Our grandson, Brian, at his July 4th birthday party at his nursery school. Grandniece, Trina, is on the left as her birthday is in August during school vacation. I wanted to include this picture because of the “airplane” birthday cake of the Kenyan national airlines. Napkins, juice, lollipops, and biscuits are on the table on the left. About 70 students attended the birthday party, singing Happy Birthday in English along with other Swahili songs such as “kata, kata”, meaning “cut, cut” as Brian and Trina were cutting the first slice of the cake.

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Update: The Twelfth HROC International Training at the HROC Centre in Musanze, Rwanda, begins on Sunday. There are 11 participants, 4 men and 7 women. Six are from South Sudan, 1 from Nigeria, 1 from Kenya, two from Bosie, Idaho, USA, and1 from Rwanda. I wish them a successful training.

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 In the next few months I am going to write a series of postings on myths concerning small scale farmers. These make up the large majority of the farmers of the world and will be the ones who will increase food production by at least 50% to feed the assumed 10 billion people living on earth in 2050.

By small scale farmers I mean farmers that cultivate one-tenth of an acre up to around ten acres of arable land. I do not like the term “subsistence farmer” because usually even the small farmer produces more than he/she can eat and sells/gives away surpluses. Likewise the term “peasant” has come to have negative connotations (definition: “a poor smallholder or agricultural laborer of low social status”) so I don’t like that one either.

I would like to start with a very famous small-scale farmer. He cultivated about 2 acres and lived off what he produced. His name was Henry David Thoreau.

In 1845 he built a small house and lived at Walden Pond for a little over two years. The first year on his two acres he produced 4 bags of beans, 6 bags of potatoes, some peas and sweet corn. The second year he decided to cut the area to 1/3 acre. The first chapter of Walden or Life in the Woods gives exact details on this project. Here are some quotes from that chapter:

I learned from my two years’ experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food, even at this latitude (Massachusetts).

 He [the small farmer] could do all his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours in the summer.

For more than five years I maintained myself by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.

This field of maize is somewhat over an acre and plowed by oxen. Note the small garden at the right front. This is a small plot of cowpeas whose leaves are used as a green. The large dark green leaves are pumpkin (squash) plants which in time will spread all over and produce more pumpkins than the family can eat.

 Let me analyze what it would take to cultivate one acre of maize (corn) here in Lumakanda, Kenya. There are seven steps

First cultivation

Second cultivation

Planting

First weeding

Second weeding

Harvesting

Drying and shelling

Each of these activities takes about 10 days of labor by one person. Therefore the total labor input for the year is 70 days, leaving the cultivator free for 295 days to do other activities. If done properly, the harvest would be twenty 200-pound bags of maize. This one person would consume one bag of maize during the year. The cost of inputs for hybrid seeds and fertilizer (this is not organic farming) would be the equivalent of about 3 bags of maize. This would leave a surplus of about 16 bags of maize for sale or to give away.

The hardest work by far is the first and second cultivation. Thoreau hired a team of horses to do this for him. Here people with an acre of maize might use two oxen to plow the field – this could be done in one day with two people and two oxen. Others like us hire a tractor at the cost of one bag of maize for each plowing. Therefore the days of work have decreased to 50 days in a year and 14 bags of surplus.

Moreover beans are planted between the maize and normally there would be one to two bags of beans per acre although this year due to excessive rain we are getting less than a bag per acre. Sometime people also plant pumpkins (which is what is called squash in the US) in the same field. Unlike Massachusetts, there can also be a second planting on the same acre with beans only, sweet potatoes, greens, or other items.

This small plot of one-tenth of an acre (the size of a building lot) was cultivated solely by hand and will produce enough maize for one person for the year. The beans that were inter-planted with the maize have already been harvested.

Many fields here, though, are less than an acre. A person can plant one tenth an acre and harvest 2 bags of maize (plus the other crops) which would cover the cost of inputs and seeds/fertilizer. A small plot like this would be done by hand so the total amount of time needed for the year’s work would be 7 days!!!

In addition this work is not repetitious and monotonous like being a toll booth operator in the US – I consider this one of the most boring jobs in the world as I calculate that the operator will take the funds from 10 people per minute, 600 per hour, 4800 per day for day after day after day.

Moreover if a person is going to plant one acre of maize, he or she is not going to do it alone but with the whole family. Five members of a family might take two days of working together to plant that acre. We have learned that, when it is time to plant, we cannot schedule a three-day workshop because everyone is in the field helping out. “Everyone” includes toddlers to the elderly – the toddler just holds a small tin can with a few seeds in it and sows a little here and there while the elderly person who no longer has the stamina for this kind of work distributes the seeds to the others, hands out drinking water, and overseas the tea break and lunch.

It is a total myth that the life of the small farmer is “nasty, brutish, and short”. Rather this style of living leaves the person free for a lot of other activities, socialization, and, for Thoreau, studying and writing books. Therefore do not be condescending to the small scale farmer, but be envious. Then remember that the most popular hobby in the United States is gardening. “In spring 2017, the number of people who did gardening within the last 12 months amounted to 117.6 million in the United States.” (from The Statistics Portal.) As any one of the gardeners will tell you, the food you grow yourself tastes so much better than that bought in the store.

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David Zarembka

Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC)

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