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Drip Irrigation, A Promising Future For iF Foundation’s Beneficiary Farmers

Whatever one’s opinion of climate science, the effects of global warming are directly impacting Haitian farmers in a negative way. For the past three years, we have experienced long periods of drought even during seasons that have never known an issue with rainfall. In an ironic coincidence, the period of drought began in 2013 when the iF Foundation started its agricultural program in Northern Haiti. Having access to credit, better seed, land preparation and technical support was serendipitous for our farmers during this time of extreme hardship as these factors mitigated the impact of the sustained drought. However, reimbursement rates for the loans suffered as farmer success depends on weather conditions as well as crop choice and market conditions. Access to water is the primary contributor to agricultural success as this determines which crops farmers will be able to grow and how much their land will produce. As rainfall becomes less predictable (or absent), farmers cannot make informed crop choices and must fall back on traditional planting calendars. This increases risk factors in an already risky venture. In our catchment area, 75% of crop loss was directly attributable to drought conditions.
The iF Foundation understands the challenges facing our beneficiary farmers and has been evaluating alternative strategies to de-risk farmers’ operation and make them less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We have conducted a series of trials to assess the potential of alternative and drought tolerant crops but the key to minimizing the risk depends on addressing water management. A successful approach must consider irrigation (“water in”) and drainage (“water out”).
In March 2016, we started discussions with Eduardo Mendias, the Senior Product Manager for Toro Micro-Irrigation, about the potential of using drip irrigation as part of our water management strategy in Haiti. We purchased our first drip irrigation kit from Toro and hosted a visit by Eduardo at our technical center in Coronel. He provided hands-on training to iF Foundation’s employees, the technical staff from Meds for Food and Kids (MFK) and the Sacred Heart Hospital in Milot. His task list included installing the first drip irrigation system in our region.
The initial phase involved a series of pilot projects with vegetables such as bell peppers and row crops including peanut and corn. The results were very promising as high-value vegetables could be successfully cultivated in our area for the first time. Even a drought-tolerant crop such as peanuts saw significant gains in yield (81%) when using drip. The next step in the process required us to validate the approach both from an implementation standpoint i.e., can Haitian farmers use and maintain the system, and financially i.e., does it pay for itself. This required additional funds to build the infrastructure necessary to extend the research to the farmer level.
In late 2016 FOKAL, the Haitian arm of the New York-based Open Society Institute allocated $30,000 to conduct the second phase. This larger pilot provides the opportunity to determine the potential of drip irrigation under “real world” conditions. Three different water delivery systems are being assessed as part of the trial. The project design also created the platform to quantitatively evaluate other interventions such as soil augmentation, improved seed and the use of vermicompost (rich organic fertilizer produced using earthworms). The project is currently in its full implementation phase and is being done with six participating farmers and two control fields managed by the iF Foundation.
Our project manager, Dabel Ismith, is collecting data to determine cost effectiveness for each variable as well as basic field performance data (moisture content, plant chlorophyll levels, etc.). Our laboratory tested all fields being used in the trial prior to rollout to calculate soil macronutrients, microbial populations, pH, conductivity and percentage of organic matter. They are repeating the analysis at various time points during the trial. We are calculating the relative costs of water delivery when using solar pumps, electric pumps or delivery via truck. Startup required a lot of planning and coordination as it involved land preparation, establishment of nurseries for tomato, bell pepper and hot pepper, installation of the drip systems, well digging and planting. The trial should be completed by the end of April with data analysis and submission of the final report scheduled for the end of May. Indications at the ¾ mark are extremely encouraging and will determine how we proceed with planning and fundraising for expansion in 2018.
Increasing access to drip irrigation will benefit local farmers in substantive, measurable ways and improve reimbursement rates for the farm credit program. Among the many positives of drip:
• Reduced risk of crop loss during dry periods
• Farmers can expand the range of what they plant and choose varieties with higher market value rather than low-value staple crops and and grow them in the season when demand is greatest; a water management project in Kothapally, India saw the number of different crops under cultivation increase from four to twenty-eight
• Increased net farm family revenue through better crop selection and the addition of one growing season as the result of having a reliable water supply
Everyone on the iF Foundation team is dedicated to helping Haitian farmers succeed. We can only achieve this goal by focusing on alternatives that address the issues that lower agricultural potential and increase risk of failure. Drip irrigation combined with self-evident elements such as access to better seed allows farmers to become more productive and profitable. This is a durable solution to the seminal challenge of water. The Toro irrigation material has a 15-year use life thus represents a long-term approach to solving a universal problem. Drip irrigation can be life changing for Haitian farmers.