They are individuals who I ultimately work for and with here so I’d like to give you a decent introduction to them and a description that goes beyond maximum acreage.
Long ago, before the introduction of agrochemicals (like fungicides, herbicides, insecticides) and fertilizers that boosted yields, hybrid and mixed seed varieties that resisted disease and draught with shorter growing cycles (and could do back flips and walk your dog for you), farmers harvested smaller yields and there was little to no talk of input handouts or commercial markets.
Then, fertilizers were introduced.
Maize and cotton, the major crops, are rain-fed. So timing is crucial. If a farmer delays a month in planting and misses the rains, say the oxen he has hired to plow the land is late, he losses half of his yield.
Other times, inputs did not come at all. Compounded with pressure on land and population, farmers had new mouths to feed - a growing middle class who worked but did not grow their own food. And since government support programs focused on maize, the staple crop,*** farmers would farm maize on the same plot of land year after year and farm the land dry (literally!).
For every ha of maize, a farmer looses a portion of N as well as K and P. If he plants maize year after year, his soils become acidic (loss of N) and infertile.
Long ago in the Northern Province of Zambia, people practiced the chitemene system of farming, in which forest land is cleared for agriculture. Trees are cut down and together with land residues and organic matter, they are set on fire. The plot becomes fallow, meaning that it is left for at least 15 years to regenerate and become fertile, ready for cultivation again. In the meantime, the farmer moves onto the next plot and starts the process over again. At present, burning is practiced, yet the fallow period is compressed into 1 or 2 years. Land that is immediately re-cultivated has a lower fertility. So, an average farmer gets a lower yield (like 1 tonne of maize / ha instead of 3 or 4 tonne / ha).
One of the most difficult aspects of being here has been observing practices which to me do not necessarily seem sensible or rational but are still perpetuated. Do I turn around and tell my family that their plot of land on the wooded hillside is adding to the deforestation, causing runoff that worsens the roads and soils, when they are just trying to eek out a next meal, my meal! Many living in compounds have farms 5-10 kms outside of town. They leave villages for the town for market access and find themselves scrambling for farmland on the city outskirts.
Some of these plot are ridged parallel to the slope instead of perpendicular. When the rains come, they will run down the mountain and flow through the gullies of the ridge, this will erode the soil and create a hardpan.
When the rains come, you plant. When it is time to till the land, that is what you do, your neighbours do it, your grandfathers have done it. When your child cries, at church, at a community meeting (or anywhere in public) you breast feed not bottle feed. Never mind the risk of mother to child transmission. That is what you do because it is understood and you have seen it being done since you can remember.
Intervention. Try asking a farmer to change what he does best. A farmer’s hands are hard, his pride is in his yield, his wealth measured in cattle. So tell him to diversify, to stop mono-cropping to help feed his family (it is said that 0.03 ha of cassava is enough to bridge the hunger gap, hardest felt in the rain season) or plant nitrogen-fixers (sesbia sesban, glicidia sepium, velvet beans, etc) between maize stalks along with legume rotation to rejuvenate his soils and reduce fertilizer costs...
When planted properly, the musangu tree adds 300 kg of fertilizer (D compound) and 250 kg of lime to soil. A savings of almost $ 200 CAN for a farmer).
“Umoyo unali obvuta” – living was difficult, as I have been told. You work throughout the year to prepare the land, so when you finally reap the fruits of your manual and mental labor should you not have every right to enjoy them? Try telling a farmer that he should save now and prepare for next season. He may desire a TV or a small business (the concept of subsistence farming here is a strange one. Farmers commonly grow vegetables and legumes for home consumption...
Cabbages, tomatoes, onions are commonly grown in select areas, near damns, swamp land, areas that are fertile or have access to some sort of irrigation. These onions are grown on dambles or wetland. Being regionally specific and lacking a comprehensive road network, marketing is a big challenge for these gardeners
...but market cash crops like cotton and the staple maize to buy cooking oil, soap, and candles from general stores like the one below).
