Cottoning on: how sharing best practice can help small-scale farmers

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August 15, 2013 by Tess Riley

You might be surprised to learn that more than 80% of all cotton is produced by small-scale farmers. A number of projects are now emerging to help this vast, often disparate workforce come together to share best practice and address common challenges.

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The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), for example, is a multi-stakeholder initiative based in Geneva working to improve both the social, environmental and economic impacts of cotton production by establishing six basic principles that it expects every Better Cotton farmer to meet (see ‘Better how?’). After three years of pilots across four countries (Mali, India, Brazil and Pakistan), BCI is now expanding to countries such as China, Turkey and Mozambique. Its target is 1 million farmers selling 2.6 million tonnes of Better Cotton by 2015, and 5 million farmers selling 8.2 million tonnes by 2020.

For Nicolas Petit, Director of Standards and Assurance at BCI, disseminating best practice to as many farmers as possible is crucial. BCI trains Implementing Partners which develop projects and materials appropriate to the particular communities they work with. In Mali, for example, it has partnered with the Association of African Cotton Producers (AProCA) and the Solidaridad Network, which is dedicated to responsible agricultural practices worldwide. Solidaridad aims to provide smallholders with access to organised markets, so that they can invest in more sustainable practices.

Together, they have implemented several projects, including Farmer Field Schools (FFS), which offer practical demonstrations of Better Cotton production principles. One study saw 2,000 Malian farmers receive pest management training across 119 FFS in the years 2011-12; those who attended produced a 40% higher yield in the following harvest than those who had not.

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“In many ways, BCI is adapting the educational model we have in the US and taking it to individual farmers around the world”, explains Kater Hake, Vice-President of Research at Cotton Incorporated. His organisation, which is funded by US cotton growers and importers, performs national and region-specific research and conducts educational outreach programs to aid US growers. As a result, US growers have been able to produce more cotton while significantly reducing pesticide and water applications.

Much capacity-building comes down to communication. In India, Pakistan and Mali, murals, street performances, radio programmes and awareness-raising walks play a critical role in communicating sustainable farming practices. Hake is excited about the opportunities that new technologies offer producers worldwide: “The cell phone and smart phone revolution is connecting farmers in ways not previously possible. Not only can growers monitor field sensors from these devices, but they can get real-time updates on crop markets and local pest problems, weather alerts and advice from other farmers. This helps large and small farmers alike.”

One online tool, currently only available to US cotton farmers, is the Fieldprint Calculator: this free, confidential educational resource helps growers to observe the correlation of management practices to environmental impact. The ‘fieldprint’ describes the sustainability performance of crop production, including land use, soil health, water irrigation, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. As Doug Goehring, a corn, soya bean and wheat grower in North Dakota, observes, the Fieldprint Calculator allows growers not only to quantify actual impacts, but also to test future scenarios without setting foot in the field: “This calculator will help me understand how we’re being sustainable on the farm today, while providing insight for future improvements that can benefit the environment and my bottom line.”

With volatile weather conditions and increasing strain on resources, this foresight could be the most valuable tool on the farm.

This article originally appeared in Green Futures magazine here.

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