EXTENDING THE REACH
I returned from a day in the field with Kenyan smallholder farmers last week to find these words from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as the Newsbrief’s Quote of the Week:
“As I travel around the world talking about American agriculture, the one thing that has struck me is how jealous the rest of the world is about extension, how they would love to have the capacity that we have in this country and often, unfortunately, take for granted, of the ability to reach out and gain very useful information and insights to improve productivity.”
Exactly, I thought.
Secretary Vilsack’s quote continued:
We are trying to replicate that around the world. For global supplies to keep pace with global demands originating in emerging markets and to mitigate price volatility, we have got to embrace proven technologies, and extension can help us do that. It's not just biotechnology. It's also conservation tillage. It's drip irrigation. It's multiple cropping practices.
It’s planting seeds, one per hole. And spacing the seeds, and the rows, so the seeds will have room to grow without competition from other seeds for water, sun and soil nutrients.
It’s very basic knowledge like this, common practices among backyard gardeners everywhere in the rich world. But it was news to the farmers of western Kenya when Kennedy Wafula came by their farms with advice on how to plant to get better harvests.
He produced a piece of string with a knot tied every 25 centimeters. “Twenty-five. This is the distance between plants,” he told a group of farmers gathered under a big shade tree. “How far?”
“Twenty-five,” they shouted in unison.
He waved a stick that was 75 centimeters long. “Seventy-five,” Kennedy said. “That is the distance between rows.”
“Seventy-five,” the farmers repeated.
Kennedy explained, “You dig a hole every 25 centimeters and put in one seed. Only one seed, so there is no competition between many seeds for the fertilizer and water and sun.”
Kennedy led the farmers to a small plot of land to practice the measuring and the preparation. As farmer Geoffrey Sitata followed, I asked him how he traditionally planted. “No measurement, we just scatter the seed,” he said. He made a motion with his right hand, as if throwing dice or tossing feed to chickens. That’s how he planted, scattering a fistful of precious seed willy-nilly. That’s how everybody planted. Nobody had ever come by the farm and told them there was a better, more productive way to do it.
Until Kennedy, a field manager for the One Acre Fund, stopped by. The One Acre Fund is an organization founded by American social entrepreneurs that works with 55,000 farm families in Kenya and Rwanda. One Acre’s main mission is to distribute to Africa’s farmers the simple technology and practical advice that have existed for decades but nobody ever bothered to deliver to African smallholder farmers. The result is that African yields for maize, wheat, rice and other staple crops lag far behind yields in the rich world. And that hunger and malnutrition blanket the African countryside. One Acre farmers are typically able to double or triple maize yields in one year.
Kennedy calls One Acre’s simple sequence of planting practices the “Obama method,” for the American president who is highly revered in western Kenya, where Barack Obama’s father grew up on a small farm. It is also appropriate in another way, for President Obama has made ending hunger through agriculture development a prime pillar of his foreign policy. His Feed the Future Initiative especially seeks to help Africa’s smallholder farmers by creating the conditions for them to be as productive as possible to feed their families, their communities and their countries.
Secretary Vilsack continued to tell those gathered at the USDA Forum in Washington last week:
There are a variety of ways in which we can help the world do a better job of providing food to a growing population. So there are serious opportunities here for the United States to provide leadership, and we are prepared to do that.”
Extending the knowledge of successful agriculture practices is one of those opportunities. Kenyan farmers often tell me, “Knowledge is power.” That is one form of power Africa is happy to see the U.S. wield.