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Soil Doctor Offers Healthy Advice for Smallholder Farmers

South Sudanese farmer Paul Alim Amuol waters crops on his 4.5-hectare farm in Bor, Jonglei state. Amuol says he needs better technology to boost production and to be able to get his crops to market before they go off.

An international agricultural coalition – “Farming First” – is calling for the improved teaching of soil health to small farmers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where up to 65% of land is degraded.

Representatives of the group recently met in New York during Global Soil Week to address the issue and to highlight innovative programs working on the issue.

Ian Chesterman is regional technical advisor of Fintrac, a woman- owned, US-based consulting company that develops agricultural solutions to end hunger and poverty. Fintrac also supports the efforts of Farming First.

He said soil education and improved management skills are the first steps in improving food production and productivity. He said one project working in Kenya – called Soil Doctor – is doing just that.

The effort was set up by one of Fintrac’s local partners called Crop Nutrition Laboratory Services, a private company that manages and provides soil analysis to farmers. It also matches fertilizers with specific soil types, and helps with other improvements like applying lime to the soil because, as Chesterman said, “in many parts of Kenya, the soil is too acidic for optimum crop growth.”The recommendations are provided in text messages or in writing to farmers’ local agribusiness dealers.

The results have been impressive.

“Once they’ve implemented the recommendations,” he said, “we’ve consistently seen farmers improved yields by anywhere between 40 to 150 percent within a year – significantly improving their crop income. “

Initially, sampling done by the three-year-old Soil Doctor service was limited, with fewer than 100 samples, according to Chesterman. But by April of 2015, the soils of nearly 8,000 small farmers had been analyzed.

He said the initiative is working to reach up to analyze up to 5,000 soil samples per year.