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Cycle 7 (2018 Deadline)

Developing organic soil management technologies to enhance carbon capture, climate adaptability, and sustainability of smallholder farms in Tunisia

PI: Khaled Sassi (, National Agronomic Institute of Tunisia
U.S. Partner: Anil Somenahally, Texas A&M AgriLife Research
Dates: November 2018 - October 2020

Project Overview:

This project will address a priority area for Tunisia--natural resource management--to include water management, soil conservation, land management, biodiversity, and energy diversification, as well as general sustainable development issues and climatic adaptability. Among many constraints for sustainable agriculture production on smallholder farms in Tunisia, declining quality of soil resources is one of the central component for unsustainability and vulnerability of smallholder farms to yield loss and climate change effects. A larger goal for this project is to develop novel soil management technologies to increase carbon capture and climate adaptability on smallholder farms of Tunisia, applicable to other regions of Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Specific goals focus on identifying soil management techniques to integrate with locally relevant crop rotations to enhance soil quality, carbon capture, climate adaptability and sustainability of smallholder farms in Tunisia.

The USG partners at Texas A&M AgriLife Research will provide collaborative partnerships to strengthen capacity development, training, and education. The project outcomes will be scaled for larger implementation in the MENA region, through continued collaborations with other agencies in the area. It will also greatly improve the education programs within agriculture and soil science programs at IRESA and others and effectively transfer the latest technologies for sustainable agriculture production and climate smart agriculture. The project will also couple sustainable intensification and climate adaptability with many ongoing research efforts at agencies in Tunisia for scaling up new organic value chains for staple crops and horticultural products. A white paper will be developed based on the outcome of this project work, to be submitted to MENA regional agriculture agencies and local governments for science-based policy development on soil resource management for climate resilient and sustainable agriculture. Although there are some large farms, most Tunisian farmers have around 10 acres or less. This research will be beneficial for developing interventions for soil quality improvement on both large- and small-scale farms and increasing harvest yield and quality. It is a promising technology for farmers to reduce the environmental impacts associated with organic waste management and crop rotations. It will help build sustainable intensification models for smallholder farms in vulnerable regions of Tunisia and MENA. The project therefore aligns well in a context of sustainable development and could even be integrated to guide developing new national policy on improving organic management technologies on farms.

Summary of Recent Activities

During the previous quarter, several activities proposed were carried out. Preparatory meetings were held with the project team members, US partner and also with the associated structures, namely the socio-economic partners and the managers of the 3 small farms in Tunisian different climatic zones (North, Center and South). They identified 5 research activities and each activity is composed of a leader and a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional team.
One of the main objectives of the PEER proposal was to develop novel composting technologies to effectively recycle on farm nutrients and sustainably improve soil fertility and soil health on small-holder farms. In each climate zone (North, Center and South), three different composting windrows have been constructed and operational for research and demonstration. The technique of co-windrow composting has been implemented. The implementation of different windrows was carried out by the wastes (about 9 000 kg) in each experimental compost unit in pyramidal form (height 1.5 m with base of 3 x 2 m). It should be noted that the raw materials collected differ according to the agricultural activities practiced in the region (Cereals crops, Olive cultivation and Palm cultivation, cattle wastes, olive pomace). Accordingly, they have also modified composting techniques (time, ratios of inputs) to achieve similar quality in the end product.

Their second objective was to develop climate smart crop rotation models appropriate for smallholder farms in these agroclimatic regions. A biennial rotation system was set up (rotating vetch with oats) at the sites of the Center (in Sidi Bouzid) and the South (in Chenini , Gabes). These sites will subsequently receive quantities of organic inputs based on on-site compost to improve soil quality and improve adaptability and resilience in smallholder farms. They have also begun work to integrate the results from above objectives to develop system level conservation agriculture models. Main goals are to reduce soil degradation caused mainly by water erosion, to improve soil fertility (biological and physical), to increase carbon sequestration, to improve water use
efficiency (WUE) and to make agricultural systems more resilient to climate change. To achieve these goals, four (04) on-farm trials have been implemented in the semi arid region of Tunisia (Krib/Siliana governorate; Chouarnia/Siliana gouvernorate; Fahs/Zaghouan governorate and Gueboulat/Beja governorate). The trials consists of durum wheat as the main cash crop, which will be in rotation with faba bean under conservation agriculture vs conventional agriculture.

Regarding the research activity that deals with the evaluation of the economic impacts of adopting organic soil management technologies for small farmers, a master student has already been hired and a preliminary survey was scheduled on several organic farms. As a reminder, this survey aims to characterize production systems, to evaluate the in-situ composting capacity and to analyze farmers' perception of new organic soil management technologies. Finally, several events (training workshops and field trials) were planned to improve the capacities and motivate farmers, men and women, laboratory technicians, students, professionals in the sector.

In the next 3-6 months, the PI and his team will be working on laboratory analysis of compost microbial community. Some laboratory analysis will be outsourced at Texas A&M University AgriLife Research. For this, in August 2019, Dr. Khaled Sassi (PI) and Dr. Hatem Cheikh M’hamed will be away for around 15 days. Meetings will be scheduled, with USG partner’s at Texas A&M University AgriLife Research, to discuss the preliminary results and collaboration opportunities.

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