Lusangazi Sustainable farm - Velvet Bean

A Simple Fix for Farming

October 19, 2012, 1:05 pm
A Simple Fix for Farming
By MARK BITTMAN (New York Times)

I will always remember when I first read the following article. We were flying in to Kharthoum Airport while the pilot was pointing out fires and explosion of tanks on our first choice glide path!!. The explosions were all in my head though as we had just began our first steps on conservation/sustainable tillage a few days earlier, and we had a little affirmation that we were exactly on the right path.

Since we began farming in Malawi, I was convinced of a better way and so we have used no artificial fertilizer or chemical pesticides on our farms for the past six years, while promoting green manures, rotation, ground cover and retaining residues, with minimum disturbance of the soil. All around us they burned everything, built up depleted acid soils and were generally seduced by the (dubious) science of the foreign “experts”. While the gurus of foreign nations and the onslaught of the foreign NGO brigade peddled genetically modified seed and noxious chemicals, we plodded along and tried to research what grew and how to match the pests!

On this last trip we find that our neighbours are copying what we do and even the Ministry people are advising farmers to grow and use “our” plants for pest control!!!!

Anyway, this articles excites me, but I certainly realise that the farming world has little notion of turning. Only the general public can decide how the future of farming will look by making their choices.

READ ON

IT’S becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I’m not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use – if it wants to.

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study’s sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

The study was done on land owned by Iowa State University called the Marsden Farm. On 22 acres of it, beginning in 2003, researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.

The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent.

In short, there was only upside – and no downside at all – associated with the longer rotations. There was an increase in labor costs, but remember that profits were stable. So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons. And it’s a high-stakes game; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about five billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the United States.

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsanto about agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

Debates about how we grow food are usually presented in a simplistic, black-and-white way, conventional versus organic. (The spectrum that includes conventional on one end and organic on the other is not unlike the one that opposes the standard American diet with veganism.).  In farming, you have loads of chemicals and disastrous environmental impact against an orthodox, even dogmatic method that is difficult to carry out on a large scale.

But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways. And positioning organic as the only alternative allows its opponents to point to its flaws and say, “See? We have to remain with conventional.”

The Marsden Farm study points to a third path. And though critics of this path can be predictably counted on to say it’s moving backward, the increased yields, markedly decreased input of chemicals, reduced energy costs and stable profits tell another story, one of serious progress.

Nor was this a rinky-dink study: the background and scientific rigor of the authors – who represent the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service as well as two of the country’s leading agricultural universities – are unimpeachable. When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other non-chemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming – more thoughtful and less reflexive – requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Why wouldn’t a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it. Another, says Matt Liebman, one of the authors of the study and an agronomy professor at Iowa State, is that, “There’s no cost assigned to environmental externalities” – the environmental damage done by industrial farming, analogous to the health damage done by the “cheap” standard American diet – “and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned.”

This study not only questions those assumptions, it demonstrates that the chemicals contributing to “environmental externalities” can be drastically reduced at no sacrifice, except to that of the bottom line of chemical companies. That direction is in the interest of most of us – or at least those whose well-being doesn’t rely on that bottom line.

Sadly, it seems there isn’t a government agency up to the task of encouraging things to move that way, even in the face of convincing evidence.

For a year now we have a new 6 hectare farm, managed by a young couple, with this same plan. Its a 10 year plan and we’ll see how it goes. We have added agroforestry and a wood lot and of course wells and pumps, for our particular circumstances in Malawi.

Millions wasted on water in Africa

From the Guardian

Got this from our friends at http://www.thelongwellwalk.com/. where Liam Garcia is taking a three year walk for water. On the 30th of June 2013 Liam will leave Sheffield on his way to Cape Town. On foot. Walking 8,000 miles to raise awareness and funds for ten communities in Africa – The Long Well Walk will help to provide clean water. we are planning to work with and support him.

Even though I posted the article on our facebook page I hadn’t really read it until now. A pity because I find it weak and having little of the real shockers that exist in the water business. Maybe the writer should spend a day with our guys in the villages in Northern Malawi.

