Ensuring the best growing conditions
Our approach to soil conservation and improvement involves testing and adapting available technology for each area to help reach the best solutions, depending on local soil conditions, climate and topography.
There are various ways to improve soil fertility and create the best growing conditions, while avoiding soil loss or deterioration. The techniques our companies promote include minimum tillage, a method that minimises turning or disruption of the soil; relay cropping, where two or more crops are grown in sequence; and the use of plant-based green manure.
The farmers we work with already have highly diversified farms, with over 90% growing other crops alongside, or in rotation with, tobacco. We’ve always encouraged this crop diversification – it not only increases farmers’ resilience by not relying on just one crop, but also helps to enhance food security and to preserve soil health. We’re also introducing farmers to techniques such as contour planting, which lessens the effect of water run-off and requires less tilling.
Environmental criteria form a central part of the industry-wide Sustainable Tobacco Programme and our expert field technicians provide farmers with technical assistance on areas such as sustainable soil, water, biodiversity and forest and pest management. The benefits of this can be seen in agrochemical usage, which is generally significantly lower in tobacco growing than other comparable crops.
Our subsidiary in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Tobacco Company, introduced a major soil protection and improvement programme that has now been adopted as part of the country’s farming system.
Sloping Agricultural Land Technology, or SALT, prevents soil erosion across hilly terrain while rejuvenating the soil. It involves planting fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing leguminous sticks on the contours of hills, which grow to form double hedgerows five metres apart. Between these, the branches are regularly lopped, spread, and allowed to turn into mulch. The mulch enriches the soil with nitrogen and the hedgerow roots prevent the fertile topsoil from being washed away.
Permanent crops such as coffee or pepper are planted between the hedgerows in the newly enriched soil, and livestock are introduced to the land.
Ceylon Tobacco introduced farmers to SALT in 1989 at the Government's request, helping to return an impoverished farming community to prosperity by transforming an area left barren by years of slash-and-burn farming. It has been adopted more widely in Sri Lanka and, although it was not introduced specifically for tobacco growing, many of the tobacco farmers who grow on sloping land have also adopted it.
Our company in Bangladesh developed and promoted new sustainable agricultural practices, working with the British American Tobacco Biodiversity Partnership and the Bangladesh Agricultural University.
One example was a research project to replenish soil by using organic matter. They set out to improve the structure and fertility of the soil where tobacco is grown by using organic composts made from natural waste materials, such as manure and crop residues.
The natural compost brought significant benefits, such as improved soil structure with increased levels of nutrients. The soil is more productive for longer and also needs less application of artificial fertilisers. As well as the environmental benefit, this means lower costs for the farmer.
The soil fertility and structure has also been helped by introduction of a ‘green manure’ (plants that are sown specifically to improve fertility, not harvested for food or allowed to flower) made from a plant called mimosa invisa. This is a shrubby spreading perennial plant that forms dense thickets and can be grown as a crop. When the crop matures, it is incorporated into the soil.
The project has provided significant learning opportunities for farmers, enabling British American Tobacco Bangladesh to enhance the training and technical advice that it provides to farmers.
Leaf technicians at Souza Cruz, the Group’s company in Brazil, have been working in partnership with universities and local specialists for many years to help tobacco farmers manage soil and water. Several initiatives have contributed to increases in the yield and quality of the tobacco crop, as well as enhancing revenues for farmers.
They have brought together the ideas of contour planting (planting across a slope following its elevation to create a water break and reduce the loss of top soil and erosion), crop rotation (particularly with oats or hay after the tobacco harvest) and the sowing of a ‘green manure’. This has resulted in the technique of planting tobacco on high and wide base ridges covered with straw.
Oat or hay is grown as a ‘green manure’ that can later be cut and dried to form the straw that will cover the ridges and reduce the need for tillage. The tobacco crop is then grown on these high and wide ridges, with fertiliser use controlled carefully under the guidance of our leaf technicians.
In a 2013 survey, Souza Cruz found that more than 60% of their contracted farmers have adopted the high and wide base ridges and 85% of these are doing minimum or direct tillage, with straw over the ridges. Also, 85% were growing ‘green manure’ to protect the soil, and the remaining percentage grow corn or bean after tobacco harvest as a diversification practice.