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Getting started in the 1970s

     The first medic project in Algeria was managed and funded by FAO.

FAO and the project administration managed to snatch failure from the jaws of success.

The 1970s saw the development of medic in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.

All this development took place in the early 1970s within a couple of years but as far as I can see there was no linkage or exchange of ideas between the projects.

    Libya developed medic on a grand scale. The development authorities in the east and west imported Australian machinery, medic seed and Australian farmers and technicians to establish large areas. They had considerable success.

    In Tunisia the program was started by a single Australian agronomist working with the Tunisian Ministry.

Seed was imported but no machinery or farmers to demonstrate the practical techniques. It also had some success but there were considerable problems because of the lack of shallow cultivation and practical grazing management.

In Algeria the medic project was on a grand scale and it almost completely failed as far as medic on the ground.

Initially it had no Australian expertise.

Reasons for failure

    It is easy to identify the reasons for the failure of the FAO medic project in Algeria.

    * The project's objective was misconceived.

The project took a fragmented approach to the medic system.

The project plan took the medic system apart into its separate elements of cereals, machinery, pasture and livestock and then decided that it would use medic as a green manure to provide nitrogen for cereals crops.

Machinery, livestock and grazing management were all ignored.

Medic was sown on farms without any regard to the grazing.

Some farms did not have sheep.

Most of the medic was over-run with weeds and failed at this early stage through severe under grazing.

    * The project failed to understand the need for shallow cultivation.

To be fair no one at this stage had identified shallow cultivation as being essential for medic regeneration.

The Libyans used shallow cultivation because they saw it as a cheap and practical means of cultivation not as a means of keeping medic pods near the surface,

    * The FAO project planners put a higher value on speaking French than knowing about medic.

The initial team did not include a single Australian or anyone who had actually worked with a medic farming system.

It was technology transfer in its most theoretical and top down form.

    * The project was for three years.

Even if everything had gone perfectly this was barely time for the rotation to be completed to the regeneration phase.

No project can be expected to achieve that level of technical success and three years was plainly inadequate.

    * The project was scattered over many sites in Algeria.

It would have been better to concentrate on a single core area.

Less time would have been wasted in travel and farmers could have been trained together and have shared knowledge.

Management and objectives

    The project was conceived and funded by FAO but operated in Algeria by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform (MARA).

The lead unit within the Ministry was IDGC (later changed to ITGC) which was the Institute for broad acre farming.

The institute was concerned with the development of the large former colonial farms now converted into State and cooperative units.

While this sounded like a perfect organisation to handle medic it was not the same as broad acre farming in Australia.

IDGC was really a cereal farming institute with no expertise or interest in livestock.

    A staff of four were appointed to the project.

None of the initial appointments were from Australia nor had they any experience in medic.

The project purchased expensive machinery.

None of this came from Australia nor was it selected for shallow cultivation.

    In spite of these considerable obstacles the project achieved some remarkable successes with the initial establishment of medic pasture.

The grazing of the medic pasture had not been considered as being important. It was a major cause of failure as pastures were over run with weeds. The medic was shaded and failed to grow or produce seed.

    The cereal phase was carried out using conventional deep ploughing equipment that buried the medic pods so deep that they could not regenerate in the following year.

The failure of the regeneration convinced FAO and many Algerians the medic was unsuitable for Algeria.

Success of the project

    There was not much sign of success on the ground but the management had realised that the project was not going well.

They had sent the British machinery expert (Muckle) to Australia and he returned and wrote an excellent report on the need for appropriate implements for shallow cultivation.

The management had employed an Australian consultant (Pattison) to look at the livestock aspects. He had produced an excellent analysis of the costs and benefits of medic pasture for sheep production.

    They had also employed Ted Carter from the Waite Institute in South Australia to look at the agronomy. He identified the deep ploughing problems and reinforced the need to use shallow cultivation.

    By the end of the three years allocated to the project there was little to show on the ground in terms of regenerated medic but the time and money had not been completely wasted as the reasons for failure had been clearly identified and proposals drawn up for a second phase that would correct the failings of the first.

No second phase

    There was no second phase.

