WSU Students Improving Conservation Agriculture Practices in Africa

OGDEN, Utah —Weber State University economics students and faculty used money from two grants for travel to Malawi, Africa, this summer to record preliminary data on agriculture practices and the willingness of farmers to engage in subsidized programs that promote conservation.

“The Malawi project is focused on creating incentives to promote adoption and compliance of conservation agriculture,” said Gregory Parkhurst, the WSU assistant economics professor who is heading the research. “In the Malawi region, the poverty level is above 70 percent, and the education level of most farmers is about fourth grade. Farmers engage in conventional practices that strip the soil of vital nutrients, which cause a reduction in the quality and amount of topsoil. This reduces yield, which increases poverty.
WSU political science graduate Jacob Thompson (right) and Dr. Beston Maonga discuss maize farming and irrigation techniques in Malawi. Source: Jacob Thompson

Conservation agriculture began in the 1940s, in response to the Dust Bowl that hit the midwest United States and Canada during the Great Depression, when severe drought and over-tillage created loose, nutrient-deficient topsoil. The process of conservation agriculture involves returning the stalks of plants back to the soil after harvest, rotating crops on the fields and using better mechanical practices in planting and harvesting. This increases vital nutrients in the topsoil, makes the soil denser and reduces erosion.

“The problem in Africa is when we bring in ideas such as conservation agriculture, farmers don’t really understand how to implement the new technology,” Parkhurst said. “They don’t understand what the returns are. Without hands-on experience, they may not be believers. That decreases the probability they will adopt the practices.”

That’s why WSU economists say subsidies are required to help farmers adopt conservation practices. So far, however, subsidy programs haven’t lasted long enough for farmers to become financially stable.

Jacob Thompson, a recent WSU political science graduate, was one of two students who made the trip to Malawi conduct extensive surveys with farmers. He was impressed with the close-knit communities and the work ethic.

“They have a very simple, traditional style of living,” Thompson said. “They have really good community and family bonds. They work much harder, at least physically, than most of us do in order to feed themselves. It is definitely a different lifestyle, and I respect them for that.”

Now that all the surveys have been gathered, the next step will be to interpret the data so economists can recommend subsidy amounts that would motivate farmers to adopt conservation for the long run. Another goal of the program is to get those farmers who see successful results to teach their neighbors.

WSU received two grants to make the research possible: the NERC grant from the United Kingdom and the BASIS AMA grant from UC Davis, a USAID grant.

Parkhurst was pleased with the work that was done by both faculty and students. He will present the findings of the study in
 WSU business administration major Brent Peterson takes in the sites in Malawi, Africa. Source: Jacob Thompson
Washington, D.C., in the fall.

“Researchers at Weber State are doing work that is globally recognized and has a global impact,” Parkhurst said. “They are at the front of their disciplines. Two of our undergraduate students conducted the research and performed excellently. They went above and beyond. That speaks volumes about the quality of students that are being produced at Weber State.”

Thompson said he was grateful for an opportunity to gain real-world experience. Upon finishing the project, he was offered a job doing similar work in Asia in the fall.

“I have loved Weber ever since I started because there are so many chances to get involved and to do things like this,” Thompson said.

WSU business administration major Brent Peterson also helped conduct research in Malawi. Three other students will assist in interpreting the data: international economics graduates Junghee Lee and Yuzhou Shen and international economics student Jiakun Li.

WSU plans a year long, campus-wide conversation about food with its Food Matters Lecture Series, sponsored by the Center for Community Engaged Learning.  On Oct. 7, Andrew Bell, senior researcher for the International Food Policy Research Institute, will lecture at WSU on food insecurity in developing countries. Dr. Bell’s visit is co-sponsored by the Environmental Issues Committee and the Department of Economics.

For more information on the Malawi project, visit For more information on the WSU economics department, visit For more information on the Food Matters Lecture Series, visit

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Gregory Parkhurst, economics assistant professor
801-626-6792 •
Marcus Jensen, Office of Marketing & Communications
801-626-7295 •