A little bit of everything equals diversity. Diversity, say agroecologists worldwide, is key to resilience. And resilience, as we all know, is what’s required to cope with and adapt to changing weather patterns.
Large-scale agriculture, mechanized agriculture, industrial agriculture, modern agriculture, Monsanto inspired agriculture; however you wanna call it, I’m talking ‘bout the fields and fields of a one-crop racehorse kind of agriculture. That kind of agriculture, the kind that is a singular, simplified system lacks diversity and is not resilient.
And it’s already in trouble, in fact.
Corn production, for example, in the USA increased in recent years, thanks to the global thirst for biofuel and as a result, in four US Midwest states, the lowland biodiversity has decreased and with that decrease has come a 24% reduction in natural pest management, aka: the good bugs that take out the bad bugs. The bad bugs had a hay-day on those monocultures of maize. Farmers brought out the big guns: pesticides and insecticides. Their choice of “control” however, has only led to the continual contamination of streams, rivers and groundwater. Quick-fix solutions lead to larger, more complex problems.
Unsurprisingly, agroecologists, including Miguel A. Altieri, are pointing out the much humbler (though far more complex and interconnected) efforts of small farmers and their polycrop (multiple crop) systems as far more resilient and adaptive to climate change.
I love this quote from Altieri’s recent publication, Strengthening Resilience of Modern Farming Systems: A Key Prerequisite for Sustainable Agricultural Production in an Era of Climate Change:
“The stubborn persistence of millions of hectares under traditional farming is living proof of a successful indigenous agricultural strategy and constitutes a tribute to the “creativity” of small farmers throughout the developing world (Wilken 1987).
Today, well into the second decade of the 21st century, there are millions of smallholders, family farmers and indigenous people practicing resource-conserving farming which is testament to the remarkable resilience of agroecosystems in the face of continuous environmental and economic change, while contributing substantially to agrobiodiversity conservation and food security at local, regional and national levels.”
Last year I applied for a Masters program in Agroecology: the study of sustainable food and fibre production within specific environments, cultures and ecologies.
The anthropologist in me liked agroecology’s approach to food production.
Agroecology does not prescribe single solutions to ecological or agriculture questions or problems; instead, it seeks to recognize that each locale or region is going to have different sustainability issues. Agroecology, obviously, recognizes that smallholder and subsistence farmers, or indigenous farmers, aren’t development ‘beneficiaries’ but rather experts of their own ecological and cultural domains.
I was accepted into my Masters program, but after a few months living and working in Uganda, I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be in order to learn the way I wanted to learn: not in the classroom, but in the garden, and not listening to the theories of academics, but to the experienced voices and perspectives of farmers.
The result of these practical experiences has given me the opportunity not only to learn about agroecology, but also to live it. I may not have a Masters title beside my name, but I have a garden that feeds the physical and spiritual me, and a creative writing project inspired by women farmers that’s challenging the intellectual me.
Inside my garden, I’ve been tested by environmental conditions, including: drought, flooding, pests and plagues. I’ve experimented with different seeds, methods of planting and building organic soil and deterring different pests. Diversity, I’ve learned by trial and error, is key to building a stronger, more resilient system and to building a better farmer, too. Once your system is established, it also saves you time and energy, too.
Growing a garden is kind of like raising a kid (kind of, okay): with the right guidance, a child learns how to be independent and take care of itself. Gardens aren’t so different.
Below is a handful of photographic notes from my lessons in “un poco de todo” – what I like to call “a little bit of everything agriculture”. I hope you enjoy.
We are growing over thirty kinds of fruits, vegetables, grains, fibres, herbs and animals in our integrated garden — on less than 1/4 acre of land. That pays off in distracting insects from particular crops, not to mention the harvest is pretty exciting!
It doesn’t take for the tree to bear fruit. Twelve months ago we started tree tomatoes (tree growing passion fruits) from seed. From one tree tomato, germinated over twenty more. Today the trees are over 7 feet tall and producing dozens of tomatoes. They are also helping us establish an agroforestry system — growing perennials with annuals.
Holy cuteness, right? Yup, not only do I draw the satisfaction of raising an animal that produces an enormous amount of ‘ready to apply to the garden’ manure, not to mention a meat source, but rabbits up the happiness-level ten-fold, especially after they’re born! Raising small animals is essential in agroecology — small-scale, of course.
Chickpeas are also fuzzy and cute. This is my first time growing them in southwestern Uganda — the seeds are originally from India via Afghanistan via Salt Spring Island, Canada, where I purchased them from Salt Spring Seeds in early March. We love to experiment in the garden. We grew these chickpeas small-scale, only twenty plants maximum, and in two different areas of the garden (one sun with shade, and one full sun) and it’s been interesting to see their progression. Farmers are scientists, too, planting new seeds small-scale to see how they do in particular microclimates.
What didn’t take to Ugandan soils this season was my very own Canadian barley. Maybe you’ll laugh at me — Canadian barley in Sub-Saharan Africa?! But honestly, the dry season in Kabale isn’t unlike a Canadian prairie summer and planting season. Warm days, cool nights and a smattering of rain. Unfortunately, we planted the seeds around two weeks too late — and missed most of the rain that we needed. Our harvest was meagre to say the very least! Live and learn. Next time!
We’re now harvesting a kilo of oyster mushrooms from our “closet” and eating a handful of mushroom inspired recipes at least three to four times a week! Mushrooms have allowed us to extend our garden, literally, into our home where we grow the mycelium-packed seeds in a raised bed. It’s no sweat off our backs to cultivate mushrooms: water twice a day, “weed” by picking off the dried/dead mushies. After three months’ worth of harvesting, we’ll throw the old mushroom substrate into our compost.
Small farmers are really good at what they do: growing food in small places! How can we maximize food production in a small space? Use vertical space! Farmers in southwestern Uganda have opted from low-lying traditional bean seeds for climbing bean seeds, which originated in Rwanda. We’ve intercropped Rwanda bean seeds with Canadian purple pole beans, which are truly taking a liking to Ugandan soils. We can’t wait to save their seeds and plant again in the plenty come the rainy season.
We’re growing quinoa very small-scale — just for experimentation! The ten crops we have did well, though we’ll likely only harvest a cup of quinoa. We’ll try to save the seed and plant again in the rainy season. Quinoa, of course, is a South American born staple grain crop. Foodies in Western countries are obsessed with quinoa — a grain that contains carbs and proteins! I brought the seed from Canada with thoughts about malnutrition on my mind. In southwestern Uganda, protein deficiency is a major problem.
From a single gooseberry fruit — a small orange fruit berry that packs a sweet and sour Vitamin C punch — we planted the seeds and eventually transplanted around forty seedlings into our garden. Today our gooseberry fruit orchard is taking care of itself. The fruits drop and rot under the plant’s long, winding arms and regenerate themselves into seedlings. We’re harvesting bagfuls of gooseberries everyday! Can’t keep up.
Growing food satisfies so much more than hunger — unless we define “hunger” in other terms, like emotional or spiritual hunger. Somedays, in fact, I do feel hungry to spend time in the garden, or orchard, pruning, weeding, watering and harvesting.
It’s a spiritual place for me, where I give and take, where I observe birds, insects and other critters drawn to the biodiversity, and where I have the opportunity to bring other people into my world, too. It’s already become a place of learning, sharing, teaching and experimenting! It’s taught me a great deal about what it takes to dedicate yourself to a piece of land, to try and give back as much as you harvest and take, and to appreciate, in practice, what biodiversity really means! Resilience!
Thanks for listening!