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Why crop yields don’t tell the whole story

May 24, 2021

Plant With Purpose participant farmers increase their crop yields by 37%

Ending poverty and restoring ecosystems are intertwined goals that cannot be effectively achieved without each other. When nearly nine out of ten people in poverty around the world live rural lives dependent on agricultural livelihoods, the health of their land determines everything from how many meals their children will eat to whether or not they can bring in an income from harvests.

For this reason, economic empowerment and environmental restoration are both core components of Plant With Purpose’s mission, alongside spiritual renewal.

When members of rural communities join local Purpose Groups, they participate in both savings activities and Farmer Field Schools. The latter provides training in our Seeds of Change environmental curriculum, which includes soil conservation, agroforestry, and watershed management. As their ecosystem heals and creates the opportunity for financial growth through better harvests, the savings activities in the groups allow for participants to make investments and start projects.

The amount of crops a farmer is able to grow is one of the most visible ways to see how the health of their ecosystem translates directly into food and financial security. Thus, measuring crop yields is one of the most intuitive ways for Plant With Purpose to measure the progress made by program participants. It’s easy to envision how healing an ecosystem leads to healthier conditions for farmers to grow food, which can then translate to better food security at home, greater income from selling surpluses at a market, and further improvements in a family’s life.

For this reason, we’ve measured partnering farmers’ crop yields for years. When farmers join a Purpose Group, they actively implement soil conservation and regenerative agriculture techniques. These partners ultimately report higher levels of soil quality as well as larger crop yields. A Plant With Purpose-conducted study found that participants yield 37% more crops compared to nonparticipants in similar circumstances.

Marimarthe, a Haitian member of a Purpose Group, explains that both the technical training and the access to financial credit allows her community to plant more crops and to share knowledge about how to grow healthy crops. “People here are now more concerned about the environment,” she shares. “Our farms are better … now we eat more meals, and we eat many different products. We are growing new species like eggplant, sweet peppers, and spinach. Young people today are facing a very different future than their parents.”

The increase in partners’ crop yields is certainly worth celebrating, especially because of the further improvements it makes in people’s lives. However, the story of transformation doesn’t end there.

Marimarthe amongst her crops in her backyard garden.

While we pursue an increase in crop yields, it doesn’t quite tell the whole story

We are encouraged by the increase in our partners’ crop yields. For people in some of the world’s most hunger-stricken communities, a 37% increase leads to an extra meal each day.

That said, our goal is to ensure that we are making a sustainable impact, and in order to do so, we must also recognize the limitations and shortcomings of crop yields as a measure of success.

Some of the limitations of measuring crop yields include the following:

  • It doesn’t necessarily tell us about the condition of the wider ecosystem
  • It’s possible for a farmer to make all the right environmental decisions while still seeing modest crop yields
  • There may be other ways to accomplish a large crop yield that are not environmentally beneficial
  • It doesn’t describe the diversity of crops and therefore nutrition of the family’s diet

Why doesn’t it tell us about the condition of the wider ecosystem?

If the health of an entire watershed ecosystem was improving, one would expect that the farms located within that watershed would improve and demonstrate better crop growth. Often, that is true. However, a few highly productive farms may be anomalies that aren’t completely representative of the whole state of the ecosystem.

As part of our watershed model, we not only aim for the success of participating households, but for everybody living within those hydrological boundaries. While improved crop yields are a part of that vision, it also includes pursuits like biodiversity, reforestation, and water access, which might not be immediately reflected by that single statistic.

How can a farmer still see modest crop yields after applying regenerative agriculture techniques?

This can happen because of the wider context in which crops grow. Events like natural disasters, or the broader challenge of climate change, can result in greater adversity that limits the immediate benefits of sustainable farming.

One example might be a situation where a farmer applies a good number of soil conservation techniques, composts, and establishes a woodlot, only to have a bad hurricane season devastate a large portion of what would have been a good harvest. These incidents increase alongside climate change which, in the words of a partnering Haitian farmer, makes it so that people have to work harder and harder to produce less food.

This doesn’t mean that the sustainable farming practices were of no use. Regenerative agriculture promotes resilience—so even though a particularly bad storm may devastate a year’s harvest, efforts to conserve soil may have preserved a lower layer so that the next year brings a quicker recovery.

Another example can be one where a partnering farmer used to be in the habit of cutting trees and burning fields to increase the amount of land where food can be grown. A shift from that habit may result in the planting of trees to reforest the area and optimize the soil, rather than simply maximizing the open surface area. This is another instance where one measure of crop yields might not account for the long term improvement of the land. Healthy soils do not develop instantaneously, and the process of building up the proper nutrients in the soil to support crop yields may even initially lead to a decrease.

What are some environmentally harmful ways a large crop yield can be accomplished?

If the aim is simply to achieve a large crop yield, industrial monocropping, chemical fertilizers, and deforestation may be incentivized. All these things might result in one or even a few seasons of larger crop quantities, but they are unsustainable and will cause much more damage to the environment long term.

For example, a country like the Dominican Republic offers a lot of land that is ideal for the cultivation of coffee. A large industrial coffee plantation, boosted by chemical fertilizers may result in a couple seasons of high productivity. Crop yield scores alone would make this look like a good thing.

Coffee plants in the Dominican Republic, however, are sometimes threatened by coffee rust disease. This is a plant disease that has historically wiped out the coffee industries of entire countries like Sri Lanka or the Philippines. If a farm that has been entirely dependent on coffee for its income succumbs to coffee rust disease, it will lack other crops that could offset the lack of income. Furthermore, the chemical fertilizers used on the soil may have killed off other microorganisms that could aid in the cultivation of other diverse species.

Partners report on the quality of their soil

Our monitoring and evaluation process makes an effort to account for all the nuances of helping people by healing ecosystems

All of these considerations aren’t meant to write off crop yields as irrelevant. There are many intuitive reasons why it does reflect improvements in people’s lives and their environmental health. But understanding its limitations can also allow us to integrate this measure alongside other bits of evidence that provide a more holistic picture of ecosystem health.

Our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) process is intentionally designed. It’s meant to measure progress toward a holistic vision of transformed lives and restored environments, rather than scattered bits of individual successes.

Plant With Purpose not only measures the size of crop yields, but we also analyze partnering farmer’s feedback on soil health. We survey partners on their application of regenerative agriculture techniques. We examine how partners are sharing and spreading knowledge of sustainable agriculture, and we apply technological tools like satellite monitoring to track the reforestation and regeneration of watersheds.

The good news is that all our measures show us that helping people heal their land improves their lives.

Reforestation is taking place in every watershed Plant With Purpose works in, and this results in positive change at a macro level. Local climates are stabilized, soil is protected, and biodiversity can thrive.

While we see a 37% increase in crop yields compared to nonparticipants, participating farmers  are also seeing an 6% increase in soil quality and a 40% increase in crop diversity compared to what is observed by nonparticipants. Participants’ farming behaviors are also shifting, as we see they apply nearly double the amount of different regenerative agriculture techniques than nonparticipants. This includes being 71% more likely to apply living barriers, 136% more likely to reduce tillage, and 119% more likely to mulch compared to nonparticipants.

We are greatly encouraged to see the progress of our partnering farmers as reflected in our evaluations. Crop yields are increasing, along with a number of other positive indicators that show how entire ecosystems are being restored and farming families are rising out of poverty.

To learn more about how we measure impact, and how we’re ready to expand our work during a time of urgent need, click here.

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