The news that millions of people in Zimbabwe are starving and in desperate need of humanitarian aid is very sad in a country that used to be the "breadbasket" of southern Africa and still has much potential to achieve agricultural success.
Today, Zimbabwe can hardly feed her population, let alone export any food crops. In a desperate bid to save lives, the government has resorted to begging for grain from mostly Zambia and South Africa.
Ironically, 13 years ago, Zambia was very much dependent on Zimbabwe for its grain supply.
It is no secret that the turn of fortunes came about after the government embarked on the fast track land reform programme, that saw the bulk of white commercial farmers that had operated in the country with tremendous success for many years, losing "their" farms and being replaced with new black farmers.
But almost 14 years after the "new farmers" acquired the land, the country is still to realise any meaningful agricultural success, resulting in some people questioning the sense in the fast track land reform programme.
Some are even of the view that farming should have been left to white commercial farmers who clearly knew what they were doing, as far as farming was concerned.
But there are also many (especially those that are pro-indigenisation) that believe that the unfair land appropriation that saw white people owning much of the fertile land while black people struggled with the infertile soils that characterises most communal areas from which they laboured hard to eke out a living, just had to be corrected.
Now that the black farmers hold the reins as they have been given the previously white-owned land, pertinent questions arise.
Almost 14 years later, why have we not yet regained our agricultural prowess of days past? Why are millions of people starving today? Why are some of the farmers abandoning farming in pursuit of less productive and rather destructive ventures, like clearing their areas of trees that they are selling as firewood along the highways?
Sustainable farming is the way to go
The majority of farmers that have had some measure of success are mostly into tobacco farming, as the crop is considered to be better rewarding monetary-wise and because the crop can thrive under harsh conditions, unlike say, maize.
But even as tobacco farming has been hailed as a success, it is at the expense of the country's forests. Zimbabwe today faces deforestation partly because tobacco farmers have been cutting down mostly indigenous trees to use in curing their crop. Furthermore, tobacco farming has accelerated at the expense of food crops!
When asked why they have not been able to fully utilise the land they were given, most of those "farmers" whose lands remain mostly idle have blamed it on a lack of inputs. But this is in spite of the fact that farmers have received government support in the form of inputs since they attained the land.
However, further probing reveals there is more to the lack of success on most farms than the problem of "lack of inputs".
Success in farming has a great deal to do with one's farming practices. Maybe owing to the fact that most farmers did not actually study farming as a subject, there is clearly very little know-how of sustainable farming practices by most farmers.
Sustainable agriculture can essentially be described as the practice of farming ecologically, rather than focussing only on the economic viability of the crops. Employing sustainable farming practices ensures that the land will be suitable for productive farming even in the future.
Ancient and ineffective farming practices such as slash-and-burn, a highly destructive way of clearing the land which has been proven to do nothing but tire the soils and render them less productive over a period of time while exacerbating the looming global warming threat, are common with most farmers.
Unknown to them, reducing tillage and leaving as much crop residue as possible in the field each season is good residue management and part of an effective conservation plan that assures better soil fertility, among other benefits.
Since they acquired the land, some so-called new farmers have only ever planted one type of crop. Crop rotation and crop diversity are clearly foreign concepts to them.
There also seems to be an overdependence on fertilisers, so much that many farmers believe farming would be impossible without the use of large amounts of fertilizer. But that can be a problem. Excessive nitrogen fertilizer application for instance, often leads to pest problems and risks contaminating ground water.
The idea of taking up organic farming does not seem to be one the local farmers are welcoming.
The erratic rainfall patterns have not helped matters. Most farmers tend to rush to plant as soon as the first rains fall, only to find it necessary to replant as long dry spells in between would have rendered their initial attempts futile.
The Zimbabwe meteorological department has not been known to be very reliable in predicting the correct weather patterns!
So while inputs definitely are important, it is even more important to ensure that our farmers are well-schooled on sustainable agricultural practices.Proper agricultural support structures are also a requirement.