Traditional Farming or High-Value Crops? An Integrated Approach to Help Farmers Choose
This post was written by Marie-Charlotte Buisson, Consultant, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Farmers in Tajikistan urgently need new ways to boost their incomes while strengthening household food and nutrition security. Recent research suggests that an integrated approach, involving improvements in water management and training in new technologies, increases the productivity of the traditional cotton/wheat system and also promotes diversification toward high-value crops. Community-based water users associations have a vital role to play in achieving both ends.
The economy of Tajikistan depends mainly on agriculture, which has traditionally been dominated by a system consisting of cotton production for cash and wheat production for consumption in the household. Cotton fiber is the country’s second biggest source of export earnings and the most commonly grown cash crop. Bread, made mostly from wheat flour, is Tajikistan’s staple food and a nutritional mainstay. Despite reforms that have reduced government control over farmers’ choice of what to grow, cotton production is still popular, in part because prices are regulated by the state. Due to fluctuations in the price of imported wheat, farmers have a strong incentive to continue cultivating wheat.
The irrigated cropping system based on cotton for cash and wheat for food faces several risks, including productivity declines resulting from climate change impacts on agriculture in Central Asia. Cotton is particularly vulnerable to reduced water availability, and cotton cultivation is not profitable due to low farm gate prices. Forward markets (involving contracts for future delivery of a commodity) and crop insurance offer alternative means of managing these risks but have been developed only to a limited extent in Tajikistan.
Diversifying the cropping system may reduce some of these risks by providing farm households with more varied sources of income and contributing to improved diets. A survey conducted by IWMI in southern Tajikistan with almost 2,000 farms during 2017 showed that high-value crops were being cultivated for both household consumption and for cash, in contrast with the production of cotton and wheat for single purposes. For example, farm families consumed 52 percent of the melon harvest, on average, and sold 48 percent for cash. The production of these crops contributes importantly to satisfying household food needs and diversifying diets, while also generating farm income and helping meet the growing demand for vegetables in urban markets.
USAID-established water users associations (WUAs) have played an important role in crop diversification, beyond their primary function of delivering irrigation water. In the absence of a formal agricultural extension service in Tajikistan, USAID WUAs also disseminated information on agricultural technologies, both formally through training and informally through farmer meetings. Other WUAs did not disseminate such information, focusing mostly on improvements in water management.
Research carried out by IWMI has shown that, while changes in cotton and wheat production decisions were influenced by water delivery, diversification into high-value crops was influenced by a combination of improvements in irrigation infrastructure and access to formal and informal training. Farmers who perceived an increase in the quantity of water delivered between 2014 and 2016 planted an additional 0.23 hectares of cotton and reduced the wheat area by 0.49 hectares. In contrast, the area of a farm devoted to cultivating high-value crops increased by 0.15 hectares when farmers perceived improvements in maintenance of water infrastructure. The area increased by an additional 0.26 hectares when farmers had received formal training. Informal training – the result of farmers’ interaction with agricultural or water groups – also tended to modestly increase the cultivated area of non-traditional crops.
These results suggest that future efforts to develop and support WUAs should not focus only on their role in water management but rather take an integrated approach that prepares and encourages them to address production challenges and opportunities on farms.
This post presents findings from the recent Feed the Future impact evaluation on the Impact of Water Users Associations (WUAs) on Water and Land Productivity, Equity and Food Security in Tajikistan. Join our upcoming seminar to learn more!