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Digging In: Rajendra Uprety

This interview is part of "Digging In," an Agrilinks interview series featuring original conversations and unique perspectives from soil experts. Through these discussions, we explore questions about soil science and management, scaling best practices, and more. Read more from "Digging In" here.

Rajendra UpretyRajendra Uprety is a senior agriculture development officer in the Department of Agriculture in Nepal. With years of experience working in the Nepalese District Agriculture Development Office, Rajendra has worked extensively in agricultural extension—with a focus on systems of rice intensification—throughout Nepal and abroad.

When we talked with Rajendra, he provided contextual examples, based upon his many years of experience working with farmers in Nepal, and described how to manage and balance fertilizer application and the importance of adequate nutrient content for good soil health.

Agrilinks: From your perspective, how is the approach to soil science and soil management changing in agricultural development?

Rajendra: Based on my experience in Nepal, the balance between organic and inorganic fertilizers is improving. Most of the Nepalese farmers use compost and crop residue, which is very good, and drainage systems are good and easy to work. But in the last two decades, organic matter is decreasing, and farmers have started to grow two to three crops. If they are using improved varieties, these crops may extract more nutrients from the soil. Soil is tougher now, and composition is declining. For instance, in the last 15 years, acidity has been increasing while the phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium content and organic matter content are decreasing. Our soil is rich in phosphorus but levels are decreasing rapidly. Micronutrient deficiencies are high, and there is less microbial activity.

Agriculture is the single largest pillar for the Nepalese market, but participation in this sector is decreasing day by day. This includes participation by youth. It used to be more difficult to get passports in Nepal. But in the past 20 years, passports have become more easily available, and around 3 million of our young people now work abroad. Because development and the opportunity for foreign employment have increased the work opportunities for youth, they are switching fields. 

People are increasingly prioritizing earnings. They are raising more high-value crops and animals. They are also starting to use pesticides and herbicides, which affects soil microbial activity. When there is low organic matter, people tend to migrate because its difficult to make a living in farming. Farmers are trying to incorporate more organic matter, though, and this is more sustainable and increases soil fertility. Diversity in crops also increases soil fertility, and farmers who use this diversity are more successful. The more diverse the crops raised, the more successful they are in the market. Farmers will take better care of their soil in this case.

Agrilinks: Specifically, what are the top two critical issues that you think need to be addressed in soil management globally?

Rajendra: What I’ve found in both Zambia and Nepal is that organic matter is decreasing rapidly. We need to counteract this. Our first priority should be to increase organic matter because then we can improve N-P-K (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) levels. We can use legumes or fertilizers. Phosphorus and potassium are critical, and there is no alternative fixing source—like legumes in the case of nitrogen. Utilizing organic matter properly is a critical issue in developing countries because it contributes P and K, and increasing the organic matter level in soil will also increase nutrient content.

My second thought is that we need to balance use of fertilizers. In most developing countries, farmers use a lot of N but not P and K. I’ve found during my field research that farmers can produce higher yields by using a combination of chemical fertilizers and organic matter. 

Agrilinks: What do you view as the most concerning potential consequence of poor soil management in the next decade?

Rajendra: Actually, using less organic matter and more chemicals; this hampers organic microbial activity within soil, and it has a very negative impact. Crop residue and microbial activity contribute a lot to soil fertility activity. If they occur less within the soil, there will be a negative impact on soil quality.

Agrilinks: In your opinion, what are the keys to scaling up adoption of successful and improved soil management practices?  

Rajendra: We can do this by making a good campaign and movement for better soil fertility management, including using organic matter effectively to improve microbial activity, planting legumes, and crop recycling and using cover crops. But for farmers whose production is low—poor farmers—they may not like using cover crops because they need to wait longer to obtain earnings. They may have more difficulty.

Agrilinks: What led you to pursue your interest in soils and soil science?

Rajendra: I took courses on soil science during my PhD program, and I took a soil nutrient management course. After studying the effect of organic matter on crop systems and agro-ecological productivity, I found several interesting things. I studied crops and did trials and found interesting combinations and results. After exploring the importance of organic matter and fertilizer, I think we need to balance them. With organic matter volume decreasing, we need an alternative. We need to incorporate inorganic fertilizers sustainably. 

I was also involved in sustainable soil management practices while working here in Nepal. In most of the hill districts, there is an erosion and fertility problem. But by using manure, for instance, we can improve soil structure and sustainably improve other aspects of the soil. These types of things attracted me to soil science and management.

Agrilinks: What do you see as some of the largest obstacles to improving soil health generally in Nepal?

Rajendra: Our farmers are leaving agriculture, and our traditional farming is cereal-based. Rice is one of the largest contributors to our GDP, but it’s production is now more or less stagnant. From a livelihood and income perspective, cereals give less profit, so farmers are leaving and are more focused on high-value crops and intensive cropping, and a lot of areas are less managed. The price of land is also rapidly increasing, so cereal production is even less appealing from a profit angle. How can we best decrease production costs and increase profit? Then farmers will have the capability to treat their soil more properly. 

Agrilinks: In your role as Agriculture Extension Officer, what do you see as one of the soil management techniques in Nepal that works best for Nepalese farmers? Alternatively, what do farmers say is their biggest management challenge?

Rajendra: We are trying to promote more organic matter use. As government employees, we are promoting use of legumes in crop cycles, use of animal manure—though we are still in the early stages. And it is giving good results. We are trying to promote to farmers the use of legumes, smaller animals, and crop diversity. Our government also promotes biofertilizers and supports this industry; the government buys the biofertilizers and provides them to farmers at a subsidized rate.

Farmers say that the sustainability of farming is difficult. When I conducted my study in the Morang district, more than 70 percent of farmers were tenants and not landowners. They cultivate and use those fields, but after awhile—if they get a good opportunity—they leave. I found that farmers will rent their land and go to other industries to diversify. They need to support their families and may not have time to work in fields.

Agrilinks: You work a lot on systems of rice intensification (SRIs). What is unique about managing soil health for rice production, and what are some SRI principles?

Rajendra: Right now, balanced fertilizer use and trying to incorporate more complexity in soil is challenging, and we are trying to use manure and legumes to restore fertility and organic volume, as well as some conservation agriculture principles like minimal disturbance. We are trying to promote direct seeding of rice, these types of things. We encourage farmers to use more and more organic matter with a chemical supplement to give a better result and higher yield, leading to higher income and more livelihood support. We also want farmers to plant more vegetables in the winter and spring season, and rice in the rainy season. This also improves soil structure. Incorporating residue improves organic matter in soils and microbial activity.

Agrilinks: Can you suggest three key resources about soils that practitioners can refer to for additional information?

Rajendra: 

  • Uphoff, N. (2006). Biological approaches to sustainable soil systems. Boca Raton: CRC/Taylor & Francis. (Available here.)
  • Uphoff, N. (2002). Agroecological innovations. London: Earthscan Publications. (Available here.)
  • AgriCultures Network—There are several reports, videos and blogs on soil and ecological agriculture and sustainable production that will be very useful for farmers here, especially those from the developing world where soil may be more vulnerable

Rajendra Uprety is a senior agriculture development officer in the Department of Agriculture in Nepal, with years of experience working in the Nepalese District Agriculture Development Office, located in Morang. He has extensive agricultural extension work experience throughout Nepal as well as abroad, especially related to systems of rice intensification. Mr. Uprety is also a current Ph.D. candidate within the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.