Friday, January 28, 2011

What I've been up to #2: Farming Farming

For as many generations as we can recall, the Krautmann family has been, first and foremost, a family of farmers. From mY father and grandfather to my great grandpa, all the way back to the very first fresh-off-the-boat Krautmann who ever set foot in central Missouri, little Krautmann kids have always grown up digging post holes, tending gardens, raising animals, and generally causing trouble. It's like a rite of passage into Krautmannhood. But alas, most of us from my generation have thrown off this mantle, and it pains me greatly. So under the guise of promoting food security and land conservation in my village (of course my real motivation is to assuage my guilt at having shirked my family heritage for so long), I decided to try my hand at a small conservation farming plot this upcoming rainy season.

Farming in Northern Zambia is traditionally done by hand. The farmer
s' tool of choice - a large hoe - is perhaps the most badass earth-moving hand tool I've ever encountered (Why they haven't yet been marketed in America is beyond me). The blade is the size of a large shovel blade and weighs 4 - 5 pounds by itself (mine is allegedly hewn from a hunk of 3/16" municipal storm drain). And then it's attached to a four-foot long baseball bat of a handle. It takes a bit of effort to get the thing moving, but the benefit is that it easily cuts through inch-thick saplings, six-foot tall clumps of grass, and whatever else you might encounter while digging. For most farmers here, a hoe and a small axe are the only farming tools they need to own.

Unfortunately Zambian farming techniques aren't quite as advanced as their weaponry. Northern Zambians traditionally employ a shifting slash-and-burn system (called "chitemene") that involves clearing and burning a plot of land, planting an indigenous crop like millet or sorghum for 4-5 years (until the soil is thoroughly depleted), and then moving to a new plot while letting the old one lie fallow. Because the native foliage gives little back to the soil, most of these fields must lie fallow for 40-50 years to regain their former fertility, So for the chitemene system to be sustainable each farmer must own a huge chunk of land (since he's only farming 10% of it at any given time), but the population of Northern Zambia has already far exceeded the level that this system can realistically support. If that weren't bad enough, farmers have now ditched their native millet and sorghum in favor of crops like maize, which have an even bigger nutrient requirement. As a result, Zambia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, faces huge problems with soil erosion, and has average crop yields well below what should be achievable.

Luckily a few small tweaks from the pages of Western organic farming can dramatically improve the situation:
- Intentionally rotating crops (e.g. planting maize on last year's legume field) can create soil with more balanced nutrient levels.
- Planting an improved fallow crop on unused fields can leave them good as new in as little as 3-4 years.
- Adding in natural fertilizers like animal manure, wood ash, and charcoal dust can improve soil structure and fertility over time.
- Using trees, hedges, and last year's leftover crop residues to help combat soil erosion

These are the techniques I'm trying out on my own little 25m x 25m plot next to my house (Though my aching arms and back might argue that "little" is a relative term!) My neighbors helped me collect sackfuls of ash and cow manure, which we've carefully buried in the middle of each planting ridge. We've portioned out a section for Maize, a section for peanuts, and a third portion TBD, with nice tephrosia hedges separating and surrounding each. Just planted the maize earlier this week after the first few heavy rains of the season.

The newly prepped field ready to plant

Hopefully this little experiment will go well, stay tuned for more results!


  1. Wow, you've done some serious digging and work since we were there. That is one mighty hoe! May you have a bountiful harvest!

  2. Whoa!!
    You are like John Henry swinging his sledgehammer with that hoe of yours!!
    Very impressive.
    And when you are swinging that hoe don't doubt for a SECOND that we didn't see the GUN SHOW!!! YEAH!!!!!
    Keep up the hard work!!

    Mark Loehrke