BULAWAYO — There is always something to eat in Esinah Moyo’s one hectare plot.
In between rows of maize are indigenous beans which make a yummy soup. Groundnuts are intercropped with sorghum, ready to harvest for a meal.
In a changing climate where rainfall has become even more unpredictable than before, Moyo plants every inch of her small plot with traditional seed varieties.
The benefits, she says are big in terms of resilience to unpredictable conditions, crop diversity and food variety throughout the year.
Moyo, a farmer in Jambezi ward, 300km north of Bulawayo, credits much of her success as a farmer to conservation agriculture techniques, such as planting seeds in holes that collect water and extend the moisture available to thirsty plants. But she also grows traditional crops whose seed she can save and sell to other farmers.
She focuses on “open pollinated varieties” – plant types that are pollinated by wind and insects and whose seeds can be saved for planting the next year, unlike store-bought hybrid seeds.
Yields from hybrid seeds can be significantly higher and in good conditions. But with weather shifts making farming seasons more unpredictable, farmers like Moyo are having to balance the need for bigger yields with their need to reliably get at least some yield — and to earn income from selling seed to neighbours.
Hybrid seed varieties are produced from controlled cross-pollination of two different varieties of parent plants, and their seeds cannot be stored and saved for use the following year.
Hybrids can produce bigger crops and commercial seed companies prefer to sell them as farmers need to buy new supplies each year.
But as farmers try to find the right mix of resilience and reliable yields to combat changing climate conditions, plenty believe that traditional seed varieties — not just high-producing hybrids — are part of the answer.
Owing to their resilience in harsh conditions, farmers have for generations saved part of their harvest each farming season to plant the next season. Researchers agree this type of seed does not offer yields that compare to hybrid seed grown in good conditions.
But traditional seed has much wider genetic variety, which can be beneficial when fields face unexpected challenges.
In September, the United Nations World Food Programme said more than two million Zimbabweans will need relief food to get through to the next harvest in April 2014 because of food shortages attributed to high input costs — including that of hybrid seed —and bad weather.
Moyo, who has grown both types of seed, says hybrid maize varieties that mature early can produce high yields in good years, compared to traditional varieties. But “in a bad season, it is mostly the (traditional varieties) that give me a good yield”, she said.
Farmers said they are also benefitting from selling to other farmers non-hybrid seed that they can produce themselves — particularly grains that are resilient to increasingly unpredictable weather.
Planting two crops a year, Moyo produces an average of two tonnes of seed each year and earns more than $2 000 from the one-acre plot she farms.
She sells at least one tonne of seed for about $1 a kg, keeps a third of the remainder of the crop as seed to replant herself the following year and uses the rest of her harvest to feed her family.
Moyo and her neighbours in Nemananga ward, in Matabeleland North Province, were trained in seed production under the Food Security and Livelihood Diversification Programme in Hwange and Binga Districts in the northern part of Zimbabwe.
Moyo in May showcased some of her seed at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair. Another farmer, Ivy Nyoni, has been producing traditional seed for the past five years, annually harvesting between one and three tonnes of different seed varieties. Last season she made more than $2,000 selling the seed.
Moses Siambi, principal scientist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, encouraged farmers to grow hybrids because the productivity of traditional varieties is low and they generally don’t produce enough to give farmers enough excess to sell.