Monday, December 5, 2011

Take a Walk with Me

LEAD staff, guests, and farmers, gather to discuss farming.
Imagine yourself walking through bushes in Liberia, ducking under branches, following a farmer down a thin dirt path.  You have just spent a couple of hours with about forty farmers at a workshop, and now you have a chance to visit some of the farms.  You duck through the final palm branches, which have been set up as a makeshift fence, and before you is spread about one-half acre of pepper and bitter-ball plants.  The air is full of the clacks of grasshoppers and is heavy with humidity.It's about 110 F in the sun and you can feel the sun baking your skin.  And you know that if the sun is baking your skin, it is baking the plants as well.   

Plant under stress.
The plants seem somewhat scattered, not orderly and in rows.  Weeds compete with the plants for nutrients and water.   The soil is dry and dusty.  Many of the plants are small and show signs of stress; many have been attacked by various pests, including the grasshoppers who are particularly rampant this season.  Suddenly the peaceful sound of grasshoppers begins to sound more ominous.  The farmer shares that he has applied certain pesticides but it doesn't seem to be working.  You learn that he has applied the same pesticides for several years and it appears that the insects have begun to develop a resistance to them.  Survival of the fittest. 

The farmer sweats as well as you look over his farm.  He has a water source a distance away, but the only means of conveying that water is bucket by bucket.  It is dry season now and he doesn't expect much yield from this planting, but he hopes. This is his primary farm to care for; his wife is handling a rice farm on another piece of land.  

Termite mound in the middle of the farm.
You feel tired just standing in the sun, thinking about watering and weeding.  The water table is high here, and it's possible for the farmer to hand dig an open well about twenty feet down for more available access to water.  The agriculture coordinator from LEAD (who works with over 100 farmers), Zoryou, is asked why this farmer has not done this.  Zoryou shows some signs of exasperation as he expresses how so many different techniques have been taught - composting,  mulching, crop rotation, irrigation - but getting the farmers to implement these has been difficult.  Zoryou has been unable to prove the effectiveness of these techniques.  He would like to start small demonstration plots on some of the farmers land but faces challenges.  

While this is discussed, you suddenly hear loud voices coming from the path.  Apparently some other farmers from the workshop want to come in to see this farm, but there are some beliefs that if certain people look at your farm, the farm will come into some bad luck.  The farmer suddenly disappears from the conversation to join the voices outside.  You are later informed that the next visits have been cancelled as the farmers are afraid of those who will come along to visit as well.  You head back to the path, and back to the village, where you sit under a tree on a bench, and enjoy potato greens and rice with the farmers.
Zoryou and Todd studying the bean plants

This happened on my recent trip to Liberia.  It's frustrating.  Good soil, high water table, plenty of sun, lots of land, and yet such poor yield and food production in Liberia.  How do we proceed?  That is where the research farm comes in.  I've written about this in previous blogs but had a chance to see it in person for the first time.  Twenty-five acres of land to demonstrate and research new technologies and new crops for the Liberian market.  When we started talking about this project, people told me that "demonstration farms are so 1980s."  Until they came to visit Liberia, when their response changed to, "oh, now we see why you want to do a demonstration farm."  When farmers live on less than a dollar a day and only have the resources to farm a small piece of land, asking them to use a piece of that land for what is considered risky, since it is new and unknown, doesn't happen. And so we hope to demonstrate year round farming, using several different irrigation technologies.  We hope to research several new crops which are not currently grown in Liberia but our research farm advisory team believe has great potential.  We hope to have several animal husbandry projects, reintroducing animal husbandry back into Liberia.
When grasshoppers attack...

To date, we have planted about 400 moringa trees.  We have planted and harvested a high quality maize seed (called QPM) which we imported from Ghana.  The seeds from this corn have been distributed now to about 10 farmers who will grow this corn during this next season.  LEAD has made a commitment to these farmers to buy back most of that corn for hog feed, as we also have 10 hogs.  We expect to mate these hogs in about two months, and be able to sell the pigs to other farmers, and be able to provide the appropriate pig feed to allow for rapid growth.  To this end, we also hope to begin building a palm kernal processing machine for added protein for the pits.  Construction for that should begin shortly.  This small business will be turned over to a Liberian to run after working alongside LEAD staff for an appropriate amount of time.

These are just a few of the ideas and plans.  Recently Rick Slager put up a hoop house in Liberia to see whether the yield of tomatoes can triple.  He also worked with Henry, our assistant farm manager, to plant onions, garlic, and ginger, crops that are not currently grown in Liberia.  The UN has agreed to clear several acres of land for us (way to go, Megan!) which will allow us to put up dorms and a training center.  Our goal is to bring farmers to the research farm for a week, to learn, observe, and work alongside with farm staff to be able to take this practical knowledge back to their farm. 
Drip irrigation being set up in hoop house.

Much of this work and the achievement of our goals depends on funding.  Our goal this Christmas is to raise funds for the research farm and we have created a gift catalog to help achieve this goal.  Please consider this farm for your year-end gift.  For more information go to, where you will be able to safely give online to help us make strides in this work.

This compost pile is about three months old, which I'm told is quite an accomplishment because of the heat and humidity, allowing for faster composting time. 
I know.  How many people put pictures of pig manure on their blog because they think it is cool?  But I love how everything is getting used and reused on this farm.
LEAD's Research Farm current watering hole.  We hope to put in wells soon in several locations. 

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