The project was branded a failure both in FAO and within most of the IDGC.

It set back the progress of medic in Algeria for nearly a decade.

    The rejection of the second phase can be attributed to a number of factors.

Pattison's livestock report which clearly showed the reduced costs and increased returns from sheep was of no interest to the IDGC. They were cereal people not livestock.

Farm profits did not enter their horizons. Their brief was to increase cereal production to meet national goals at whatever cost.

    The Muckle report was too revolutionary.

A decade or so later ACSAD carried out trials on deep ploughing and shallow cultivation in the WANA region including the ITDC centre at Tiaret where they used 20 to 25 cm as their deep ploughing treatment.

In the early and mid 1970s the Algerians were still firmly in the grip of French ideas and ploughing was commonly carried out to a depth of 40 cm and even more with huge crawler tractors.

In FAO the people responsible for Algeria were mainly French former colonial agricultural advisers equally fixed in deep ploughing concepts.

To change to a depth of only 10 cm was beyond their comprehension.

Finally there was no core of medic support in FAO or Algeria.

Medic was a strange idea from a far away country most people had barely heard of.

They had tried and it had failed - end of story.

If they had studied the medic system or experienced it first hand they might have had more faith in continuing.

They certainly continued with many other ideas for decade after decade in spite of failure after failure.

These ideas were firmly based in their French training and the fact they failed to work in the Algerian environment did not deter them from persisting in spite of continuous failure on the ground.

    More details of the FAO project are provided in "Sustainable Dryland Farming" Lynne Chatterton and Brian Chatterton. Cambridge University Press 1996

A farm at El Khemis

    One of the cooperative farms (Domaine Chouhada) near El Khemis managed to muddle through the initial years of  the FAO medic project.

The perseverance of an enlightened farm manager and an Australian trained Algerian agronomist gradually transformed the farm into a model of the system.

Somewhere they found an Australian scarifier for the cereal phase.

Herbicides were used to obtain additional weed control in the cereal crops.

Cereal yields gradually increased until they were double the pre-medic figure and above those obtained on nearby irrigated farms.

The livestock were the great success story.

Exact figures for the pre-medic flock are not precise but we were told the flock increased by a factor of about ten times. 

This sounds an almost unbelievable amount but the flock of 2200 sheep was not enormous for the 250 ha in medic and 250 ha in cereals.

It does demonstrate the very low stocking rates on fallow.

Talking to the manager on a number of occasions during the late 1970s and early 1980s he said again and again that the sheep had given them freedom. "We have our own cheque book. We make a profit and do not need to go cap in hand to the Ministry each year for a subsidy to cover our losses."

In fact he said they could have more sheep if they could find the capital to build more sheep sheds.

Again and again we stressed to the Ministry officials during our many visits to Algeria that the El Khemis farm was the best. It was a real medic farm operating efficiently and profitably. It should be used as a training centre for other farmers and technicians.

This never occurred. It was outside the bureaucratic system for training, research or demonstration.

As far as I know none of the people working on medic at ICARDA or ACSAD ever visited the farm or showed any interest in how the Algerians with virtually no help from outside (and certainly none at all from Australia) had managed to establish a viable medic farm.

While there were certainly failures with medic in Algeria equally there were problems of success.

Because of the hierarchical system of technology transfer from research centre to extension service to farm no one could imagine transfer from farm to farm.

It seemed so obvious to us that the El Khemis farm should have been used as a demonstration centre for local farmers and as a training centre for extension agents but we never managed to persuade the Algerian officials.

Farms were at the bottom of the transfer pyramid and could not be moved to a higher level. This line of thinking was not a unique to Algeria. Other countries found it difficult to exploit their success on farms.

Not only was the El Khemis farm a success it had succeeded outside the policy objectives.

The objective was to produce more cereals. It had achieved double the wheat yield.

This was no mean achievement but was overshadowed by the much more spectacular leap in sheep production.

Sheep had given them profits and economic freedom. This made it difficult to incorporate within the administrative structures of MARA.

The El Khemis farm survived and prospered for about a decade.

It then succumbed to "White grubs." White grubs are a common pest of cereal crops in Algeria.

They are soil larvae that eat the roots of cereal crops and cause considerable damage.

The method of control recommended in Algeria at the time was too expensive for most farmers.

The El Khemis farm suffered a severe outbreak and the local Ministry adviser recommended that they return to deep ploughing.

Of course deep ploughing did not control the white grubs as it has not control them on any other Algeria farm.

The deep ploughing did however completely destroy the medic pasture.

El Kroub

    The IDGC research centre at El Kroub in the east of Algeria was equipped in 1975 with a complete set of Australian scarifiers and seeders.

These proved to be an enormous success and all operations on the farm were converted to shallow cultivation.

Experiments were carried out that proved the superiority of the scarifier and seeder package and the results were published.

These results had no impact on the Ministry of Agriculture who continued to purchase deep ploughs and poor quality disc seeders for state and cooperative farms.

It is often claimed that it is difficult to persuade farmers to change to superior technology but my experience has been that farmers have changed to shallow cultivation in Libya, Jordan and Iraq when they were provided with a working demonstration.

In many cases they were initially strongly opposed but were soon converted by results on the ground.

Bureaucrats are more difficult to change.

They are usually from a city background so they are not impressed by practical demonstrations.

They claim to be persuaded by science but the El Kroub results and many others throughout the WANA region have failed to persuade them.

El Kroub failed to demonstrate the livestock side of the medic equation.

They were a cereal research centre and the sheep were unimportant.

I was still surprised at the lack of apparent response but found when I talked to the officer-in-charge of the sheep that the sheep were fed 0.5 Kg of barley every day before they grazed the medic.

He told me that he knew that the barley was not necessary but it had been allocated by the head office of ITGC in Algers.

If he did not use the barley he would be suspected of trying to sell it.

Appropriate implements in the 1980s

Scarifier seeders

During one of the many bureaucratic reshuffles in the 1980s the head of the cereal division of the Ministry of Agriculture was moved side ways to the agency responsible for the purchase of farm machinery.

He had long been an advocate of medic and shallow cultivation and was now able to put his ideas into practice and purchase 200 scarifier seeders from Australia.

They were excellent machines - the best available.

They were distributed to Algerian farms but disappeared without trace.

The extension advice required for their effective use depended on the Ministry. None was carried out and they had no impact at a farm level.


    During the 1980s ACSAD carried out some of its shallow cultivation experiments at the Tiaret centre of the ITGC in Algeria.

This was a component of their larger WANA study. 

They did not use El Kroub centre that already had experience with shallow cultivation.

Nor does it appear that they were aware of the work carried out at EL Kroub.

The Tiaret centre had been equipped with one of the scarifier-seeders mentioned above but no one knew what it was and it remained in the shed until we visited the centre and demonstrated the implement in 1988.

The paint on the soil working parts was nor scratched indicating it had never been used for five years.

The ACSAD shallow cultivation experiments were all conduced with deep ploughs set at shallow depths.

More medic

    In the late 1980s the medic program was revived.

This time the level of expertise was much greater.

There were still problems with the establishment of the medic pasture.

The lack of proper equipment for the preparation of the seed bed and sowing the medic seed made the task long and difficult.

A few of the medic farms had the scarifier seeders but most could not be traced.

In spite of the difficulties and cost the establishment of medic was generally good.

This time round the grazing management was good but again deep ploughing for the cereal phase was a problem and regeneration was poor.

Medic seed

    At some stage the importation of medic seed from Australia had been seen as a "problem."

An Algerian agronomist had been sent to Australia for training and had established excellent medic pastures in rotation with cereals on the research centre at Guelma.

He had been provided with a medic seed harvester and produced seed.

Again the centre was an enormous success but it was now a "seed production unit" not a farm demonstration and the Algerian

Ministry failed to capitalise on its success.

Table 1

A comparison between Algeria and South Australia.

The comparison has been made to show the effect of medic on South Australia and its potential in Algeria.

Both regions have similar climate and soils.


Algeria in the 1970s. 
No substantial medic area.

South Australia in the 1930s
No substantial medic area.

South Australia in the 1970s
Medic system widespread

Cereals for grain and hay. (Ha)


Includes cereal hay grown for horses.


Fallow (Ha) 


Fallow proportion is lower because cereal hay not grown on fallow.

More than half of the fallow has been replaced by medic pasture.

 Pasture (Ha)


Statistics not collected for medic pasture. 

Medic and sub clover used on parcour as well as in the cereal rotation.

Wheat harvested (Ha) 




Wheat production (Tons) 




Wheat yield (Kg/ha) 




Barley harvested (Ha)




Barley Production (Tons)




Barley yield (Kg/ha)




Sheep numbers 




Super phosphate used on crops (tons of P2O5)




Super phosphate used on pastures (tones of P2O5)




    This chart was first prepared by Ted Carter in the 1970s. I have added the column showing South Australia in the 1930s.

Comment on the above chart

    Algeria in the 1970s and South Australia in the 1930s.

    There are striking similarities.

The sheep population of the two regions is almost the same.

Wheat is grown using the same wheat - fallow rotation (the smaller proportion of fallow in South Australia is due to cereal hay production.

This was an important feed for horses.

While tractors were used horses were still common on farms. 

The yield of wheat in South Australia was higher than Algeria but not by a great deal. 

Barley yields were considerably higher in South Australia. This probably reflect the small area and the production of high quality malting barley rather than feed barley.

    South Australia in the 1970s

    The really stunning change was the increase in sheep population by 10,000,000 sheep.

This increase was due to pasture.

The pasture replaced fallow but was also grown on the parcour both in the cereal zone and high rainfall zone.

There was no change in the sheep population in the rangeland and it became a smaller and small part of the livestock economy in South Australia.

The area sown to cereal crops increased slightly. 

The wheat yield has increased by more than 50%.

By 1970s South Australia was producing slightly more wheat than Algeria from a little over half the area.

For farmers this represented a considerable increase in profits.

Wheat yields in South Australia have increased considerably since the 1970s but it is a convenient point to measure the effect of medic.

Since the 1970s soil fertility has increased further and it has been converted to better yields through better weed and disease control.

Fallow had not disappeared by the 1970s.

It was still used in rotations but rarely in its most destructive cereal - fallow form.

Statistics are also bad at defining fallow.

The cultivated fallow that causes so much harm takes place in the spring.

Autumn cultivation is not fallow but in between these two extremes cultivation following summer rain is hard to define.

Barley yields have not increased in South Australia but the comparison is difficult as the area of barley has increased by about four times.

The implication is that more barley is being sown on marginal land.

There are many additional costs associated with the development of medic farming in South Australia but the one that is easiest to identify is phosphate fertiliser.

The amount of phosphate on cereals has doubled and a similar amount is spread on pastures.

All in all South Australia uses four time the amount of phosphate compared to Algeria and to its own use in the 1930s.

Missed opportunities in the rangeland

    A rangeland project at Ksar Chellala

    In the 1980s the World Bank funded a project in the Algerian rangeland centred on the town of Ksar Chellala.

The Algerian rangeland and marginal zone were already being degraded by over grazing and cereal cropping.

The Algerians had already attempted to change the grazing management of the rangeland through the establishment of CEPRAs.

These were modelled on the ranches of the USA or the stations of Australia.

With a different political philosophy they were not private capitalist land holding but cooperative ones.

Leaving aside the political gloss a CEPRA was a fenced area of rangeland allocated to a single group of flockowners.

Grazing management was based on resting and a rotation of the pastures.

It was hoped that the nomads could stay on the CEPRAs and be provided with health and education.

When we visited Algeria in 1979 only two of the original 100 CEPRAs still existed.

The Ksar Chellala project plan followed the 18th century French encyclopedist tradition.

That tradition is of course common in many development projects.

It is based on the belief that the collection of vast amounts of information will lead to innovation and resolution of problems.

Within the context of these case studies there is little evidence that the theory has any validity.

Countries such as Libya plunged into vast medic development projects without collecting land capability information or other applied research.

Other countries such as Jordan had years of applied research which achieved nothing.

    The Ksar Chellala project area covered the rangeland, the marginal zone (rangeland that had been cultivated) and the fringe of the cereal zone.

