By Isaac Paul
If I wasn’t a fan of conservation agriculture before I left Iowa, I am now. Four months ago, I packed my bags and flew to Ghana, West Africa, to work with farmers to help them better feed their families. The farmers I’ve met are not so different from Iowa farmers: hardworking, caretakers of the land, seeking to provide for their children in the best way they can. They say: “Nyame Adom me HoyE,” which means, “By God's grace I am fine.”
I arrived in Ghana during “Harmattan,” the dry season, but there was plenty of work to do. I was posted at Self-Help International’s Young Adult Training Center (YATC), which assists young small-holder farmers to grow more and better food, so they may make a profit to improve their lives while contributing to the food supply. There is a growing problem in Ghana with youth leaving the rural areas to seek jobs in cities. When they can’t find work, they fall into problems with drugs, gangs and violence. If they could earn a living in their rural communities, they wouldn’t have to leave their families.
The trainings and services we offer at the YATC are constantly evolving to best serve and empower young farmers. Similar to Extension in Iowa, we assist farmers by making technical knowledge available in the areas of small animal husbandry and crop cultivation. Offering free technical knowledge allows farmers to seek help in improving productivity or entering into a new enterprise. For farmers who wish to expand into new enterprises, we offer tools for startup, such as lending animals for initial breeding stock and providing inputs for the first cycle of crop cultivation.
The farmers we serve are living in poverty
I’ve had many opportunities to put my Farm Business Management degree from Muscatine Community College to use by offering new training sessions on small-business management and conducting follow-up visits to observe progress.
Things like recordkeeping and determining profit and loss are important practices for all farmers of any scale, but day-to-day life is a bit different here than in Iowa. As we go out to the fields to weed each day, I sure miss tractors and implements. Not all the technology we have back home is available here in Ghana, and even when it is, we don’t always use it. While the local staff is well aware of how much easier machinery would make planting season, we still plant by hand.
The farmers we serve are living in extreme poverty, on about $2 per day. They’re cultivating only a few acres of land, and most of what they raise goes to feed the family. If they have surplus, they sell it at the market for additional income. Few can afford to rent machinery, let alone buy it. We look forward to the day that the farmers we serve move from subsistence farmers to small-holders (or even large-holders). For now, we cultivate our demonstration plots the same way our clients do: doing most of the labor by hand. Despite these differences, just like in Iowa, conservation agriculture is finding its way into the daily lives of farmers around the world.
Need better soil fertility, conservation practices
Farmers in Ghana face many challenges, one being that land available for cultivation is diminishing and the fertility of available land is rapidly declining. Degradation of land is the result of generations of conventional tillage and planting crops that mine the soil. By adopting conservation agriculture practices, soil fertility can be rebuilt. I saw firsthand the difference on my first day of planting in Ghana.
It’s common among farmers in Ghana to practice slash and burn. But at the training center, we leave crop residues on the soil after harvest as opposed to clearing the land and burning the residue. Residue coverage helps to maintain soil health by reducing evaporation, thus keeping the soil moist and cool. Residue serves a food source for soil microorganisms that help maintain soil structure. Leaving residue on the field means that it will not be burned, which results in the reduction of carbon emissions.
Promote reduced tillage, no-till, crop residue
When I first arrived in Ghana, we covered some land that had not previously been cultivated with organic waste including paper, food scraps and plant residue. A few months later we walked along the rows with our cutlasses planting seed, and I couldn't help but admire how much that waste had transformed the soil. The land was filled with beautiful earthworms working away to improve soil structure, nutrient availability and productivity. The soil was rich and easy to plant in. It was a big contrast from just 10 feet away where we had not covered the ground with waste, and the soil was dry and compact. Such a simple, affordable practice can be the difference between a farmer who can feed the whole family all year — or not.
LEARNING: Training sessions sponsored by Self-Help in West Africa draw men and women of all ages, eager to learn improved farming practices.
At YATC, we’re also promoting the reduction of tillage or switching to a no-till system. Farming here is labor-intensive, and farmers often rely on help from family members, or hiring labor if they can afford it. Reducing or eliminating tillage saves farmers time and money. That means their children have more time to focus on school work instead of working in fields, and it frees up funds to pay for their children to go to high school, maybe even college. When land is tilled conventionally, a porous structure that assists in air and water movement is destroyed. Switching to no-till improves soil fertility and yields, so there is more food for the family throughout the year.
Demo plots show farmers how to improve
We use these demonstration plots to show, not tell, farmers how these practices can help them grow more food. We plant a diverse variety of crops and practice crop rotation on the plots, too. Crops like corn — called maize in Ghana — mine the soil and do not add nutrients. Legume crops like mucuna, cowpea (black-eyed pea) and groundnut (peanuts) can be grown intercropped or planted as individuals for crop rotation and will effectively fix nitrogen in the soil in addition to providing food to eat. By intercropping, farmers are able to increase land efficiency and food production, control weeds, decrease evaporation, enrich the soil, and reduce runoff and erosion.
Most recently, we went to the village of Bedaabour to plant demonstration plots near the local school for all to see. Self-Help was already partnering with this community to implement a school feeding program to improve child nutrition, and some of the local farmers had already completed our training on improved agricultural practices. In the first season after completing our training, they doubled their yields thanks to those improved practices.
Growing high-protein corn for human food
The farmers and Parent-Teacher Association members are now cultivating high-protein corn called quality protein maize (QPM), which is used in the school feeding program. QPM boasts 15% digestible protein as compared to traditional yellow dent corn that has 8% crude protein and isn’t necessarily digestible for humans. Through this partnership, children who may or may not have gotten a morning meal before are now going to school and getting a breakfast porridge that’s full of the protein their growing brains need each day.
This particular trial was designed to show farmers how to increase land potential and how to control weeds with intercrop canopy. The four demonstration plots contained QPM planted without a cover crop, QPM planted with green gram (a small pulse crop), QPM with cowpea and QPM with groundnut. The latter two cover crops can be harvested and mixed into the school porridge for even further added nutrition and ensure the kids are able to get the nutrients they need to reach their biological potential.
Days like these are my favorite. I love the opportunity to go to rural communities and meet farmers; they are the heart of Ghana. As an Iowan, I’m so proud of how we grow the food that feeds the world, and how Iowans are partnering with Self-Help to help struggling farm families around the world to better feed themselves. Today, farmers are growing more food and more nutritious food. Through these improved practices, we’re alleviating hunger by helping people help themselves.
Paul is from Muscatine in southeast Iowa. He took a six-month leave of absence from employment at Trioak Foods in Oakville to serve as a full-time volunteer with Self-Help International’s Young Adult Training Center in Ghana, West Africa. Learn more about Self-Help International at selfhelpinternational.org.