Getting to the root of ending global hunger

Wednesday, October 30, 2019
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If we run out of water, we pray for rain. If we run out of soil, pray for forgiveness.”

Old Nebraskan saying
“I was surprised to hear Canadian farmers didn’t know a lot about intercropping. In my country, everyone has to intercrop because the land is so small,” says Regina Kamau, who works in Kenya with a local partner of Mennonite Central Committee Canada. (Photo: Shaylyn McMahon)

While farmers around the world have many different experiences, there’s one thing they all have in common: farmers need healthy soil to do their job.

This rang true as producers from all walks of life joined together in Carman, Manitoba this past summer. Canadian farmers, agronomists and others interested in soil health and global hunger joined six agronomists from East Africa to share their experiences with farming and learn from each other.

Throughout the two-day forum, participants posed, pondered and answered the same question: what does your relationship with soil look like?

“When I farm, I think about my children. Will they be able to farm this land when they’re older?” asks John Mbae, a Foodgrains Bank agricultural specialist working with small-scale farmers in Kenya.

“Soil is lifegiving. I make my living off the land, so to say it’s lifegiving is not an exaggeration at all,” says Manitoba farmer Doug Dyck.

We don’t have anything if we don’t take care of the soil. It’s not ours, it’s our children’s.”

“We don’t have anything if we don’t take care of the soil. It’s not ours, it’s our children’s. To make our future better, we need to take care of the soil,” reflects Sisay Kasu, who works with farmers in Ethiopia through Foodgrains Bank member Mennonite Central Committee Canada.

Sharing experiences from around the world

“It’s a sharing of insight, and I wanted to hear what the international agronomists were saying to compare notes. It never hurts to hear other perspectives,” says Doug, who provides leadership to the CHUM growing project near Plum Coulee.

The six visiting agronomists talked about their work with small-scale farmers in Ethiopia and Kenya and how conservation agriculture techniques are helping farmers grow more food for their families. Many of these farmers experience erratic weather patterns and depleted soil, and they often farm with five acres of land or less. Conservation agriculture can help ease some of these burdens.

“We aren’t trying to train farmers, we try to facilitate them. We don’t prescribe. We enable farmers to make their own decisions. We let them experiment and continue farming. They see from their own experiences what works,” says John.

“Most Canadian farmers were amazed that over 65,000 farmers are being reached through the Foodgrains Bank program in East Africa. Many of these farmers had been receiving relief food but now through the conservation agriculture project they are able to grow their own food and generate income from surplus produce.”

Sisay Kasu, John Mbae and Wangui Gitau inspect a soil sample with River Plains growing project members Garth Weiterman and Glen Erlandson near Outlook, Saskatchewan. Sisay, John and Wangui visited with Foodgrains Bank supporters in Saskatchewan in July before heading to Carman. (Photo: Smith & Co. Photography)

One of the practices being encouraged is intercropping, which promotes growing two crops together on the same plot of land. Intercropping helps protect against crop failure, suppresses weed growth and encourages biodiversity. “I was surprised to hear Canadian farmers didn’t know a lot about intercropping. In my country, everyone has to intercrop because the land is so small,” says Regina Kamau, who works with farmers in Kenya through a local partner of Mennonite Central Committee Canada.

Lana Shaw manages a research farm near Redvers, Saskatchewan that explores intercropping in the Canadian context. “I wanted to learn more from the African agronomists, and to understand the relationships between what I’m trying to do and what they’re trying to do,” she says. “It’s a completely different environment but there are some similarities.”

For instance, no matter where you are in the world, change can be difficult—especially if that change means trying a new farming technique that affects someone’s livelihood and ability to feed their family.

“We assume people make changes on a purely rational, scientific basis, but it’s a much more complicated, human interaction and decision-making process,” says Lana. “I found it useful to hear how the agronomists in Kenya and Ethiopia facilitate change because it’s not something we really talk about in farming.”

Ensuring productive land for the long term

“Canadian farmers can stay hesitant until they are convinced of change—same with our farmers,” says Mesfin Mathewos, who works with a local partner of Foodgrains Bank member Tearfund Canada in Ethiopia. “But Canadian farmers have more education, knowledge and information. Our farmers learn from their ancestors. They rely on what farmers have done for years, which can be harmful to soils.”

Mesfin Mathewos demonstrates how farmers in Ethiopia might use a traditional hoe to farm, including to remove weeds or harvest root crops. (Photo: Shaylyn McMahon)

Working with small-scale farmers to improve their soil health takes time. It takes relationship building, experimenting, knowledge sharing and more. “Challenges open up room for innovation,” says Wangui Gitau, who works with farmers in Kenya through Foodgrains Bank member World Renew. “We are experiencing challenges on food security right now, but we can adopt technologies such as conservation agriculture that will address these challenges.”

“If we aren’t good stewards of the land we have, we will have nothing. When I look at stewardship, I look at protecting, taking care and multiplying. This was a great opportunity to meet Foodgrains Bank supporters to share in person how they have made an impact on small-scale farmers in Kenya. Together we can use our available expertise and resources to ensure food security in our countries”

You can help small-scale farmers in developing countries by making a gift today.

Foodgrains Bank-supported projects through the Scaling-Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa program are implemented through Mennonite Central Committee Canada, Tearfund Canada and World Renew with financial support from the Government of Canada.

—Shaylyn McMahon, Communications Coordinator

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