humour

Farming Fail turns fiasco: attempt 3

Posted on

After our first attempt belly-flopped, Paul (a member farmer) invited me to chew it over in his carpentry workshop. I listened, ankle deep in wood shavings.

“The farmers from our church are not serious farmers. They have other work, like me! Their farms are all far away from each other, so they struggle to think collectively. In my home village, I have over 60 farmers who want to join us. They are so poor. Farming is their ONLY livelihood, and their farms are all side-by-side, they can see when each other plants, weeds, harvests. They need this. They will work together.”

A week later I found myself cycling behind Paul and our chairman Ocen along Juba Road, passing scattered huts, spiky tuku trees, the odd sunflower field, under Gulu’s glorious domed sky. An hour and a half later, we arrived in Jimo village. My eyes opened wide – within half an hour 66 people materialized under the designated mango tree. Paul nodded happily. Ocen lead a brief bible study on forgiveness, which bizarrely prompted a public reconciliation between two ladies who had been fighting over a goat-crop eating incident.

We explained the seed loan system, then fielded the usual flood of questions. So the seeds aren’t free? Why? What about free Cows? Hoes? Tarpaulins? We explained this is a cooperative, not an NGO. 59 farmers signed up, appointed some key leaders, and promised to bring their membership fees when we convened in 2 months to prepare for the planting season.

And so, we found ourselves starting a new group in Jimo (attempt 3) at the same time we launched attempt 2 with our church farmers. Proper rural, full-time farmers, larger scale, one location…I had a good feeling about it. Take note: feelings are misleading.

 Drum roll……..what happened?

We biked out again 2 months later with 59 maize seed loan forms. We waited for hours under the mango tree. No one. Just the odd goat. I went back to Paul, trying to find out what happened. Turned out a lot of people lost interest after finding out there weren’t any freebies involved. But Paul insisted we should give it another shot, there are some who are keen. The next week, after waiting over an hour, 6 farmers came with their membership fees, and filled out seed forms, and discussed our game plan. Fine. Lets start smaller. Training day went well. But when I went back to measure the spacing between rows and plants I found all the advice had been ignored. The spacing was huge and irregular. Why? The seed had been given to their children to plant. Go figure. I had to leave for NZ just before storage time. We located a small store in Jimo, and I left the group’s leader with group money to pay the rent and the ‘permethrin dust’ to protect the maize from weevils. I returned from NZ, and called our Jimo leader, who called a group meeting. I biked out…and yet again, just me and the goats. I wandered around, and eventually found a young guy who offered to jump on my bike and round up the members of the group. He located everyone but the leader, who was nowhere to be found. The leader had not told the other farmers about the meeting…. In fact he hadn’t communicated anything to them in a long time. No one had brought any maize to the store. Yet again, they sold the maize early. None of the farmers from Jimo have repaid their seed loan. They’ve told me they will pay it in August when their next crops are ready. I visited our treasurer from the original church group to check our account balance. She told me she had ‘borrowed’ the money to complete construction of her house.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. We have entered into the realm of a fiasco.

Why the fiasco?

If we try again, we would plant chili or ginger. Lucrative crops that are not eaten in bulk and have an external market. Would that make all the difference? Perhaps.

But there is a deeper problem. Ultimately, most farmers here believe ‘farming groups’ are primarily about accessing free stuff, rather than working together to increase profits. Our group must have been viewed as a fairly lame- nothing free, just a loan. There was very little interest in improving planting methods, little interest in collective storage and sale.

I’m aware there are plenty of farming projects in Gulu, run by NGOs, not by farmers themselves. The farmers receive free seeds, free fertilizer. Often, the NGO itself collects the crop, stores and sells it. If they leave or end the project (which, at some point, they will), will those farmers be able to run the show by themselves? I’m dubious, but oh so very eager to be proved wrong.

That, my friends, is an abbreviated but true account of my fumblings in farming to date. Will there be an attempt 4? To be honest, I’m not sure. If there is, it will look radically different. I’ll keep you posted.

Farming Fails: Attempt 2

Posted on

I crawled out of the fetal position, shook off my frustration, drank some jasmine tea, prayed a little prayer of perseverance, and dived into mission farming cooperative, take two. Early 2015. The group chose to stick with the familiar and plant maize again, rather than embark on a new crop.

What did we do differently this time? Essentially, 3 things:

We got brutal. Remember, in attempt 1, farmers with far flung farms failed to bring their produce to the central store- transport was too costly and tricky. This time, we set a boundary of 5km. Any farmers with land beyond the boundary had to rent land close by, or leave the group. Rough, I know. We whittled down to just 7 farmers. Secure good seeds. This time round, we approached a big company ourselves. I got seed samples early, planted them in little boxes and tested the germination rate. I made the company sign an agreement to compensate us if their seeds failed to germinate as well as their sample. Simple training No need to sit looking at diagrams on a blackboard. We just got some rope, some hoes, some seeds and went out and practiced measuring spacing between seeds, between rows, and seed depth. Easy. We emphasized the main thing was working together- planting together, committing to bring the crop for collective storage and sale.

 The results? 

Well, we got a brilliant seed deal, that’s for sure. The correct hybrid variety seeds arrived on time, they germinated perfectly. We bargained a great price. No complaints there. But when it came to the crunch, would our farmers bring their produce for collective sale?

