Science in Society Archive

Br. Paul's Organic Cotton and Vegetable Farm

Jesuit brother breaks all the rules he learned in agricultural college, and shows how to bring food security to the world. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Organic cotton is possible and highly profitable

Brother Paul Desmarais of the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre of Lusaka in Zambia is a happy man. He has just demonstrated that cotton can be grown organically, and furthermore, at yields up to more than twice the national average. That is quite an achievement as cotton is notorious for consuming the most agrochemicals of any crop, some 21 percent of that consumed worldwide; and most people have been led to believe that cotton cannot be grown without chemical sprays.

“I am confident that anyone can grow cotton organically in Zambia”, says Br. Paul, beaming from ear to ear. You need to do only two things: increase the fertility of the soil with organic matter, and put extra local plant species into the cotton fields to control insect pests.”

Plants that are sick or doing poorly will be the first to succumb to insect pests; so keeping a crop healthy with fertile soil reduces insect attacks.

The species inter-planted with the cotton crop are those that attract pests away from the cotton crop or beneficial predators, or provide home for beneficial predators; many species serving both purposes. For example, munsale (sweet sorghum) attracts bollworm and aphids as well as a host of beneficial insects; nyemba (cowpeas) provides a habitat and food source for ants and predatory wasps, and also attracts the pests leafhoppers, aphids and bollworms; sanyembe (sunhemp) is highly attractive to beneficial insects as a border crop and controls nematodes as well. Delele (okra) attracts bollworms, caterpillars and leaf eaters; milisi (maize) traps aphids on tassels and bollworms; mupilu (mustard) attracts beneficial hover flies and parasitic wasps as well as aphids on which they feed. Malanga (sunflower) attracts bollworm moths to lay eggs, and the beneficial lacewings that feed on aphids. A horizontal row containing a mixture of all these were planted for every 20 rows of cotton in the field bordered by sunnhemp on two sides. A host of other species can be planted, adding to the diversity of the farm. A variety of trees, such as Sesbania , Leucaena , and other indigenous species can act as windbreaks and provide habitat for farmers' friends and provide material for composting and making teas.

The experiments started in 2003/04, planted in the Kasisi Centre, and in farmers' fields in Chongwe district (see Table 1). The yields are calculated per 0.25 ha in the first instance to make the different size plots comparable. The two grades were from one harvest and refers to the quality of the cotton, The cotton companies pay more for grade A and less for grade B, and still less for grade C. The yield in KATC was twice the national average. Good yields were also obtained in the farmers' plots in Lusoke and Mulalika. In Old Kasenga and Ndubulula, the poor yields were due to insufficient weed control and late planting respectively.

Table 1. Yield of organic cotton in 2003/04
Area Yield kg
Grade A Grade B Total kg/ha
215 144 359 14361
Old Kasenga
85 25 110 4402
185 100 285 1140
220 230 250 1000
72 23 95 3803

1 Twice the national average for conventionally grown cotton, which was 600kg/ha according to the Zambian government, and 653kg/ha according to the cotton company Dunavant.
2 Poor weed control
3 Late planting

The economics of organic cotton from the KATC was compared with that of conventional cotton in the villages (Table 2). As can be seen, the net profit from organic production was more than twice that of conventional. The organic plots not only gave higher yield in the main cotton crop, they also provided harvests from the inter-planted species that could be sold.

The input costs for the organic plots were higher due to the extra labour and costs of preparing composts and manure teas. Less cottonseed is used in the organic fields due to inter-planting, but the yield was still higher. If the cotton were sold on the organic market, it would fetch a premium and increase income still further for the household.

Table 2. Comparing the economics of organic and conventional cotton in 2004*
Organic (KATC)
Conventional (in villages)
359 kg
492 100
256.0 kg
363 520
3 kg
4 500
2.5 kg
3 750
10 kg
18 000
69 840
25 000
8 000
Total income
617 440
367 270
Land preparation
2 750
2 750
Marking lines
16 500
16 500
2.5 kg
5 367
3.0 kg
7 000
Interplants seed
15 000
Planting labour
10 000
8 250
Hand weeding
16 500
16 500
Crop nutrition:
Compost + teas
88 000
7 500
30 000
32 000
32 000
Spraying labour
8 250
Harvesting labour
49 500
49 500
Total input
235 617
178 250
Net profit
381 823
189 020
*The exchange rate is 4 500 Kwachas for one US dollar.

In the following year, 2004/05, only grade A cotton was harvested. The yields went down because of the poor rainy season (see Table 2); but they were still better than the conventional national average for that year, which was 580 kg/ha. The seed cotton was tested for staple length, strength, etc., and the results were slightly better than most conventionally grown seed cotton samples. So even with the lower prices paid that year (as market price had gone down), farmers were still able to record a profit because of the lower input costs.

Table 3. Yield of organic cotton in 2004/05
Yield kg
Old Kasenga

Organic vegetables that increased in yield year by year

Kasisi has actually been growing organic vegetables several years before, and the results are even more stunning. Land was contracted out to a company which started growing in 2000, the organic yields were 40 to 60 percent those of conventionally grown crops, but increased in successive years while those of convention crops decreased. By 2004, the organics were out-yielding the conventionals by 2 to 3 fold (see Table 4).

