In the Field
A strong collaboration between the University of Adelaide, Tibet Agricultural Research Institute and the AYAD Program has had excellent long-term results in agricultural development in one of the world’s poorest regions. In 2009, AYAD agronomist Tim Heath joined the project in Tibet and discovered the challenges and successes that working in the field can bring.
Around half of Tibet’s 2.7 million people practice intensive agriculture and keep livestock in a network of valleys located at between 3500 and 3950 metres above sea level.
Farming systems are heavily focused on the production of spring barley and winter wheat and current levels of production provide sufficient grain for human needs. However, the existing system provides little fodder for animals and, consequently, livestock – in particular dairy cattle – do not produce much milk and often die in Tibet’s harsh winters.
In 2004 a University of Adelaide-led project to help Tibetan farmers increase their grain, fodder and milk production was established to help drive agricultural development in one of the world’s poorest areas.
The project, now in its fifth year, has introduced new cropping practices into Tibet and trained young scientists from the Tibet Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) in techniques aimed at increasing the farmers’ average income from about $2 a day.
Over the next three years the project plans to increase household income and industry productivity in Tibet. This will be done by developing community-based initiatives in dairy, crop and fodder production for farmers in the central valleys of Tibet.
The project has already helped to identify new fodder crops that are suitable for growing in Tibet and introduced systems for fodder production that do not have adverse impacts on grain production. Cereal crops are the staple food for Tibetan farmers so they can’t be substituted for fodder crops, but it is possible to intercrop wheat with vetch and lucerne crops. With the end result being that you can feed both humans and livestock.
AYAD Tim Heath has agriculture in his blood having grown up on a broad acre farming property west of Port Lincoln in country South Australia. Like his father and grandfather before him, he is passionate about agriculture and studied it at the University of Adelaide before working as an agronomist.
When Tim saw the Tibet agronomist position with AYAD he realised it was a great opportunity to share his passion for agricultural development and to learn more by experiencing firsthand agricultural production in the developing world.
During his time in Tibet Tim worked with the Tibet Agriculture Research Institute and fellow Australian researchers on the project. His roles varied from teaching the Tibetan and Chinese staff simple methods of agronomy from soil leaf tissue sampling techniques that help provide information on Tibetan soils and crop nutritional requirements to completing farmer surveys in regard to weed control strategies as well as giving presentations on Australian Agriculture to Undergraduate students and much more.
Helping Tibetan farmers develop better weed-management techniques and increase crop productivity was one of the goals for Tim during his time in Tibet.
Most people in the world are aware of the rapidly growing global population, the declining area for producing food and the challenge of global warming and climate change. This basically means that agriculture must produce more food in the same or less space to be able to sustain this rapidly growing population. This issue is paramount in China with a booming population and market. Improving food production in Tibet has far-reaching and long-lasting effects for the families and villages in the region and beyond.
“In recent times there has been a big focus on improving food production to meet the increasing demands of the rapidly growing world population,” says Tim, “I think this is a crucial issue, but I think that we need to focus on improving food quality as well as total production. If we can produce more nutritional products we do not necessarily have to increase total yield, it will allow us to provide more food from the same yield and we’ll be helping the environment as well.”
One of the major focuses of Tim’s role as an agronomist in Australia is weed control and this paired perfectly with his project in Tibet where weed control was a major factor. In Australia rainfall is generally the limiting factor in agriculture but in Tibet plant nutrition is the key to improving food production. Weeds compete with crops for the nutrients a crop requires to grow so weed control can have a big impact on the effectiveness of food production in the region.
From his surveys of Tibetan farmers, Tim saw that the farmers already knew enough about the importance of weeds, in that they're bad for crops but not too bad to pull-up and feed to livestock. Existing weed control was achieved by deep ploughing and some use of herbicides in crop - but many farmers were new to herbicides, the most common and effective method of weed control used in Australia.
Tim believed that pre-emergent herbicides would be a great solution for Tibet. A pre-emergent herbicide basically remains in the soil after a crop is planted and controls weed seedlings as soon as they germinate, but the desired crop is able to tolerate the herbicide and grow through the herbicide layer and will then have no weeds to compete with the crop for the nutrients that the crop requires, hence yielding a better crop. But there is no simple solution to any problem, especially in Tibet, where it is important to consider the affects one solution will have on the remainder of the families or villages farming land.
“We have to be very careful when introducing weed control methods such as herbicides into these farmer’s systems because the herbicides may kill off weeds that would otherwise be used as a fodder source for the Tibetan livestock” explains Tim, “That’s why we have to integrate livestock fodder production crops into a farmers rotation or find some other way to manage the fodder shortage at certain times of the year.”
There’s no quick fix to improving food production in Tibet, it is a complicated process and Tim is happy to have been able to participate in this stage of the project. Working with local researchers and farmers he is confident that the ongoing agricultural development in the region will continue to improve the livelihoods of local people and protect the environment for future farmers too.
“Tibet is a very beautiful and rewarding place,” says Tim, “I had a great time both at work in Tibet and also enjoyed the social and travel opportunities that came along with the volunteering experience. Unfortunately you can only travel as an AYAD once, so I am already looking into other avenues to get the opportunity to get back out into the field again!”
For more information: