Forward-looking farming with traditional techniques

Driving past the steep slopes of the beautiful hills of Rwanda, one is struck by the intensive planting that goes all the way to the summit of the hills. Women precariously tread the slippery, rain-soaked, earth as they till and plant their crops.

Driving past the steep slopes of the beautiful hills of Rwanda, one is struck by the intensive planting that goes all the way to the summit of the hills. Women precariously tread the slippery, rain-soaked, earth as they till and plant the season’s crops.

It is estimated that over 80% of Rwandans are dependent on agriculture.

Thousands of miles away, in the fields of Iowa, in Midwest USA, farmers have for generations been farming single crop, also known as mono-culture. The predominant crop is maize, or corn as known in the USA.

Corn is used mainly as cattle feed, or for commercial purposes such as corn syrup, a popular sweetener used in soft drinks. Increasingly crops for biofuels are taking up farming land and resulting in the controversy over food for our bodies versus food for our cars.

Increasingly, the discussions on mono-cropping focus on the environmental impacts.  Reports detail frequent and more destructive flooding, the loss of indigenous species and poisoning of soils as but some of the problems.

Concerns rest on the destruction, in particular, of top soils and the resultant need to increase fertilizer usage to try to make over-used soils more productive.

The run-off from fertilizers is found in the water system and can lead to what has been termed the “dead-zone”. These areas are characterized by low levels of oxygen in the water, hypoxia, and can reduce the occurrence of fish and other critical forms of life found in waterways.

It can be an economic handicap as fishermen and all those along the value chain lose their livelihoods.

In the USA, some farmers are adopting what they term “prairie strip” cropping as a way to incorporate environmental concerns. The value of subsidies has enabled farmers to continue mono-cropping even when not economically viable on marginalized lands. But working with scientists, a tiny fraction of the farmers are seeing rewarding returns.

There are claims that aside from the financial benefits, returning “…10 percent of a field of row crops to prairie, soil loss can be reduced by up to 95 percent, nutrient loss by 80 to 90 percent, and water runoff by 44 percent”.

The more you see of the world the more in common you find between countries and peoples. In the land of a thousand hills, the Government of Rwanda regularly issues warnings against flooding, landslides and soil run-off during the rainy seasons. The government also encourages the commercialization of agriculture to diversify the economy and increase exports and create jobs.

From floriculture, to tea to coffee, Rwanda is primed to aggressively participate in the rewards of global export markets. The challenges of commercial farming are well known. It is thus these niche types of interventions that seek to address the challenges that need to be incorporated as the country pursues cash crop export strategies.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, encourages farmers to rotate crops as a way to improve soils, combat pests, disease and weeds while reducing financial risk by having more than one crop to depend on. Nonetheless, they also caution that that crop rotation requires more skill than working with a single crop.

In an anecdotal story closer to home, an environmentalist works with a multinational on the tea slopes in Kenya. Her mission was to bring about environmental changes to the way the company conducted business. Given carte blanche by the company to do whatever was necessary, she began with the staff houses which were located on the lower part of the slopes and were bereft of all vegetation and subject to flooding.

She encouraged each household to use their tiny patch of land to grow food their grandmothers had grown. In addition, they were encouraged not to plant in rows, but in ways their ancestors had done for generations.

 Flowers were planted that had both medicinal and anti-pest attributes. Fruit trees were included for shade and nutrition. Starting with one house, the project extended to 3 houses and then to many. Soon all the workers’ houses, plus the local shopkeeper’s patch, had well-tended, food-filled patches of attractive garden.

The results were dramatic. There was no more run-off as the miniature gardens held the soils together. Flooding became a thing of the past and the water-borne illnesses with them. Sick days were cut back significantly and staff morale was up. Gone were the wind-swept, dust pans and the accompanying sniffling, respiratory-infected children.

The farm workers were happier and socialized in their now-attractive, home spaces as well as the local shop. The company increased its profits as a consequence of a healthier staff, reduced sick days and increased productivity.

Perhaps we need to go back in time to find our way to a happier, more productive, healthier future.

The writer is passionate about people, organisations and countries whose stories create a chrysalis for ideas.