We were discussing conservation farming methods for hoe farmers with Jessy and Mangangu, out in Mpongwe, Zambia. That’s all fine, Mangangu says, “but we don’t want to keep these people small scale farmers all their life. The goal is for them to become commercial farmers. But how do you manage the next step – like us? Like Jessy and me?”
It’s true. Jessy and Mangangu are in that difficult in-between phase – too big really to be called small scale farmers, but not big enough to be commercial farmers. And the problem is not in the words – it’s in the technology.
Small scale farmers plant by hand. Jessy planted over 30 hectares last year with his family – by hand, after disking and pulling lines with the tractor. He doesn’t own a planter. It took him too long, and with the rains coming early, he was delayed even more, and found that he lost instead of winning. The last fields planted don’t look too good. Next year he’ll scale back again, until he can afford a planter.
Mangangu plants around 100 hectares. His problem is harvesting – he still harvests by hand. It takes too long too. And both farmers only plant maize. They know they are mining the soil – that they should rotate with soybeans to put something back in. But maize can be harvested by hand – larger fields of soybeans can’t. They need a combine harvester.
We told them to buy one together. But it’s still out of their league – to buy without credit. That’s another problem with these farmers. Credit is very difficult for them to obtain. To bankers, a black small farmer is too big of a risk. Their experience is they don’t pay back. So bankers don’t touch them. Jessy and Mangangu know it’s their skin colour – and it frustrates them no end. And yet they are open enough to see there is some merit to the banker’s stance. They know their fellow black farmers have often been negligent. It takes a long time to overturn a bad reputation.
There are practically no small used combines for sale in Zambia anyway. Maybe in South Africa. Or in Europe. Could we look for one? But then there’s the transport, and the issue of finding spares (parts) for it when it breaks down.
And back to conservation farming – how do you apply the methods to a bigger farm? We grain farmers from western Canada use no-till drills. But corn has much more trash than wheat. We talked to a Zimbabwean farmer who adapted existing machinery to plant no-till. It can be done. But it takes innovation, money, a good shop…
It isn’t easy to move up the ladder! If someone out there has some advice for Jessy or Mangangu, or for us how to help them – please!