Table 4. Average yields* for organic and conventionally grown vegetables
Fine beans
6 290
6 590
7 980
10 450
12 200
10 980
12 350
8 900
8 000
6 400
Baby corn
4 500
5 000
7 800
9 800
10 000
11 900
11 000
8 900
8 000
7 000
6 000
8 000
12 000
15 000
15 000
12 000
12 000
8 000
6 000
4 500

While yield increased year by year under organic management, production costs decreased (Table 5), partly on account of setting up costs during the first year, such as liming and rock phosphate amendments, and partly because the labour required for pest control diminished as soil fertility and plant health improved from compost and green manure, and the organic integrated pest management regime became more mature and effective in preventing pest attacks. The carrot crop was introduced when the soil fertility had already been built up, so there is little or no difference in production costs over the three successive years.

Table 5. Production costs* of organic vegetables over a five-year period
Baby corn
1 211
1 192
M tout
2 403
2 383
1 583
1 386
1 256
2 618
2 592
1 664
1 506
1 264
2 613
2 547
1 892
1 712
1 500
1 112
1 116
1 012
*In US$

Farmers' own open pollinated varieties outperform commercial hybrids

Hybrid seeds are sold by companies for their potential to give higher yields than non-hybrid seeds. But because they do not breed true, farmers must purchase the seeds from the companies every year if they want to keep up the same performance. In contrast, non-hybrid seeds, or open pollinated varieties (OPVs), though lower yielding, have allowed the farmers to save and replant seeds every year. That is what every student of agriculture and genetics has been told, and it has become a dogma among academic plant scientists that open pollinated varieties can never yield as much as hybrids.

Br. Paul has proven them wrong. OPVs, obtained from local small-scale farmers who have been saving them for years, gave yields equal or better than some hybrid varieties grown under the same organic management regime. Table 6 shows the yields of OPV and hybrid maize under organic management.

Table 6. Comparing OPV and hybrid maize under organic management
Yield kg/lima (0.25 ha)
Late maturing OPV
Late maturing hybrid
Late maturing OPV inter-planted with sorghum
Late maturing hybrid inter-planted with sunhemp
Medium maturing hybrid
Short season hybrid inter-planted with sunhemp

The high yields from OPVs show that they perform better in low external input systems, as opposed to hybrids that require high external inputs to fulfil their high yielding potentials. That is good news for small-scale farmers, not only in providing food security, but also the right to save, exchange and replant their own seeds, which they have had for millennia, instead of depending on the companies, and worse, in the case of GM crops, pay extra “technology fees”.

“We are told that hybrid maize seeds will yield three times as much as the OPVs.” Br. Paul says, “But one member of staff at Kasisi last year planted an OPV maize variety using compost and manure teas as fertiliser. Well he has been able to sell his surplus maize to his neighbour who planted hybrid maize seed and used fertiliser. Who has food security?”

“Some farmers do even better. Another family went into organic production since 1998, and has been able to buy a donkey, a bicycle, roofing sheets, a colour TV, a maize grinding mill, and pay for the university fees of a daughter.” Br. Paul continues, “They were able to feed themselves when they farmed conventionally, but never had any money left over. They produced food for the house and managed to repay the fertilizer loan, but after going into organic production, they have much more money at their disposal.”

Unlearning his lessons at university

Br. Paul was raised on a farm in Southwestern Ontario in Canada, one of the most productive farming areas in the country. He says, “My dad used a lot of fertilisers and chemicals. We were modern farmers like many others in the area, quick to adopt new technologies, using more and more fertilisers every year, applying herbicides and spraying for pests in large tomato field.”

Br. Paul majored in plant pathology while studying for his agricultural degree, his studies were focussed on the Green Revolution. He confesses, “When I came to Zambia, I naively thought that I would change things here. During the first 15 years, I promoted the use of fertiliser, chemical spraying in the vegetable gardens and using hybrid seed. It finally dawned on me that we were not going anywhere. Every year farmers were asking for loans to buy seed and fertiliser. Farmers made some money on maize production in only two years out of those 15 years.”

As he looked round, he realized it was not only at Kasisi and in Zambia, or Latin America that farmers were doing poorly. It was the same in Europe and North America. “In North America, farmers I knew personally have gone bankrupt. They would have been considered role-model farmers, doing everything according to the advice given by the government agricultural extension officers and agricultural universities. But they went bankrupt and lost their farms. The excuse offered was that inefficient farmers were being weeded out.”

In Zambia, 80 percent of the rural population are poor. Many farmers cannot even produce enough food to feed their own families. They are continually asking for loans to buy farming inputs. Fertilisers arrive late, if at all in the villages. Now, they have been advised to add an equal amount of lime to the fertilizer.

Transport is a big problem; there are virtually no roads for vehicles in remote areas. To make things worse, a fuel crisis has taken over the country in the past weeks and everywhere you go, long queues for petrol snake towards empty petrol stations waiting for promised deliveries.

In the 1980s, someone suggested to Br. Paul that he should look at organic agriculture, but he thought it was strictly for a small left-wing group who had enough money to pay for this type of farming. Nevertheless when he returned for home leave in Canada in 1988, he visited organic farmers, and found them to be successful. He studied the principles of organic agriculture in Ontario and adapted them to the situation in Zambia, and has never looked back.

“The staff at KATC, once convinced of the organic way of farming and the value of indigenous knowledge, have been very much in the forefront in explaining this to their fellow country folk.” Says Br. Paul.

The Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre trains small-scale farmers in 5-day residential courses on the principles of organic agriculture and indigenous knowledge, on organic vegetable production, organic cotton production, internal control systems, farm management, beekeeping, agroforestry, seed multiplication on farm and dairying.

Article first published 04/11/05

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