I am here during the time of harvest so the economy is at its highest time in the year, unfortunately this peak has a correlation with alcohol consumption. After receiving money from the government, some farmers in both villages and compounds will drink.
In many communities, there are also these car graveyards.
Cash Flow. To tell a farmer that he should think of farming as a business, which is one of the undercurrents of my project, when his business hasn’t paid him in a month. Non-commercial farmers sell maize to the government. The process is supposed to take two weeks, but a week becomes a month and then some and the farmer becomes cash strapped for the most economically active period of the year (in less common cases, a farmer is not paid at all!) and cannot buy inputs to prepare for next season.
In a community which we visited today, 9 out of more than 200 farmers had been paid. Farmers gave in their maize at the beginning of marketing season, June 1. We are now going into August. As farmers accumulate in queues outside, the maize depot below overflows with grain bags, now pushing outside
and piled in stacks like these.
Market isolation. I havn’t talked about this. For farmers that live 20-30 or 50-60 kms outside of town, where do they obtain inputs, seeds, fertilizer, insecticide, hoes, preserver, or anti-biotics for one’s oxen? Local dealers. Supply is limited, if at all, and price high. Cooperatives. They can be a great support network for farmers but if one is not a member, there is a fee attached and cooperatives can also vary in their effectiveness and activities. There is also not a cooperative for every farming community and cooperatives revolve around maize, the staple.
Why doesn’t some aspiring entrepreneur capture this market of isolated farmers by buying maize direct from within the community, early in cash and no transport costs for the farmer? And that’s exactly what happens. When bought at a reasonable price, it is saving grace for farmers. But when such buyers take advantage of the opportunity, farmers are swindled.
‘Brief Case Buyers,’ as many farmers call them, buy from small holders then sell back to the government at a higher price. So of the 9 farmers paid in that community today, only one received 40 million and the rest was shared between the 8 other farmers... I will leave it at that, though maize is a hotly politicized item and I am barely touching the tip of the iceberg here. As the delays in payments stretches on, these buyers maximize profits and farmers struggle to make ends meet during this crucial period.
Hopefully, this has not been too much information to swallow. After numerous field visits and time spent in a few communities, I’ve talked a little about intervention, market isolation, cash flow, basically slashing through a complex web of politics, tradition, and history in agriculture to give you a peak into the context in which I work and some of the challenges built into this society in which my project faces…
More than half way through my placement I have survived lions
You bet I took this picture !
Most dangerous and aggressive to humans. Do not disturb the hippo.
marriage offers varying in creativity,
and the chinimtali.
chinimtali watch out!
For most tribes, there are ceremonies when a female and a male become of age. For the Chewa tribe, the female ceremony is the chinimtali and the male, the Gule wa mkulu. As I watched history unfold before me, the centuries of oral tradition and storytelling in which these people have mastered, a blur of hip gyrations, foot stamping, and gum-filled smiles… “What were they chanting,” I wondered. Their actions following the storyline.
Synchronized shaking “the man, he isn’t good enough”
Wielding a hoe, “ Farming is important”
Arms in the air “ so are rains…”
Then spearing. Ah, they must be acting out a battle scene of some kind between tribes .
“The president is good, he supports farming”
“The one who speaks out against him, the one party, is found and killed!”
Next, I want to take you along a field visit to look at where your Christmas shoebox gifts, second hand clothes, and taxes go…
Walking home from the vegetable garden
Until then... Salini bwino! Stay well
Salini bwino! Stay well
*now Farmer Support Program. Many farmers had taken out loans, which they were unable to pay back. In Chipata, there are two banks, Barclays and Zambia National, but many banks have since disappeared due to a history of defaulting.
**through the Food Reserve Agency
***3/4 of the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget is spend on maize. Since being here, I have not found one conventional farer who does not list maize amongst the crops that he or she grows.