Part of our plot with trees in the middle. Because we cultivate this small plot by hand, we can leave the trees. This picture shows our two navel orange trees (on left and center), two mango trees (in back on left center), one of two avocado trees (behind the orange tree in the middle), some of our banana trees (right side) with collard greens growing under them, and the tops of a row of grevillea trees along the boundary can be seen in the background on the right.
There are many practices that a small scale farmer can do that a large commercial farmer cannot. Most of these increase the productivity of the land while also providing for non-monetary insurance against crop failure. In this essay, my third installment of benefits from small holder agriculture, I will outline some of the major differences. Gladys and I live in the settlement scheme where 10 to 20 acre plots were given to Kenyans from the farms left by the British settlers at the time of independence in 1963. As we drive to Eldoret 45 kilometers away (30 miles) there are large commercial farms sold to influential Kenyans at the same time. Therefore I am easily able to compare the two methods of farming.
1.Diversity of crops:
This is a large commercial farm growing maize on the road towards Eldoret. It is doing quite well this year, but last year this field got no harvest whatsoever because the maize plants were stunted and did not grow properly. I suspect that the farmer was sold fake seeds rather than good hybrid seeds from a seed company. I felt sorry of this large loss that this farmer had last year. Note also that there are no trees in the field (only in the background where the ground slopes down) nor along the edge of the plot as is common with the small scale farmer.
Large commercial farms – we are talking about hundreds to even thousands of acres – usually grow one or perhaps two crops. In our area the main crop is maize (corn) with some hay, wheat, and perhaps sugar cane. I have not seen a commercial farmers in our area grow beans, cooking bananas, sweet potatoes, or vegetables. Most small scale farmers grow a mixture of crops. As a result they are not dependent on any one crop. When one crop does poorly, they can depend on an alternative crop. For example, because of the excess rain this growing season, beans have not done well, but the maize has done very well. This diversity of crops leads to enhance food security for the small scale farmer.
This is our poor harvest of beans from one acre of maize, drying in the sun before the plants were beaten with a stick to make the beans separate from the pods. These beans had been inter-planted with the maize which was still growing in the field when we harvested the beans.
The practice in our area is to plant beans and maize at the same time. Beans grow much more quickly than maize so that by the time the beans are ready for harvesting, the maize is just flowering and producing the cobs. Long ago research showed that this inter-planting gives a larger total harvest than planting just maize by itself. In addition some pumpkins (squash in the United States) can be planted in the field where both the leaves and the pumpkins can be eaten. Pumpkins take awhile to develop so that they cover the ground after the beans have been harvested and the maize is drying in the field. Large commercial farmers can’t do this because the bean harvest is done by hand and cannot be mechanized. So they have to grow a mono-crop of maize. Note also that the beans, as a legume, put nitrogen into the soil that the maize can use as it grows.
- Double cropping:
Small scale farmers frequently plant twice (and sometimes three times) per year, at least on part of their land. For example, as the maize in drying in one of our plots, we have cultivated between the maize and planted sweet potatoes and groundnuts. Beans and various greens are also frequently planted during the second short-rain cultivation. Clearly this increases the amount of food that can be harvested from the same piece of land. Large farmers do not do this.
Most small scale farmers also keep animals. Chickens and cows are most common, followed by goats and sheep. A few farmers also have pigs, oxen (for plowing and pulling carts), donkeys, turkeys, geese, ducks, rabbits, and/or bees. Besides the meat, milk, and eggs for use or sale, the manure from any of these animals is spread over the crop land enhancing its fertility.
- Mixing trees with crops:
This is the small road between our plot on the right and our neighbor, Ruth’s, plot on the left. Note that both of us have planted grevillea trees on the boundary. These can be used after a few years for firewood or kept for 15 to 30 years when they can be cut for lumber for use or sale. If you look at the back of the picture you can see trees with rounded tops. These are eucalyptus trees that can be used for firewood, poles, and lumber. When we built our house we purchased one very large eucalyptus tree from a member of the Friends Meeting for $250 – this was enough to cut all the rafters we needed for the roof of the house.
Small scale farmers frequently plant trees along their boundaries. Some also have a small wood lot, usually of eucalyptus trees. Fruit trees are often planted around the house. These include mango, avocado, guava, orange, pawpaw, and other traditional fruits whose English names I do not know. Most farmers also have some plantains (cooking bananas) and perhaps yellow eating bananas. See picture at top of article.
- Erosion control:
This is an anti-erosion ditch through the center of our plot. When torrential rain falls and there is considerable run-off from the saturated ground, these ditches receive the excess water, allowing it to seep into the ground, and thereby stops soil erosion.
Since for a small scale farmer, land is scarce, a considerable amount of effort is put into anti-erosion measures to protect the soil. In addition to the style of ditch pictured above, on some very hilly land, terraces are built with Napier grass of the edge to keep the soil from eroding.
These are just some of the more prominent methods that small scale farmers use to produce much more per acre than a large commercial farmer. When I observe how much Gladys (with hired help) is able to produce from our one-half acre at home and two nearby acres of maize/beans that belongs to our son, Douglas, I realize how productive small farms can be. While I would assess that we are one of the better farmers in the area, there are many equivalent small scale farmers near us and a few who are even more productive.
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