Saturday 11 October 2014

The Microfarm and “Development”

 So you have visited the website and now ask: What Next?

Consider this: we don’t talk about making poor people rich; that’s too crude. We do talk about improving their lives using the generic term “Development”. That is: there is more to it than just money. It is the quality of their lives we (should) want to be improving. I can think of three principal ways in which we can do this:

1. The conventional way. Foreign Aid: Government departments of “international development”, NGOs, and now Big Biz. These are supposed to work increasingly together to “create that rising tide [of prosperity] that raises all the boats” with Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation, Monsanto, Unilever and even the booze giant Diageo being just the iceberg tip here. But the tide may not rise enough so some boats don’t get away and when the tide goes out, some are stuck so fast in the mud that they don’t float any more.

2. Hand-outs: Rubbished by our leaders who, perhaps, have never needed one or have forgotten Marshall Aid to Europe in the 1940s, these can work. I once publicly concluded that the Aid invested in my five years work in semi-arid Kenya might have been better spent on air-drops of wheelbarrows. Included here will be school-feeding, child allowances and the proposed Basic Income Grant in S Africa. But on the other hand, it can spawn a culture of entitlement and unrealistic expectation. South Africa is never far from mind in this respect, too.

3. DIY. Create an environment in which “the poor” may become entrepreneurs or small-scale manufacturers or producers of goods. This may be more difficult than it sounds because “the poor” don’t always know where their next meal is coming from so their attention may be distracted from this lofty vision. It may also be subject to barriers that are not immediately visible – as when such producers and manufacturers begin to threaten the business of Big Biz. But, however we dress up the General Theory of Development, it does actually boil down to making people richer in money terms – whether by enabling them to earn more money, or by doing or producing things for themselves that they would otherwise have to spend money on buying. And as we come back to money again, we come back to today’s front-burner issue: inequality. Will the sort of development we promote bring more or less inequality? Read – or re-read – The Spirit Level (see end note).

This may make Method 1, above, unsuitable. Method 2, on the other hand, may be appropriate in countries which are poorer than S Africa (i.e. where expectations have never ever been very high) and fits comfortably with Method 3. It will help with the next meal and so enable the recipients to raise their sights a bit. Let’s go for Methods 2 and 3, and where a country may not be able to afford giving a Basic Income Grant, perhaps such a grant may be targetted – related to some, perhaps modest, act of self-improvement. And this is what leads us onto the concept of The Microfarm as a vehicle for Development. Study the website and you will see how it can fulfil not just the DIY, Method 3, model of development by freeing up cash needed for buying food, but also bring in a number of “community goods” like improved health, waste recycling by putting a utility value on it, flood reduction and better sanitation. However, an early criticism of The Microfarm is that it expects – no, requires – the Microfarmer to actually not only work hard, but to do what is widely considered to be menial work (work done by our grandfathers and grandmothers), especially work which makes us sweat and smell. Worse, this has to be done for quite some months before there is any pay-back at all. So how to convince people to give it a try? Two essential ingredients:

1. Resurrect people’s common sense. Re-kindle an understanding of how the world works without our intervention, how Nature is the world’s biggest recycler (carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle etc), how good health is related to eating fresh, unprocessed foods and plenty of exercise and how soil and water are our most precious limiting resources. More precious than oil or gas.

2. With the return of common sense as our main driver, and to avoid us sinking into a state of abject despair about the sheer awfulness of modern life, we need to get some working models of Microfarms up and running as beacons to show The Way Forward. They must be widely replicable and on high profile sites (not in the middle of a commonage or set of allotment holdings) so that they can become part of popular discourse and, in a way, respectable. This is not quite a chicken-and-egg situation. To focus people’s minds on what is essentially A Good Idea, we first need a Success Story to point it up. So this paper is addressing some of the practicalities of establishing some Working Models.

