Helping farmers around the world increase sustainability

Timothy Harrigan, an MSU researcher and expert in agriculture engineering, is driven by helping growers make their operations more sustainable by incorporating new practices and technologies.

African smallholder farmers discuss a planter that was created by local blacksmiths with the help of MSU scientist Tim Harrigan.
African smallholder farmers discuss a planter that was created by local blacksmiths with the help of MSU scientist Tim Harrigan.

Tim HarriganAs the global population surges toward 10 billion by 2050, food production takes center stage as one of the world’s most significant challenges. Unfortunately, there isn’t an abundance of additional land available for farming, so that means being optimal stewards of what farmers currently have.

Timothy Harrigan, an associate professor in the Michigan State University Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, is driven by helping growers make their operations more sustainable. For many in the U.S., this means altering practices or incorporating new technologies.

Farmers have to think about what’s best for their businesses, and Harrigan is demonstrating how protecting the environment can have a long-term benefit to their bottom lines.

In addition to advocating cover crops such as legumes because of their ability to fix nitrogen and boost soil quality, Harrigan developed a process for integrating low-disturbance tillage, manure and cover crops.

Seeds are placed in the manure tank and applied concurrently in one efficient operation. The process establishes a cover crop and helps the soil retain nitrogen, allowing farmers to purchase less commercial fertilizer.

“This saves current costs by purchasing fewer inputs and also reduces future costs by improving the soil,” Harrigan said. “If we disturb the soil less by reducing equipment traffic, while leaving the protective crop residues, we’re going to have healthier soil. These are principles that can be implemented on large-scale farmers here in the U.S. and also by subsistence farmers in developing countries.”

In Africa, where farmers often grow just enough food for their families, resources are scarcer and the potential risks of crop failure are more immediately dire. To help redesign traditional cropping methods to be more resilient, Harrigan blends traditional, local knowledge with science in a systems approach.

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Harrigan has been working with farmers in Burkina Faso.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with farmers learning about their cropping practices and also developing a deep understanding of their cultural and social values,” Harrigan said. “Our overall goal is to improve mechanization, and a farmer-driven approach is essential.”

The level of mechanization is low in Burkina Faso. Modern equipment is almost nonexistent, and even if new equipment was accessible, the costs are high. Currently, 70% of tillage and land preparation is done by hand, and about 30% with animal traction. Nearly all planting is by hand.

Harrigan has helped to design a new inline ripper to lessen tillage intensity, a new planter to reduce drudgery and improve yields, and has worked to enhance mechanical weed control. The planter has increased corn yields from 50% to 100% through more uniform spacing and less bird predation.

The team has trained local blacksmiths to build and repair the machines with locally available materials. Harrigan said women farmers lamented that planting is one of the most challenging and difficult tasks. To that end, the inline ripper is faster and easier to operate than a plow, and it causes less soil disturbance.

“The new locally built planter costs 50% less than the planters introduced 20 years ago, which were rejected by the farmers because of poor performance,” Harrigan said.

Harrigan emphasized that outreach is the most critical portion of the project to ensure a lasting effect.

“I always say that 10% of this work is creating new tools and strategies for farmers, and 90% is teaching them how to use and integrate them in the local cropping systems,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of positive responses thus far and hope to continue to build on these results as we expand beyond Burkina Faso into greater West Africa.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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