Soil fertility remains a key problem in parts of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In such areas, lack of soil nutrients and water often results in low crop production. These problems directly affect the livelihoods of many farmers in the region. Burning crop residues and ploughing also contribute to soil degradation as they reduce the organic matter of soil and destroy soil structure. Increasing agricultural productivity through improving soil fertility using conservation agriculture practices is, therefore, widely considered to be a priority in the region. A series of training courses were organized in February 2013 by ICARDA and its national partners in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. These were conducted within the GCP/RER/030/TUR project "Conservation Agriculture in Irrigated Areas of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan". This project is funded by FAO within the framework of the FAO/Turkey Partnership Programme. The first training course entitled Soil fertility management under conservation agriculture was organized in close collaboration with the Agrarian Scientific Center in Azerbaijan. It was held at the experimental station in Ter-ter. A total of 45 researchers, farmers and district-level policymakers gathered at the event to discuss some of the problems of soil fertility improvement under conservation agriculture. Many districts in Azerbaijan suffer from the loss of soil fertility and farmers cannot afford fertilizers in recommended amounts, which causes low crop productivity. Production is also constrained by improper crop rotation, soil and water management. All this means that CA can be an effective tool for soil fertility improvement and sustainable agriculture in general. And these issues were covered at length in the presentations on soil fertility improvement by Mr Seymur Safarli, of the Research Institute of Soil Erosion and Irrigation; Dr Zulfi Ismailov, of Azerbaijan Information Center (AIM); Dr Imran Jumshudov, of the Azerbaijan Research Institute of Farming; Dr Kamil Fataliev, of the Azerbaijan Research Institute of Agromechanika; and Dr Aziz Nurbekov, project coordinator of ICARDA-CAC. Following the presentations, the participants said that such training courses should be organized again as there is a need to learn more about how to improve soil fertility at farm level. Bagirov Maharram, a farmer from Barda district, said that the training course would benefit from visits to sites where CA was being used.
Land degradation, decreasing soil fertility and a high population density have increased pressure on irrigated land in south Kazakhstan. These problems were addressed during the training course on soil fertility improvement in Chimkent, Kazakhstan, held on 7 and 8 February. A total of 48 local officials, researchers, students, farmers and scientists convened at the meeting hosted by the South-West Kazakhstan Research Institute of Livestock and Crop Production (SWRILCP). The aim of the training course was to discuss new approaches to soil fertility improvement under conservation agriculture. In his opening remarks, Prof Dossymbek Sydyk, deputy director of the SWRILCP, expressed his gratitude to ICARDA for productive cooperation on the conservation agriculture project. He noted that an integrated approach used for designing the project will ensure good results. He also pointed out interest among farmers in participatory research activities of the project. The training sessions discussed a variety of topics related to soil fertility management, fertility improvement, crop rotation and salinity management. The course participants heard a number of presentations by national consultants on agronomy, water management and mechanization. They were also introduced to theoretical aspects of soil fertility improvement. The course ended with the preparation of action plans for the project execution.
The final two-day training course on soil fertility improvement was conducted on 18-19 February in Karshi, Uzbekistan. This formal training course brought together key public and private sector representatives, including farmers, national consultants, specialists, and students from the Karshi State University to share ideas on the issue. In total, 55 people attended the event. The objective of the course was to provide training to agriculture officials and scientists of research institutes and agricultural universities, and improve their skills in the area of soil management under conservation agriculture and show them live demonstrations and experiments on improved soil fertility management practices. Some presentations on soil fertility and water management were given during the training course. Dr Aziz Nurbekov made presentations on "Conservation agriculture in Uzbekistan", "Living soils" and "Management and improvement of soil fertility", whose main conclusions were that under reduced tillage and direct seeding systems soil biota can build; maintain soil pore networks; create a stable soil habitat; and that crop rotation is an important step towards soil management under conservation agriculture. National consultant on irrigation Dr Ravshan Boyirov presented his views on irrigation practices used in Uzbekistan and what should be done to improve water management. He emphasized that there is no shortage of water. Moreover, it seems there is a surplus of water because water use rates for irrigation are very high. To deal with this problem, he added, improved land leveling and irrigation practices were introduced at the project demonstration site. The second day was dedicated to live demonstrations and experiments on conservation agriculture practices on improved soil fertility management. A field trip was organized for the participants to show them soil fertility improvement techniques at work. During the two days of intensive discussions, the training course provided participants with a clear understanding of soil fertility management under conservation agriculture. It can be said that the training course met its objective in terms of creating awareness about conservation agriculture and the key elements for its development, formulation and implementation.
CA is still not widely practised among the farmers in the irrigated areas of the lower parts of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Current activities are mainly concentrated in research institutes to integrate CA principles and practices into existing production systems. In fact, the potential of CA for sustainable agricultural development has been demonstrated in the region. No-till and raised-bed planting practices tested in the countries proved technically and economically suitable for local conditions, and can provide similar or higher crop yields while saving considerable production resources and costs, including fuel, seeds and labour. Conservation agriculture research results from the irrigated areas showed that crop residue retention improves soil organic matter and soil nitrogen content. These practices are ready to be disseminated more widely in the region. So building the technical and scientific capacity of national partners will be essential for moving to widespread CA adoption and uptake.