Going back to my roots

We have just purchased about 15 acres of land from the local chief in Lusangazi. Charity, our new financial controller and HR person found out that the land was for sale, viewed it and did the deal. Final negotiations, for some extensions to the land, to include access to water are under way and when complete will open a whole new research project for us.
We hope it can become a co operative model farm, moving towards an organic, non pesticide, open pollinated seed oasis, in the midst of hybrids and chemicals.
The cost of artifical fertilizer has almost trebled in the past year and even with huge subsidies is beyond the rural, poor, subsistence farmers.
We are proposing to use compost, which everyone talks about and no one does regularly, (maybe because it’s hard work!), combined with green manure plants, which we have begun to research.
The soil is depleted from years of organic neglect, as is most of the soil I come across. Years of burning off the organic matter, sometimes as their culture for finding and catching wild animals, has often turned their soil into useless sand. Sadly, all they find nowadays in their orgy of burning, are mice and small birds, which creates other problems in pest control.
One has to be mad to tackle all these cultural and educational barriers, but I have for some time now, understood that to make any progress in Malawi, madness is an essential requirement.
Buying the land means we can control the process, employ the workers to do things a different way, without the interference or control of chiefs or traditional leaders, who can sometimes hinder progress.
Naturally all the workers will be Malawians, who will be invited to come together as a co operative, with a share in the venture. This will mean housing, water and the provision of a decent standard of living and sufficient food until they can provide their own. Each family will have their own vegetable garden, from which they should have their own vegetables and fruit. One good thing about the location is that the children can go to the local school, which we are already supporting.
The plan is to begin sowing maize, ground nuts, cassava and a selection of trees including fruit trees. We know that pineapples do well and we will try a little coffee. We will do some intercropping with soya and crops for pest control.
This will happen in this rainy season (late November), when we will have to initially use some of the dreaded chemical fertilizer. Towards the end of the harvest we will plant the green manures, which we hope to produce the equivalent of 1kg of farm yard manure per square metre. These will also give us ground cover, keeping the weeds down, retaining water and protecting micro organisms from the sun.
None of this will be simple or without headaches. Changing cultures or mind sets is not easy. We will win some and lose some as usual, but we have to keep trying.
Long term we will provide extra accommodation, as we are doing at the vegetable farm, so that we can invite other developing farmers to come and look at what we are trying and learn from them as well.
We need the help of all good farmers everywhere, who are interested in feeding the hungry and maybe saving the soil for our children.
It will be exciting and frustrating, but for me, no more so than playing golf!
One of the headaches will be pest control without the use of chemical pollutants called pesticides. With a degree in chemistry and having a son who departed the agrichemical division of one of the major chemical companies, when he realized the harmful and poisonous cocktails which he was working on and helping to manufacture, to control pests, I realize that there has to be a better safer way: nature’s way. If you look at my articles on Cuban farming, you will see what can be done
In the vegetable farm we are trying companion planting
In theory, companion planting produces the highest yield per square metre and the greatest benefits, as long as care is taken to ensure that the crops do not compete too much with each other Stem borers (caterpillars of moths) are the major insect pests of cereal crops in eastern and southern Africa. Losses can reach as high as 80%, while those due to Striga range from 30 to 100% in most areas.
We will try and grow some maize with two other crops. One attracts stem borers, while the other repels them. Together they effectively protect the maize. Napier grass is the most effective. It is planted in the border around the maize fields where invading adult moths are attracted to it. Instead of landing on the maize plants, the insects are attracted to what appears to be a tastier meal. Napier grass has a particularly clever way of defending itself against the pest onslaught: once attacked by a borer larva, it secretes a sticky substance that physically traps the pest and effectively limits its damage. And so the natural enemies lurking among the grasses go into action.

The legume Desmodium repels stem borer moths. It is planted in between the rows of maize. Being a low-growing plant, it does not interfere with the crops’ growth and has the further advantage of maintaining soil stability and improving soil fertility through nitrogen fixation. It also serves as a highly nutritious animal feed. Other legumes have this effect as well, but Desmodium also effectively suppresses Striga.
Last year we bought 10 neem tree seedlings from the Land Resource Centre in Lilongwe and they are growing well.
Extracts from the Neem tree, are widely used worldwide. Neem extracts have an effect on nearly 400 species of insects, including major pests (moths, weevils, beetles and leaf miners). They do not kill insects directly, but effectively prevent their reproduction. Neem extracts can be prepared from leaves, but the seeds contain higher concentrations of insecticidal components.

We also use Papaya leaves: 1 kg of fresh leaves, shredded and soaked in 10 litres of water, add 2 teaspoons of petrol and a bit of soap, and leave it overnight. Sift the concoction through a cloth, and the spray is ready for application on the leaves of vegetables, to fight against leaf-eating caterpillars, aphids and true bugs.

Our people will take on this task with relish and love the idea of locally available solutions. They ask me is this research and I always reply; cutting edge. The fact that most are illiterate doesn’t mean they are stupid: far from it. We will try these and many, other possible solutions to try and achieve a truce with the enemy and as they say, watch this space!


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