Monday, October 1, 2007

My (nerdy) learning curve

Agri-what?

I’ve been in Zambia for about 2 months now. It’s been a whirlwind of learning on all fronts, but particularly on the project front. I fully admit that I’m a city girl, so the nitty-gritty details of agriculture and rural livelihoods have never really concerned me, not in Canada, not in Africa. As far as I was concerned, food production, agricultural markets, agribusiness in general…they were just magical mechanisms humming in the background of my day-to-day existence.

Comfortably separated from (but essentially enabled by) these mechanisms, I pondered big ideas about the unsustainable use of mass-produced fertilizers, the pros and cons of agricultural subsidies and protectionism, the growth of fair-trade and organic markets, the ever-more-frequent environmental extremes being experienced around the world…all important ponderings, yes, but never once did I stop to think about what it means to be a farmer. What do all those big ideas look like from their perspective, from the beginning of the chain? And more importantly, what do they spend their time thinking about?

In order to address this outstanding gap in my knowledge, I’ve dedicated the first few months of this placement to getting a better picture of what it means to be a farmer in Zambia.

A bit of context.

Small-scale farmers in the chronically food insecure region of the Southern Province are concerned with one main thing: growing enough food to eat, and if all goes well, a bit of surplus to sell. They grow and eat maize here. But maize needs more rain than this drought-prone area has been getting lately. Sorghum, however, is a drought-tolerant crop, which can serve two purposes: it can be sold to market for cash and it can be eaten. Silver bullet? If only it was that easy.

Small-scale farmers are incredibly vulnerable – to drought, to volatile commodity prices, to transportation costs, the list can go on indefinitely. As such, they are very risk-averse. Adopting a new crop like sorghum on the grounds that it’s a “good idea” is simply not enough. The project needs to convince farmers to grow, eat, and sell sorghum.

The goal is to facilitate the growth of a sorghum market in Zambia that small-scale farmers can participate in. Existing agricultural cooperatives that have strong leadership and business acumen are chosen by CARE to be “partners” in the project. These coops will buy sorghum from the farmers in their respective areas, bulk it, and sell it to Coventry Hawke Commodities (CHC) under contracts that are negotiated by CARE. CARE initially plays a large role in the process but slowly steps away as the reins are handed over to the farmers, the cooperatives, the buyers, and what hopefully will be a self-sustaining market.

To get farmers on board, CARE runs awareness meetings at each of the partner coops, inviting farmers from around the area. And what we do is essentially a sales pitch. We deliver an informal presentation about sorghum. We explain how sorghum is drought tolerant. How it is cheaper to grow than maize (because it doesn’t require fertilizer) and thus more profitable per kg. We tell them about the guaranteed market to CHC, and their main buyer Zambian Breweries, who are using sorghum in their new line of beer, Eagle Lager. (SAB Miller, their parent company, has been lauded for their work with small-scale farmers in Uganda and hope to do the same in Zambia.)

They are told that the project is about improving livelihoods, with the goals of:

1. Income generation;
2. Improved food security; and,
3. Crop diversification

So farmers volunteer to grow sorghum, get some free seed (only in the first 2 years), get some production training from CARE, get some extension-like support from a sorghum supervisor hired by the coop, and away they go. They plant, they weed, they scare away the birds, they harvest, and they get some food AND some cash. Well, that’s the idea.

Timing is everything.

The weather is acting weird here in Zambia. There are clouds in the normally blemish free blue sky. Not just a few but lots of clouds. It’s an ominous sign…the rains are coming soon. But it’s much too early for rain. September is supposed to be blazing hot and dry. There shouldn’t be any clouds in the sky, but they’re here now…

The clouds have started rolling in

There are a number of factors that affect crop yield for a small-scale farmer – rainfall, pests, use of fertilizers or chemicals (pest-/herbicides), available labour, available farming implements (plows, oxen, tractors even), etc. But from what I can tell, the number one make-or-break factor for a small-scale farmer is the timing of planting. Timing is crucial. In theory, seeds should be planted just after the first rains. And then it must rain again within the first few days and weeks to ensure germination. After that, consistent rains are required until crop maturity, and the length of time to maturity depends on the type and variety of crop.

Seasonal calendar for maize in Zambia, which is roughly the same for sorghum.
Source: FEWS Net Zambia

In the Southern Province, farmers are encouraged to plant as early as possible – after the first rains in November or early December – to take advantage of what little rain they do receive during an increasingly shorter and inconsistent rainy season. Most of the farmers we’re working with don’t have access to irrigation, so the rule is to plant early...easy-peasy? Far from it. I can only wonder what those farmers are thinking when they look at the sky these days, with the clouds coming and the smell of rain in the air. When should they plant?

Last year, many farmers delayed planting for fear of jumping the gun and ruining their chances of good germination, but then the rains stopped before their plants reached maturity. Those who planted earlier were not necessarily more successful – germination failed for lack of rain or erratic rainfall (floods in some areas, drought in others) reduced yields. All this makes it seem that choosing the time for planting is like playing a game of chicken with the sky.

Risky business.

I’ve always heard that farming is not easy. Even a few years ago when Albertan farmers bemoaned the lack of rain and how it was affecting their livelihoods, I heard them, but I wasn’t really listening. Here in Zambia, I’m finally getting the message loud and clear – farming is risky business.

