Empowering Bangladesh villages: Transforming small mixed farming systems through innovations

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Authors: Ahmed Sharif, Stephanie Cheesman, Humnath Bhandari and Frija Aymen

Agriculture is at the heart of most of the villages in Bangladesh. Among these, smallholder mixed farming systems, where rice production combines with small ruminants (particularly goats) and dairy cows, stand tall. But there is a remarkable revolution happening, thanks to the One CGIAR initiative on Mixed Farming Systems (MFS). The One CGIAR initiative is a collaborative effort implemented in 25 villages across the Rangpur, Barishal, and Khulna Divisions in Bangladesh. The team, comprising CGIAR staff and their national counterparts from the public and private sectors, is transforming smallholder farming and improving livelihoods. This transformation occurs at the village level, introducing innovative practices in both crop and livestock management to promote prosperity, resilience, and sustainability.

Diversifying and Intensifying Cropping Systems

At the heart of this transformative initiative lies a commitment to diversify and intensify the existing cropping systems in place. In the modest fields of Bangladesh, farmers are pioneering a range of crop rotations within the rice-based system to bolster productivity and seamlessly integrate livestock activities into their farming practices. Rice fallow systems, rice-fallow-rice rotations, and rice-potato-rice systems are meticulously honed to boost yields and minimize their environmental impact. Furthermore, innovative cropping systems are being explored, such as rice-maize, rice-millet, rice-barley, rice-field pea, and rice fodder (including alfalfa), offering a dual advantage of increased yields and revenues, while addressing food scarcity at the household level and fortifying the resilience of farming communities.

In response to the evolving climate and water scarcity challenges, the initiative teams are championing the adoption of new crop varieties that find swift acceptance among farmers. The shift from traditional planting to direct seeding of rice equips farmers with the tools necessary to thrive in water-scarce contexts, which are becoming increasingly common. The on-farm evaluation of various growth-duration rice varieties conducted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) sheds light on the most suitable options for Aman rice, followed by subsequent Rabi crops. This adaptation to changing conditions is pivotal in securing the future of agriculture in Bangladesh.

Fatema Begum, a female farmer from Khamergagram noted to receive the short duration rice variety BRRI Dhan 75 seeds from the initiative which she cultivated in 0.29 acre of her land before the aman season “I got very good yield, 680 paddies in a short period compared to the long duration variety” she explained.

She noted that during such season they usually face fodder crisis as it is not the paddy harvesting season but due to this new farming, she was able to sell rice straw of USD 27.10 value to her neighbor after storing required fodder for her cattle. “I am planning to intercrop potatoes between the two-rice next year, increase farm size to 0.59 acre for the BRRI Dhan 75. My neighbors have expressed interest in new short duration seed variety.”

“In my village, we usually grow rice twice in a year, but after aman season it is usually impossible to grow any rabi crop. But this aman season I received the BRRI Dhan 75 seeds from the MFS initiative. I harvested my rice earlier than expected which gave me ample time to sow my rabi crops” Sree Prodip Kumar Chandra, a male farmer from Rajendrapur excitedly explained. This became the first-time experience for Sree to grow any non-rice crop in his field.

Homestead vegetable production for nutrition and income

In the villages, the initiative is about more than just cultivating staple crops; it is a holistic transformation that empowers women and youth through homestead vegetable production. Over nearly two years of dedicated effort, home gardening has emerged as a true game-changer, making a substantial impact by reducing food costs and enhancing nutrition. It goes beyond that, though—it has become a source of income that has the power to redefine lives, especially for women. As these women engage in home gardening, they are not just tending to plants; they are taking on pivotal roles in the pursuit of sustainable intensification. They are joining forces in collective marketing actions, and in the process, they are enhancing household resilience. The humble homestead vegetable garden is proving to be a force of change, both on the dinner table and in the lives of those who nurture it.

Akhi Moni, a farmer from Khamergragram said that before the initiative interventions, farmers never grew any vegetables in their homesteads, instead they bought them from the markets but due to the high price many could not afford. “With in initiative’s support, now we grow different types of vegetables in our homesteads, which does not only meet my family’s vegetable demand but also adding to extra income from selling” she explained.

On the other hand, Sonali Rani from Shahbajpur has changed her 0.015-acre fallow land close to her house into a year-round vegetable production haven. By following the introduced vegetable model, Sonali produces different vegetables including Red Amaranth, Stem amaranth, water amaranth, Indian spinach, jute leafy, Bitter gourd, Ash gourd, Okra, yard long bean, sponge gourd which provides for her family dietary needs and extra income from the surplus.

Livestock integration for sustainability

In the context of rural Bangladesh’s smallholder farms, the initiative places a significant emphasis on the essential role of livestock. Poultry and dairy activities are of paramount importance, not only for income generation but also for household nutrition. To usher in a transition toward sustainable intensification, the integration of forage crops like Napier grass, millet, alfalfa, and maize silage into rice-based systems, along with improvements in livestock feeding practices, has been identified as pivotal. A comprehensive multi-stakeholder system analysis underscores the transformative potential of these investments. In the ongoing journey to enhance agricultural practices, the initiative is committed to promoting good silage practices, improving the utilization of rice straw and residues, and integrating other legume forages. These efforts are aimed at bolstering the capabilities of initiative partners and village communities, ensuring they are well-equipped to harness the full potential of these essential aspects of sustainable farming.

Akabar Ali, a farmer from Shabajpur noted the tradition of keeping livestock but the increasing price of the processed cattle feed and lack of green fodder has been a hurdle for farmers to maintain the proper feeding to their cattle resulting to low and poor quality of milk production until the initiative intervention. He received livestock management and improved fodder cultivation, provided with 6000 fodder cuttings of different improved varieties. “Now, I get higher fodder yields than the local varieties. My three cattle are in good health, and they produce more quality milk than before” Akabar narrated.

Further manure/ livestock waste” management is being addressed two-fold: One option implemented is the shaded composting pit, where manure and organic household/garden waste is being transformed into compost, a valuable organic fertilizer that is used in the homestead garden. Another option is the production of vermicompost, which is shown to be an additional source of income and empowerment for women.  I am multiplying and controlling my own vermicompost basket. Women in the neighborhood purchase vermicompost from me. This allows me to generate my own income.” said one of the beneficiaries in Sahabazpur

Women’s nutritional well-being is improved, and their economic and social status within their communities is strengthened when they are actively managing their own gardens and composting techniques. Through these initiatives, women are taking charge of their food security, save back on family expenses, and improve the environment overall by recycling organic waste. Women who are learning and practicing gardening and composting methods gain access to a source of food for their families as well as a means of revenue through the sale of extra food and compost.

Every one of these innovations and activities within SI-MFS takes place right at the village level, in a tight-knit collaboration with national research and extension systems. By centering their efforts on the villages and communities as the catalysts for change, the project is not only boosting the capacities of smallholder farmers and households but is also effectively establishing a network of “lighthouses” which serve as living examples of the success of the package of innovations being trialed and promoted.

Crucial insights about the effective implementation of this community-based approach are currently under examination, and these lessons will play an important role in refining and further advancing this approach as a key tool for Research for Development (R4D) and Development investments, ultimately contributing to sustainable intensification.

 

Header photo by K. Roy/ IRRI.

Second and third photo by A.Sharif/IRRI

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