By Ebele Orakpo
Successful agricultural practice is not just about getting good, quality improved seedlings and state-of-the-art farming equipment and storage facilities. It is much about the soil as the seedlings will avail very little if the soil that nurtures them is diseased.
So as some scientists are working on getting improved, high yielding seedlings and some on getting equipment to make farming easier and more interesting, others, like Prof. Uche Cyprian Amalu, a professor of agronomy in the Faculty of Agriculture, Forestry and Wildlife Resources Management, University of Calabar, Cross River State, is working on improving the soil for better yields. He spoke with Vanguard Learning in Calabar recently. Excerpts.
“Basically, I am an agriculturist but my special area of interest is soil science and crop nutrition,” said Amalu.
After his first degree at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Prof. Amalu was posted to the then Bendel State for his one year compulsory service to fatherland. “I did my National Youth Service in1980/81 in the Nigerian Institute for Oil palm Research, Benin City. So I started in a purely research-oriented institute in Nigeria and my major thrust was oil palm and all other palm trees – coconut palm, date palm and raffia palm.
“I worked on this research mandate until 1990 when I felt that I had a higher calling, not only to do research but also to impart knowledge and that was why I crossed over from the federal research institute to the university teaching job. In a research institute, you do 100 per cent research but in the university, you do teaching primarily and research. You can combine them at 50/50 or 60/40, but the primary mandate in the university is teaching/manpower development.
“There is also a third mandate in the university system – community development. This is one area that people usually do not pay attention to but it is very important and as soon as you can be called a professor on merit, what is needed of you in the society is the horizontal development of the society. To what extent will your knowledge and experience impact the society that either helped you to get up there or on whose back you rode to the rank of professorship?”
The soil science and plant nutrition expert who has 80 per cent of his publications in the area of soil science and crop nutrition, said: “The bedrock of agriculture is the soil. Your crops must be planted in the soil for them to grow. Your farm animals and livestock that supply your protein needs must eat the crops to add what you will eat in form of meat. That is why our major thrust is to make sure that the soil provides very good medium for any person to grow his crop.
In Nigeria, you are trained first and foremost to be an agriculturist, but my special area is soil science and crop nutrition.”
The problems with the soil:
“Ab initio, from nature itself, soils are very heterogeneous; they are never homogenous which means that some soils are fertile while some are not. In the northern part of the country, they have the problem of desertification such that no matter what you do, if the soils don’t have water and organic matter, you cannot grow anything comfortably whereas down south, a good number of soils are fertile because of the thicket of vegetation.
“Now, even the fertile soils can be degraded or mismanaged just like human beings. Some people are born with the problem of infertility and some are born fertile. Some of the people born fertile might also mismanage the fertility and become infertile so our job in agriculture first and foremost is to make sure that soils that are naturally infertile are brought back to being fertile and soils that are naturally fertile but mismanaged, are restored.”
Amalu noted that increasing population of human beings worldwide, urbanisation and industrialisation put pressure on soil fertility like any other natural resource and this will continue to diminish the fertile land area.
“So long as you continue to occupy the land with things other than nature, you are encroaching on the soil resource and our job is to ensure that whatever is left of the soil and land resources are put to good use especially in the area of fertility so that we can continue to grow our crops and our crops will continue to provide raw materials for us and our livestock.”
How we go about it:
The methods for soil investigations are very common across geographical boundaries. You study the soil by making use of standard tools and instruments, tools for you to go into the field and sample the soils and when you come out, you subject them to laboratory analysis and from your laboratory analysis, you do your data analysis and use statistical packages to find their levels of significance and impact on the environment and your crop.
Thereafter, you do the interpretation. It is the interpretation that will enable you to advise a farmer or an entrepreneur. I must let you know that even the richest of men in the US and in Nigeria are all agriculturists in their own right. Aliko Dangote for example, one of the richest men in the world is an agriculturist as an entrepreneur.
“So apart from imparting on our students the knowledge to appreciate the resourcefulness of our soils, we study the soils by investigating first the origin, the developmental processes, their capabilities and their capacity to sustain crop growth such that at the end of the day, whoever is an entrepreneur, whether an agriculturist or otherwise, makes profit because for whatever venture you want to embark on in life, if it is not profitable, you certainly will not continue because man, by nature, is a rational being and being rational means you are also economical, you don’t waste resources. So our contribution is imparting knowledge and contributing research-wise to what will benefit the society.
“For me in particular, I can say that I have made contributions to the oil seed especially in the area of coconut palm. That was my main thrust while in the research institute.