Since controlling the rains (or buying them, which is essentially what irrigation allows) is not an option for these farmers, we’re putting all our efforts into creating a production training workshop for sorghum growers that will (hopefully) help in mitigating some of the risks they face. We’ve whittled it down to 3 main messages:

1. Plant on time - Plant early for late maturing varieties and later for early maturing varieties

2. Plant properly - Use suggested spacing, depth, and seed rate per station, and ideally inter-crop or rotate with legumes to enrich nitrogen content of soil

3. And practice good field hygiene - weed, thin, and transplant plants as appropriate

This is not revelatory information for most farmers, they know farming better than I ever will. But lack of resources – labour, farming implements, etc – inhibits them from performing these basic activities. And even if they do everything by the book, their field can be decimated by unpredictable factors like birds (who like sorghum) or a herd of elephants or, of course, floods/drought. They do what they can with what they have, hedge their bets whenever possible, and hope for the best.

From theory to reality.

In an attempt to inform myself on the ins-and-outs of sorghum production, I mined all the literature I could find about it. I read about sorghum production around the world. I read about average yields, what environments (temperatures, rainfall, soils) they thrive in, how risks (environmental stresses, pests, diseases) can be mitigated, and how seeds can be stored. I soaked up everything I could find, filled my head with sorghum information, then headed to the field to talk to farmers.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think that what I read would be the reality of small-scale sorghum farmers in Zambia. I’ve read Robert Chambers and have internalized his mantra that the lives of poor people are lcddu – local, complex, diverse, dynamic, and unpredictable/uncontrollable. But even with all this in the back of my head, I was astounded at how lcddu the lives of these farmers really are.

Each farmer had a story. Some of the stories were good (Regina grew a remarkable 42 by 50kg bags of sorghum last year, despite bad rains), some were not so good (Patricia failed to harvest any sorghum last year due to rampaging elephants), some made me want to cheer (Christine didn’t have a stellar sorghum harvest, but she’s diversified her income with an gorgeous garden), others made me want to cry (Mary managed to grow a bit of sorghum, but her house burned down this year). Overall, no two were alike.

Christine with her lovely garden, from which she gave us fistfuls of yummy carrots...mmmm!

Reconciling the reality of sorghum production with the theory is a near impossible task. In fact, I got incredibly discouraged during my last field visit – story after story made me think, “How are ever going make this work?” But I had to step back and look at the whole picture. The bad stories were distracting me from the good ones, of which there are many.

Why I can’t not be excited about this!

Farmers from non-target areas have heard things about the sorghum market and they want in. In fact, farmers from Muzya were not even officially included in last year’s project, but they still grew sorghum, even out-grew official participants of the project, and are by far the most enthusiastic group going into this year. Even more remarkable is the fact that these people have been receiving food aid from CARE for at least the last couple years and have not grown complacent or dependent because of it – they are determined to grow food for themselves. I’m incredibly encouraged by this group. And their enthusiasm proves that this sorghum idea may be a great one.

Farmers at a meeting in Muzya

Farmers, recognizing the trends in the weather and lacking cattle for plowing due to an outbreak of CBPP, are now choosing to practice conservation farming techniques, such as pot-holing the land during the dry season (i.e., right now). Pot-holing is done to aid water retention and germination come planting time but it requires a considerable amount of physical labour. Despite this, farmers are doing it and some are even experimenting with the technique by varying the size of the holes to see which size will work best for their specific conditions. I’m glad to see the techniques of conservation farming – which will serve them well far into the future – used without prompting.

Farmer with his pot-holed plot

As an incentive for farmers to participate in the project, CARE organizes an annual sorghum competition that rewards the highest producers with cash prizes. We just held the award ceremonies for harvest from the 2006/07 growing season last week. The largest competition was held in Sikaunzwe, which has been in involved in the project for 2 years now. And many of the top producers – including the top winner – were women farmers. When Josephine went up to get her award, holding her child’s hand, she looked so incredibly proud. And I was proud that this project was at the very least highlighting the hard work of many amazing women farmers, who are now able to earn a little cash for their households.

Josephine, grand prize winner of Sikaunzwe's Sorghum Competition

With rain (or sorghum?) comes relief.

When I left the competition at Sikaunzwe, I didn’t join the CARE staff in the convoy back to Livingstone. I jumped on a mini-bus headed in the opposite direction to Mwandi, where my friends Bryan and Patti are currently volunteering. On the ride out there, dark clouds rolled in above us and suddenly started dumping buckets. The bus had to stop so that we could get the luggage (that we were towing) into the bus through the windows. It’s the first time I was caught in such a torrent in Zambia. The temperature dropped and the air smelled clean and cool. I took a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief.

A good friend of mine once used “relief” to describe what it means to be human. I’m not sure I remember what she meant by it, but it stuck with me for reasons of my mine. When the rain fell, I got an inkling of the kind of relief a farmer might feel. I think I'm starting to get what I set out to get - understanding the perspective of a small-scale farmer - though there's still lots to learn.

I know there’s no guarantee the rains will be decent this year, but my hope is that a vulnerable farmer living in a village several kilometers away from the paved road, who is responsible for feeding the many mouths of her extended family, can get some relief – no matter how infinitesimal – by growing sorghum this year.

Thulasy :)