*failed computer game sound effect*

Nick faithfully brought his maize- and brought a lot of it, having decided to experiment with upscaling his farming hobby. He brought 20 sacks. Another member, Margaret brought one plump sack. What about the others? It was hard to get a clear answer. Transporting produce was no longer a factor. But ultimately, farmers were still tempted by short term benefits- immediate food, and immediate sale in small amounts to go towards household needs, school fees. Its understandable. But the farmers who sold it immediately got 400 Shillings (20 NZ cents) per Kg. We stored Nick and Margaret’s maize for four months, and sold it for 800 Shillings per Kg. Thats a huge difference in profit margin!

The ultimate sinking realization from attempt 2:

If the goal is making better profits for farmers don’t farm something that can be eaten, or sold easily on the local market like beans, maize, or millet. Its just too tempting to sell it early, even if it compromises the groups whole plan. Go for something that is not eaten in bulk locally. Something a bit pricier, sold elsewhere in bulk to other parts of Uganda, Kenya, or beyond. Such as:  chili peppers, ginger, onions.

Next installment: attempt 3.

Farming Fails: Attempt 1

Posted on

The time has come to document a bit of a disaster…

“Farming. We all farm, but we are struggling. We need a farming group, so we can make bigger profit.” The words of Ocen, one of the members of our local church who convinced me we needed to start a farming cooperative in 2014.

Our fledgling group voted, and in response to overwhelmingly enthusiasm, I started researching cooperative farming. It seemed straight forward enough. Cooperative farming is successful in Tanzania, Kenya, and other parts of Uganda. Essentially, you acquire good seed as a group, train up on best methods, then each member farmer plants, weeds, harvests and processes at approximately the same time, brings their produce to a central store where it is kept until prices are high, then sold collectively. If you farm by yourself, you can’t afford to hire a store to save it till there is a shortage, and you wont have enough maize to interest a big buyer. If you do it collectively, BOOM. Higher profits.

I’ve tried for three seasons. Behold, attempt number one:

Suburban farmers from our church

20 farmers from our church signed up, including Nick. Members insisted on writing a constitution, and appointing a full executive committee. They paid a membership fee ($5 NZ). We decided to have weekly bible studies and monthly meetings. A church in NZ donated some capital for a ‘seed loan,’ to be paid back to the farmers group when the crop is sold. We ordered a hybrid seed from a local supplier. When we opened the seed bags, we discovered we had been supplied the wrong variety- a much cheaper seed. The local supplier refused to refund the difference, and the group refused to take him to the police, because they feared the corrupt police would also want payment. Despite our agreement to plant within a few weeks of each other, the last farmer planted over a month and a half after the first farmer. Because we planted at different times, our farmers also harvested and started processing (picking the kernels off the cob, drying in the sun, winnowing) at different times. We rented a store, ready to receive the maize. Nick was the first to bring his sacks. We expected 3 sacks. from each farmer. One farmer called Julian brought 4 sacks (hallelujah!). Nick brought 3 sacks. Three ladies brought 1 sack. Three farmers brought half a sack each. This all took several months. Out of 20 farmers, 12 brought nothing. There was not enough maize to make it cost effective to fumigate it and store it till prices rose. We sold it immediately before weevils could eat any more, and distributed the profit (minus the seed cost) to those who brought produce. Because 12 farmers didn’t bring any produce, suddenly I became a debt collector. 4 months and many wasted hours later, 7 farmers returned the loan. Almost 2 years on, 5 have still not paid.

Why the epic fail? 

So there were some small fails. It became obvious we needed to test seed samples before buying, and never to trust intermediary suppliers. Maybe our first failure could give us the jolt we need to actually get organised and plant at the same time.

But there were also some epic fails. At the beginning, we mapped out the location of all the farmers land. They were spread far and wide. I asked, will it really be cost effective to bring our produce to a central store? “Sure, yes, why not!” was the answer. “We’ll just hail down a passing truck, and pay a small amount to chuck our sacks on the back.”

None of the farmers with further flung farms brought any produce. It was too expensive and logistically tricky to transport it. It was much more tempting to eat the maize, and sell small amounts to get money fast.

With this in mind, we planned attempt 2. Hold your breath for the next installment.

The Escaping Rat

Posted on

Earlier this month Carol Roger, currently in Papua New Guinea, shared the following. 

I cannot believe April has passed already. I have experienced a non commercial Christ centered Easter with reenactments, church services daily Thursday to Sunday and outreaches in front of the hospital here. On Sunday there was a dawn service with Barbara running the around the village calling “He is risen” and people quickly joining her. These people are great musicians, wonderful at drama and at the second Sunday service celebrated with face painting crosses and hearts, balloons, pancakes and cordial and then a joyful glorifying service to our risen Lord. Not an Easter egg in sight.

The rats, I am happy to say, have not been as bad as expected. But alas the other night at 5am we caught one in the live trap (as they escape other ones). I managed to pick up the trap and carry it to the verandah ready to drown it in the bucket – I was feeling all churned up inside. Segana got up said “Here, I will do it.” In the 5am confusion I thought she said “How do you open it?” I said, “No, don’t let it out”, and put my hand out knocking the opening. The rat leapt joyfully out and over the balcony. Since then rats have been heard but not seen and said cage remains set but empty. God has helped me, and my fear of rats has lessened but as yet I see no positives in having rats in the village.

Although there is a lot of English spoken here some things get confused. When helping Rosa with tea I looked at the vege and said “I don’t like pacpac“. She was rocking with laughter and then informed me it was pitpit (not sure of the spelling) and pacpac was poo. We both have a giggle now when she is cooking it for tea.