The contractors for the project were the South Australian Department of Agriculture.

They displayed a bureaucratic conservatism equal or greater than any found within the national governments of WANA region.

    The cultural background of the Australian team

    The Australian rangeland has a reasonable cover of natural vegetation.

This consists of a over-storey of fodder shrubs such as Atriplex and scattered trees.

Between the shrubs are an under-storey of annual grasses, broad leafed plants and in some areas medics and other introduced annual legumes.

The rangeland is grazed with sheep inside the dog proof fence and by cattle outside the fence.

The sheep are kept exclusively for wool.

The returns from wool are not great.

The cost of transport to the remote rangeland areas is high.

The combined effect is low profitability.

Investment in the rangeland is directed towards reducing labour costs and not towards increasing pasture production.

There is little effort put into pasture improvement and fertilisers are not used.

From a management viewpoint the Australian rangeland had been divided and fenced into ranches that are managed on a set stocking basis.

That is the ranch is divided into huge fields that are stocked with a flock of sheep that remain there all the year.

    First stage of the project

    The first stage of the project consisted of an encyclopaedic collection of data but a collection that was heavily biased toward the Australian rangeland.

It seems that the team never seriously considered pasture improvement or fertiliser application.

While these techniques were not used in Australia for economic reasons they were showing promising results in WANA.

The work of the Western Australian Department of Agriculture at Adjulyat had shown that short season medic would thrive in areas with a rainfall less the 150 mm.

Gintzberg working for FAO in the same region had shown that rangeland pastures respond to phosphate.

If application rates were adjusted for rainfall the response was similar to that obtained in the cereals zone.

On the other side of Libya South Australian farmers had assisted in large rangeland sowing projects on the Benghazi Plains, at Wadi Karoub and Wadi al Bab.

The project team at Ksar Chellala never considered this work nor did they visit the Libyan sites.

Closer to home the South Australian Department was also responsible for the Australian Government's aid project in Jordan.

One of the interesting ideas to evolve from this was the use of cereals as a cover crop to protect medic from grazing and the possible extension of this idea into cereal fences.

This concept would have had considerable application in the cultivated Marginal Zone around Ksar Chellala.

    Rangeland improvement was possible because of the completely different economic environment.

Sheep prices are high in Algeria and compared to average wages higher still.

The rangeland is not remote from markets as it is in Australia.

There are towns such as Ksar Chellala and many others in the rangeland or the fringe that provide marketing opportunities.

    Second stage of the project

    The second stage of the project was to flow from the information gathering stage.

The idea was to develop an action plan for the development of the rangeland.

I have complained that the South Australian team were rigidly stuck in their South Australian background and unable to respond to the different conditions of the Algerian rangeland but they also missed their first opportunity to use their Australian background.

The northern fringe of the project area had a higher rainfall and was really part of the cereal zone.

It was not a significant part of the total project area but if they had understood South Australian agricultural development history they would have concentrated more attention on this area.

The story of the rangeland in South Australia is stagnation.

The sheep population in the areas with more that 250 mm has doubled and doubled again while the rangeland population of sheep has fallen over the centuries.

The potential for increased production on the parcours of Algeria has not even begun. The project team had the opportunity to emphasise that opportunity.

The project report revisited the already failed CEPRAs with some Atriplex planting as their action plan for development.

Hardly an exciting vision for the future.

    What can we learn?

    I have been extremely critical of the FAO project in Algeria because it failed to recognise that a farming system is more than the sum of fragmented pieces of technology.

Their policy of employing experts in specialised aspects with no knowledge of the whole was bound to fail.

In the case of Ksar Chellala there should have been an integrated approach.

South Australia had large rangeland and should have been able to put together a team that could produce a coherent development plan.

They failed to think outside their own cultural box and the project produced little of any significance.

As a personal footnote I observed the project over a number of years and its failure helped me refine my ideas on the rangeland which are incorporated into this site.

  Algeria in the 1990s

    The 1990s were dominated by the civil war.

We lost contact with the medic work after 1990.

Most of the people working on medic were dispersed.

Some left Algeria.

As far as we know medic has disappeared from Algeria.