The next few lines is from our new website and shows why we have been in Malawi since 2005 working on clean water:

WHY?
Mary and myself went to Malawi for the first time at Easter 2005 and were disturbed by a few things in particular:
        the sight of women and little girls carrying dirty water, long distances, on their heads;
         how shallow the wells only needed to be;
         the huge number of broken pumps and how few were maintained by their original installers.

NOW we know that a pump in Northern Malawi needs to work all day every day so the women in a village need to be able to fix it. 

SO Our pumps are made, in our factory in Mzuzu, from materials available in Malawi. Spare parts can be anywhere in Malawi in one day, by bus. Women can maintain using two six inch nails. They can deliver 20 litres per minute from 25 metres deep wells. Worst case scenario: The whole pump can be replaced in 5 minutes and is fully recyleable. The cost of the pump is less than €40. 

Two weeks ago I spent a day up and down goat tracks in our 22 year old ex-Irish army jeep, following old gogos across barren fields in dust storms and down steep ravines knowing that I would have to climb out again. I explained that God didn’t love me or He wouldn’t send me to such a remote, Godforsaken place; they just laughed. Oh! forgot to mention the failed, broken and useless pumps and the litany of dried up wells. Some lasted just a few weeks, some a few months and only the rare one, a year or two. They would all be considered VLM village level maintainable and sustainable and all the life giving words that donors like to hear and proposal writers try out on their potential victims, before settling on what might separate them from their money. Sometime, in the future, I will write the complete story giving GPS locations with the names of the water gurus that installed them or often got others to install. It seems that everyone wants to install a well, sing the songs, pray the prayers and give glory to some God or other. When another box is ticked these people move on, claim a few more souls or donors, keep their well paid jobs and leave God with a dilema. We regularly pick up the pieces and would do more if we get permission!! If we’re the best solution he gets, its not much of a solution, but our women in villages are the real deal.

One of my friends gave me what she thought was a brilliant idea, on pump maintenance, over the weekend. It was some electronic gadget, thingy to attach to a pump handle which would emit a signal if the pump was not in use. This signal would pop to satellite, then to a base, where maybe a fleet of helicopters would take to the air, descend on the location, and fix the pump.

Great I said but we have women in villages with mobile phones, and the just give us a call, we do the triage questioning bit and they fix the pump, or we may decide to unscrew it and screw in another, if that drastic a solution is necessary.

Oh, its that simple? Yes its that simple!!

Report criticises donors, governments and NGOs for installing boreholes and wells in rural Africa without ensuring their long-term sustainability

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on clean water projects in rural Africa, according to a new report.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) says up to US$360m has been spent on building boreholes and wells that then become useless because they are not maintained or fixed when they break down. As a result, 50,000 water supply points are not functioning across rural Africa.

According to the report only one third of water points built by NGOs in Senegal’s Kaolack region are working and 58% of water points in northern Ghana are in disrepair.

The report’s author, Jamie Skinner, says that water points are often built by donors, governments and NGOs without fully consulting local people and finding out just how much it will cost to keep the boreholes clean and functioning over a sustained period of time.

He said drilling a borehole in a rural community was akin to asking people to run a cooperative private water supply.

“There is no point an external agency coming in, putting in a drill-hole and then passing it over to the local community if they can’t afford to maintain it over the next 10 or 20 years,” he says. “There needs to be a proper assessment of just how much local people are able to finance these water points. It’s not enough to just drill and walk away.”

This problem has arisen in Katine sub-county in north-east Uganda. In 2007, before the African Medical and Research Foundation and Farm-Africa began their development work in Katine, worms were found in the polluted water supply at the village of Abia, next to the Emuru swamp. A badly constructed and poorly maintained shallow well, dug by a charity, was full of soil and animal faeces and was making local people sick.

Amref’s strategy in Katine is to train local communities to operate and maintain the new safe water points that have been established in the sub-county since the project began.

Water and sanitation committees have been set up to monitor the new boreholes that have been dug and contact newly trained hand-pump mechanics if one breaks down. The committees meet regularly with village health teams to discuss needs and the idea is that everyone who uses the boreholes and wells will contribute financially to their long-term upkeep.

But last year water engineer Bob Reed argued on this website that rural water sources cannot be sustained without continuing external support and that boreholes were simply unsustainable.

Does this new report prove him right?