Agricultural productivity: Building skills at grassroots

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IN the previous episode of our discussion on raising farm productivity, we looked at the skills gap among farm workers.
In this episode we further interrogate the skills gap with reference to graduates from agricultural colleges.
We examine the critical role of a tractor driver in the field production chain as we continue to explore why productivity on farms continues to lag behind.
Do university and college graduates learn these critical operational skills in their coursework or are these practical details considered to be below their dignity?
Or are practical sessions left out for want of land and resources to do the operations?
It is common cause that most, if not all, public agricultural tertiary institutions have as yet to acquire pivots and other sophisticated equipment that could provide much-needed practical experience for graduating students.
Until we modernise training facilities at agricultural training institutions, these graduates will be of limited use in boosting productivity.
If farms belonging to educational institutions can be turned into production units that integrate theory and practice under realistic conditions, graduates should be able to, as it were, hit the ground running.
Such graduates, landing on Kurima’s plot, should quickly create impact!
It is no longer acceptable that academic staff at colleges and universities dispense theoretical knowledge devoid of practical experience to students who are expected to raise agricultural productivity and impact the economy!
We strongly advocate availing land to agriculture professors and lecturers to afford them opportunities to gain practical experience that they can use to train their students.
As the saying goes, these tertiary institution teachers cannot give what they do not have (practical knowledge).
In fact, the details on how to do various land operations are informed by the science of the soil and the crops to be planted.
But, if the learning is all theory, the graduates will be hard put to translate theory into practice.
The class example is that of a first class agricultural science graduate, full of theory, who is tasked to grow a crop of maize.
He opens his notebook and tries to follow all the steps that are clearly outlined.
The first step in growing maize is to plough the land.
This requires a tractor, diesel and a plough.
If he has no knowledge of operating a tractor to plough a field, he must find a driver who knows how to hitch and adjust the plough to till the land.
Diesel must be bought.
If the driver he finds can drive but is unskilled in hitching and ploughing, his project is a dead duck in the water.
And yet, on paper, all steps are so clear.
He is brilliant!
He remembered all the points in the book.
That is why he obtained a first-class pass.
But can he grow maize?
So, the skills of a tractor driver become a limiting factor.
Suppose the driver succeeds to plough, then he must disc the field so that planting can take place; a separate set of skills is required.
When it comes to planting with a planter, another set of skills is required — ability to set the row width, to calibrate the fertiliser delivery system so that it can deliver the recommended amount of fertiliser.
A dish with holes matching seed size must be fitted.
If the holes are too large due to a previous adjustment, a dish with smaller holes must be identified and fitted, otherwise the planter will deliver too-many seeds in a metre row.
If population is too high, plants will grow tall, thin and easily lodge.
Worse still, the seed will be used up over a small area.
Conversely, if the seed holes are too small, they will be closed by larger pips resulting in a patchy crop stand.
In all cases the consequences are low-yields even if adequate fertiliser and rains are available.
My own experience with incorrect seeding rate was when seed to cover 12ha was all used up within seven hectares. Maize variety SC719, which is small-seeded, was planted with large-holed planter dishes that had been used for SC 627 which is relatively large-seeded.
The driver had very limited experience with maize planters and did not know about different seed sizes requiring dishes of different hole size.
The plants were so crowded and, unfortunately, were not thinned, leading to severe yield reduction.
More seed had to be purchased to plant the remaining area thereby further reducing the profitability of the whole enterprise.
The operation described above illustrates the critical importance of operational skills.
While the skills appear simple, the mistakes were very costly.
Where are they training drivers and equipment operators?
If the driver lacks the practical skills to operate the equipment, the whole enterprise collapses even if the manager has got all the manuals describing what to do.
This shows the importance of practical skills development.
Along the crop establishment chain comes application of herbicides.
Hopefully, the manager can read and calculate required dilutions. Sometimes, higher concentrations are applied in the mistaken belief that the higher dosage will quickly control the pest and yet too high a dosage can also affect the crop plants and reduce yields.

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