About 70 faculty members and graduate students from universities across the country gather in a classroom here and split into groups of five. Today they are all students.
The groups race against the clock to plug data into a complex set of numerical equations, or models, that can estimate potential impacts of farm practices and technologies.
The groups’ work with agricultural models is part of a rigorous, one-week training session on three models whose results will comprise part of the Integrated Decision Support System, or IDSS. A numerical simulation comprised of five total models , the IDSS will be used to quantitatively predict overarching impacts of irrigation technologies and practices that will be tested by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation. The research project seeks the most efficient small-scale irrigation systems for battling poverty and nutrition problems in water-scarce Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana.
“Training like this will help us as agricultural scientists to help farmers to use the scarce resources (of Tanzania) in a better way,” said Winfrida Mayilla, a Ph.D student at Sokoine.
Data collected over a short time can be plugged into modeling systems that predict long-term effects of specific interventions. This is valuable for farmers in resource-scarce environments and for affecting policy decisions that benefit Tanzanian agriculture, said Sokoine University Assistant Lecturer and IDSS trainee Stanuslaus Terengia Materu.
“We need not to… do field testing for several years to get scenarios for making a decision,” he said. “Rather we need to… do one or two years of testing in the field. Then we put that data into the model to test several scenarios for long-term data… to give to policy makers so they can make very firm decisions.”
As an example scenario a farmer in Tanzania might find great ease in using a gasoline-powered pump to send water into her crop irrigation system from a low-lying river. But how much would the pump and fuel cost and would that amount be offset by better production spurred by installing the pump? Is it environmentally responsible for an entire village to pump water from that river? Is there a high cost to access the type of fuel required by the pump? How will one village pumping from that river affect water resources at the watershed level?
The IDSS would combines the results of five agricultural models, studying all conceivable aspects of implementing such a system, to answer questions like these, helping researchers, farmers, and eventually policy makers to make informed decisions for farm, village, watershed, regional and national scales.
Each of the three training groups at Sokoine University trained to use one model of the IDSS:
The Soil and Water Assessment Tool, or SWAT model, quantifies and predicts impacts of land management practices on water, sediment, and agricultural chemical yields in large complex watersheds with varying soils, land use, and management conditions over long periods of time.
Another model, FARMSIM, is used on farms to predict economic and nutritional impacts of: alternative technologies, farming systems, livestock management programs, marketing arrangements, crop mixes, risk management schemes, and environmental remediation programs.
Meanwhile, the Agricultural Policy/Environmental eXtender model, or APEX, simulates land management and land use impacts for whole farms and small watersheds to evaluate: sustainability, economics, water supply and quality, soil quality, plant competition, weather and pests alongside wind, sheet, and channel erosion.
“It can help to make a decision at the farm level on the different inputs you can use… and what will be the outcomes you can expect so that a farmer can have a rational decision on how to plan for his production,” said Eliaza Mkuna, assistant economics lecturer at Mzumbe University and FARMSIM trainee. “At the macro level, I think it will help the government to set adequate polices that can also help the small-scale farmers.
The three groups converged on the last day of training to practice combining their respective example results for an overarching view of how the interventions they tested would affect farming systems at home.
Reuben Mwamakimbulla, associate professor at Sokoine Agricultural University and a farmer himself discussed the APEX model and the IDSS at large as valuable resources in the face of climate change.
“In this situation where climate change is really affecting farmers, if we get in a position to have better decisions based on these predictions, it should be helpful cumulatively to the country as a whole,” he said.