IMENTI, Kenya - On a five-acre piece of land being prepared for planting, James Mwenda shouts at his two oxen, commanding them to move in a straight line as they pull a ripper that cuts a long slit into the unploughed ground.
The "low-till" farming system – in which land is no longer ploughed and seeds are slotted into largely undisturbed soil – is gaining fans in drought-hit Kenya because it helps preserve moisture in the soil.
But Mwenda likes it for another reason: it has given him a job.
The 31-year-old is one of more than 1,500 people trained in Kenya to handle the special equipment needed to prepare land and plant crops under the new "low-till" system.
Now he makes money hiring out his services to other farmers in Imenti Central, a sub-county of Meru County, who may not have the funds to buy the specialised equipment themselves.
"This is a new farming technique that has shown very positive results for the past two seasons, and many small-scale farmers in this area are now getting hooked to it," said Mwenda, from Kimate village.
"Low-till" or "zero-till" farming is nothing particularly new. It has been increasingly popular around the world since after World War II – and similar no-plough systems were the basis for much ancient agriculture, before the modern plough was invented.
But the system – part of a suite of farming techniques known as "conservation agriculture" – is now gaining popularity in Kenya among small-scale farmers trying to beat worsening drought.
Introduced to farmers in dry areas in 2015 by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is increasingly popular both for its ability to protect harvests and for the job possibilities it offers young farmers able to use the specialised equipment needed.
In Imenti Central, a total of 44 young men and women have been trained on how to handle the zero-till farming equipment, said Patrick Ng'ang'a, a former trainer now working as a desk officer in charge of conservation agriculture for Meru County.
Mwenda, one of those trained, said income from his low-till planting business now has surpassed his income from farming his own land.
"This has become my main source of income," said Mwenda, who now can operate all the hand-held and ox-driven equipment, from rippers and jab planters to oxen-driven planters and shallow weeders.
So far, much of the low-till equipment used in the area has been purchased by the FAO and is made available free of charge at government offices to groups of farmers trained to use it.
But some farmers who have started low-till planting services also are beginning to buy locally fabricated equipment.
"The idea that farmers are willing to purchase some of this equipment on their own is an indication that they are willing to move forward with the zero- or low-till farming techniques," said Mercy Mulevu, the FAO's county programme officer in Meru County.
According to Ng'ang'a, the government has set a standard fee for every activity conducted using the specialised equipment.
"We had to intervene because, given that only a few people understand how to handle the equipment, they were likely going to take advantage and overcharge their clients," he said.
Hiring someone to do traditional ploughing of an acre of land in Meru costs about 1,200 Kenyan shillings ($12), farmers say. But slitting lines using a ripper costs as low as $6 per acre because it consumes less energy, those doing the work say.
MORE DROUGHT, MORE GRAIN
Farmers who adopted the new farming techniques in recent years have been able to boost their harvests, which has attracted more farmers and created more jobs providing services to them, Ng'ang'a said.
In many dry areas of Kenya, crops planted last season failed as drought swept across much of East Africa. But Margaret Gacheke, one farmer who hires Mwenda's low-till services, said she harvested 15 90-kilo bags of maize per acre from her land in February – higher than the usual 13 bags she gets from the land when rainfall is normal.
"This was far beyond average because my immediate neighbor who used the normal conventional farming method did not harvest anything, despite of having used fertilisers and certified seed," Gacheke said.
Using conservation agriculture techniques such as low-till farming over time helps improve harvests as the amount of water-holding organic matter in the soil increases, studies have shown.
"The main reason for introducing this technique was to enable communities, particularly in dry-land areas, to build resilience to climate stresses, increase food productivity and engage in agribusiness for income generation," Mulevu said.
In Tharaka West, a Meru sub-county, members of Maweni Farmer Field School have grown sorghum for the past two seasons using low-till farming techniques.
With consistent harvests, they were able to secure a contract to supply their crop to the Kenya Breweries Company, which uses the grain to make alcohol, said Stephen Simba Njagi, a member of the field school.
Low-till farming works best alongside other smart farming techniques, such as rotating crops, adopting drought-tolerant varieties and using certified seed, said Cyprian Mariene, who trains farmers in the techniques in Imenti Central.
According to FAO, over 10,000 small-scale farmers in Kenya's eight semi-arid counties are already practicing low-till farming. Mariene said many farmers are adopting the techniques after seeing them used by neighbours and relatives.
The techniques also have been promoted on popular television shows such as Shamba Shape-Up on Kenya's Citizen TV – a practical documentary programme that teaches viewers about good agricultural practices.