farmers plan for a long term crop, they should also think of a crop mix that will not only provide them with a sustainable income but also with nurse crops which provide initial income and can help sustain the growth of their main crop. Many coffee farmers in Mindanao use banana as nurse crop so that in the first three years, they not only earn from the banana but also their growing coffee can be protected from intense heat. Coffee is a shade loving plant in its initial growing period and produce optimally under full sunlight.

Farmers can also opt to grow cacao and papaya together with the latter being established first and in longer distance so that cacao can be established without crowding out the papaya in later years. This way, the farmer is provided with a better mix of income sources, mening he earns regularly from his papaya while getting a bigger windfall from his cacao.

The farmer indeed can still beat El Nino and La Nina with planning and hard work that will be rewarded with better income and more food for his family.