Part X: Benefits of Small Scale Farming in Kenya
Three weeks ago we had a tremendous hail storm here in Lumakanda. Notice in the picture above of banana trees that some of the older leave have been shredded by the hail with new leaves like the one on the bottom left are intact.
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Farming in Kenya is extremely different than farming, in say, the corn belt of the United States. Frequently Americans and Europeans don’t understand the particular physical constraints here in Kenya and assume incorrectly that what is done in the northern hemisphere is not only the best way, but the way that others like Kenyans should follow and copy. In this Report, I want to illustrate many of the constraints here in Kenya that do not exist in the US and Europe.
- No snow: It doesn’t snow here in Kenya. Dah, so what? In the US and Europe, it snows in the winter time and in the spring the snow melts and the ground is saturated with moisture. This gives the plants a healthy start after planting. Here there is only the dry season and the wet season. When it finally starts raining at the end of the dry season, the ground is bone dry. How much rain should there be before a farmer plants? The answer is not clear. One of the rules of good farming here is “early planting” because, if one delays too long, the rains will have ended before the crop is mature. This year it started raining here at the beginning of March when the rains usually starts at the end of the month. Some people planted during these early rains and, since the rains continued without a break, those early planters got a good harvest. But if the rains had stopped, they would have had a poor or even non-existent harvest.
- Little topsoil: When I mentioned to an American that there was little to no topsoil here in Kenya, he wondered how people could farm at all. During both the rainy season and the dry season, insects including termites and bacteria continue to do their work of eating the vegetation. As a result there is very little organic matter in the soil. This means that the farmer has to increase the organic matter with manure and other organic materials and/or fertilizers.
- Drought: Droughts are common here in Africa. Droughts also have a different meaning than in the United States. For example, a good number of years ago there was a drought in the US corn belt so that farmers got only 88% of their expected yield. Here in Kenya a drought can mean that one gets almost no yield or even, in severe cases, absolutely nothing, meaning that the seeds that were used for planting were wasted.
- Inconsistent rainfall: There are two problems here. The first is that while the average rainfall seems adequate for a certain crop, the average is based on wild fluctuations. One year the rainfall might be half the average, leading to crop failure due to drought. Another year might be 1 ½ times the average rainfall, leading to flooding. This year with excessive rainfall in Lumakanda we received almost no yield from our beans which do not thrive in saturated soil. The “average” rainfall might occur only three or four times out of ten years. This has led to many disastrous projects promoted by commercial advocates from overseas.
The second problem is that the rain can be inconsistent. It might rain well for a certain amount of time but then it might stop for two, three, or more weeks so that the crops, even in a year with adequate rainfall, wilt during the dry spell leading to decreased crop yield. One year when I was in Tanzania, I went through one of these dry spells, but what was so antagonizing is that I could see the rain falling on the next hill, but time after time it missed the hill where I was living. The other hill had a good yield and my area did not.
- Hail and storms: Fortunately there are no hurricanes or tornadoes. Nonetheless there are hail storms. Here is a 25 second video of hail in Kenya: https://youtu.be/ObaNkcKLhPo. We get a hail storm usually once or twice a year and they can be extremely destructive to crops. If it comes at the time when the beans are flowering, all the flowers are removed by the hail and no beans are produced. This happened at the refugee in camp where I was in 1964-65. We recently had a big hail storm here at our plot in Lumakanda and it shredded the leaves of big leaf crops. At other times high winds can blow over the tall maize stalks and torrential rains can lead to extensive erosion and mud slides which can be deadly.
- Weeds, insects and diseases: Since there is no frozen time of the year here in Kenya like in the North America and Europe, during the dry season weeds continue to grow, insects multiply, and plant diseases are all ready to pounce on the newly planted crops.
The latest problem is that in the last few years the army worm imported from the United States, which loves maize but will eat other crops, has invaded most of sub-Saharan Africa and is spreading rapidly, including here in Kenya. Farmers need to learn how to deal with the army worm and the plant pathologists need to develop resistant varieties of crops. There is always more to do in the battle between the farmers and their “enemies.”
The small scale farmer needs to know how to respond to all these threats to a bountiful harvest. There are many strategies to do this and the small scale farmer must be well versed in the possibilities. Small scale farming is not an easy occupation and requires a great deal of knowledge and experience.
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