"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." Martin Buber
At the end of June I'm off again, for three weeks at a university in South Korea and a visit to Kyoto, Japan, then in August we will be in Guatemala looking at one of the world's greatest challenges: how to grow a lot of food sustainably on small farms. Come along!
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Guatemala # 3: Feeding the World One Farm at a Time
This is 1,200 words. We're looking to see how change takes place at the small farmer level.
Today we are
in the field with Don Juan and Bernabe Alezano, two farmer-scientists.If their example could be multiplied the
world would be better fed.
farmers live so close to the edge--so close to being wiped out by a drought,
hurricane or crop failure--that changing any part of how they’ve survived is
risky.It’s long been so. Yet as soils
have slowly degraded and yields sometimes declined, staying put won’t work
Nueva exists to build a better life for small-plot farmers and their families.It believes farmers who make changes
successfully are the best agents of change to convince other farmers to
follow.The “farmer to farmer” concept is one of the
three pillars upon which Semilla Nueva has been built. In doing so it is standing on the back of a “compesino y
compesino” movement that goes back at least 40 years in Central America, often at great cost and against great resistance.
what would cause a large number of farmers to take a chance and change for the
better?A veteran of that earlier movement
says farmer to farmer will take hold fast if farmers can see a 30 percent
improvement in their income.That’s the
farm income on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala is $1,000 or so. Consequently, a farmer must see prospects
for an improvement of about $300 dollars a year. What a small amount of money that is to us!
This can be
accomplished in two ways, of course:decreasing costs or increasing income.A farm’s five input costs are labor, fertilizer, land preparation, seed
and herbicides and pesticides, in that order.Commercial fertilizer is the largest single cash expense and runs into
hundreds of pounds an acre.Substitute
organic fertilizer in whole or in part and, over time, income could go up 30
percent or more.This strategy may get a
boost pretty soon. Guatemala's new president,
Perez Molina, has said his government will no longer subsidize fertilizer as
Guatemala has done for years but will instead expand the number of extension
agents from 100 (a woefully small number for a country of 13 million) to 1,000
(still small given the number of farmers).Semilla Nueva has participated in the training of the new agents on the
way to reduce the cost of preparing the land will also add to income.It can be as simple and traditional as using
a tractor, the cost cooperatively shared.
Income also goes
up if yields on existing crops can be increased, of course.The principal crop in Guatemala is corn and
the national average yield on an acre of is 30 bushels and about 50 on the Pacific Coast.Corn is planted in April and grows up to 12 feet
Here you can see the volcano Santo Maria in the background and corn in the foreground which has been doubled over.
In July, farmers cut the
stock in half with a machete, doubling it over in such a way that the single ear of corn is at the same level, which I had never seen before. They
leave it this way until harvest in September.
For Semilla Nueva, the ideal would be 100 bushels
an acre, achieved through a variety of strategies.
The other Pacific
Coast cash crop is sesame seed which is planted in between rows of corn.
It is shrub-like and can get five feet tall. That little green row between the corn is sesame. At harvest in December it is pulled out of the ground,
inverted and allowed to dry. Then the seeds are shaken out and collected.It is a very small seed so you can imagine
how much must be collected to make a pound.Sesame had been in the ground about ten days when we were there.
corn brings in $500 a year and sesame $500.That’s a family’s entire income.
likely way to jump farmer’s income 30 percent and gain wide adoption is to find
a new source of income.Two years ago,
Semilla Nueva fixed on the pigeonpea as that likely new source.It has been grown for over 4,000 years,
principally in India.When you eat dal
in an Indian restaurant, that’s toor dal, the ancient food.However although India grows 80 percent of
the world supply, production there has been declining because farmers have found
more attractive crops. Here is a field of free-standing pigeonpea at SN's new research and training center.
million pounds of pigeonpeas are grown around the world, very little in the
Western Hemisphere.In the last 10 or so
years it has become a big cash crop in East Africa which is now supplying India
and Europe. Tanzania farms one crop of
pigeon peas a year on about 200,000 acres with a cash value of about $100 million.With its abundant rain, Guatemala could potentially harvest two crops a year. By one estimation there is room in the world market for Guatemala to make at least $30 million a year in the world pigeonpea market.
understand how research is applied on the ground, on a beautiful, sunny day in August, 2013, we visited
two Pacific Coast farmers, Don Juan and Bernabe, who farm about five acres
apiece, side by side.Don Juan, on the left, is 66,
gregarious and full of good will.His
children help him farm but want him to keep the income.Bernabe, on the right, is younger, quiet and has an
inventive mind. He was one of 11 children raised in a one-bedroom shack in the village of Santa Fe whose family could not afford to educate him beyond elementary school.
Trinidad Recino, SN’s field supervisor, both have increased their income, both by decreasing expenses and making more on their crops.Whereas almost
all farmers burn their corn and sesame stalks after harvest, these two farmers have plowed them under with a special plow.They have tried various combinations of
fertilizer volumes, harvest and planting times, seed spacing and other changes, each time keeping
has tried most things Trini has suggested, Bernabe tells us the most
important change has been something he has stopped doing:burning and plowing his fields.Yields have gone up while costs have gone
down with “no till.” "My soil used to be black but now it is the color of clay," he says. "No till" is beginning to bring black back into his soil, a sign of fertility.
believes farmers shouldn’t be encourage to take chances based on what someone
told them but rather that they should make small tests of new practices on a small portion of
their land.SN promotes test plots of 70
square meters.The reason is that 70
meters times 100 equal a mansana, the standard unit of measurement in Guatemala, equal to about 1.5 acres, which can be
Trinidad Recino measures a test plot on Don Juan's land in August, 2013.
a new hybrid corn seed, varying amounts of fertilizer, different times to plant
and harvest, organic fertilizer from their own plants, planting new crops,
etc.Don Juan and Barnebe have been
doing this in the same way as an agricultural research station in the United
They measure with a tape measure.They color code each plot.They record the results in a journal.All this information is uploaded into a
Semilla Nueva data base and shared. Bernabe hit 112 bushels per acre recently, nearly four times the national average.
We walk the
fields with Don Juan, a man with an easy smile and sense of contentment.Bernabe has employed Mynor, a day laborer seen below,
who is planting sesame between rows of corn while we are there.
We look in on a plot which uses 25 percent
less fertilizer. Bernabe says it seems to be better
than with more fertilizer.
already planted pigeonpeas quickly with one of his
This is a
large can mounted between two wheels into which two holes have been
punched.As he rolls the device over the
ground, a punch inserted into one of the holes makes an indention.Next hole is left empty and a seed drops
through it into the indentation.Then
the can rolls along, covering in the indentation.
harvest, Bernabe determined he would be better off planting fewer seeds further
apart.Now he will make a new,
morning unfolds and Bernabe us tells about his work, a wide smile
emerges.In a little ceremony at the end he says he
doesn’t know what role Julia and I play in SN but he thanks us for the moral
support.It’s a privilege to be with