Establishing Working Models of Microfarms Outline:

1. Create a site “model”. [The model cited here is based on the site of the original Microfarm]

2. Persuade an agency to sign up to this idea and find the appropriate budget

3. Appoint a person who can take the idea forward on the ground by overseeing and directing the establishment of a cluster of working models: the Project Leader

4. Because these models will need intensive direction and supervision, they should be in a fairly compact geographical area. Define this area, enabling the Project Leader to make frequent visits to sites in initial stage.

Site Model:
There is no standard model because of the immense variability of sites – climate, soil type and depth, pattern of human settlement etc. So the proposed model here is based heavily on the one illustrated in the microfarm website. Thus: Semi-arid climate with distinct seasonal variation in temperature and rainfall Minimum area 400 m² Ground diggable to 2m depth for hand-dug hafirs High “visibility”

Start-up – construction up to first rains:
Secure site with fence and (lockable) gate
Erect living quarters for the microfarmer: Small 2-roomed (wooden) house with veranda and lean-to lock-up store room Detached compost toilet Water supply for the microfarmer’s home needs
Dig, line and cover hafir and construct necessary works to ensure flood diversion to fill it
Collect any and all organic waste material from surrounding area for composting/direct application to tilled area
Cultivate first 100 m² Plant/erect shelter belt/fence around site
Plant fruit trees Start seedling nursery

After first rains, water now in hafir: 
Start planting programme for vegetables, using the “little-and-often” rule to ensure succession of a range of veg suited to the season and local interest; could mean planting 2 x 5 m² plots per week. Scale up seedling production if there is local interest in buying them.
Begin scouting for expansion into:
a) Grain production unit – minimum, say, 1,000 m²
b) Fodder production unit – minimum, say, 100 m² Irrigate to full requirement of crops But what will this Full Requirement be?

Water requirement of a food or fodder crop is related to:

• Stage of growth (i.e. transpiring leaf area)

• % ground cover (plants shade/shelter each other)

• Relative humidity

• Wind-speed (humidity gradient in the air immediately above the leaf surface)

• Ambient air temperature.

• Nature of the crop (sorghum requires less water than maize and a deep rooted crop like lucerne can be more tolerant of reduced irrigation.

All of which means that one has to determine a figure that represents an amount of available irrigation water that will, added to the expected rainfall, maintain soil moisture at the optimum level for growth of the crops to be planted at all stages of their lives. Such a figure, I suggest, would be based on class A pan evaporation readings. X 70%. Thus an annual pan total reading of 2,200 mm would indicate an irrigation requirement of roughly 1,500 mm, or 1.5 m³ per m² per year. So a 100 m² vegetable or fodder unit would need a supply of 150 m³ and A 100 m² plot of summer grains on supplementary irrigation would require total class A pan readings for those summer months again x 70%, probably 1,000 mm, or a supply of 100 m³. These are starter figures suggested for budgeting water and which would be modified later in the light of experience.

Record-keeping – yields (incl value at local prices), rainfall, hafir depth, Visitor’s Book, photos,

Expansion into grain production:
Cereals and pulses Plan as a square without plots and access paths
Plant cereal and pulse as an intercrop
Provide supplementary irrigation – i.e. grow as a summer rain-fed crop, planted on first rains
Treat stover (residues) also as a crop – i.e. record its weight as well as the grain
Expansion into fodder production – for milk [assume for cow, but could be, say, a few goats]
Will require access to common grazing – commonage, abandoned lands, cemeteries, “undeveloped” land, river banks etc;
Assumes traditional management of animal(s) – calf runs with mother during day, separated at sunset, morning milking;
Animal(s) fed on harvested stover in addition to daytime grazing

Consider possibility of the microfarmer being able to borrow a cow for the winter…

Kraal/milking facilities: Urine collection – impervious and smooth (but non-slip) carefully sloped floor sloping down to gutter delivering into small tank/barrel for full recovery of urine (cow only, probably not feasible for goat, where urine should be absorbed onto bedding for early composting before nitrogen loss).
Should have roof – not just for comfort for milker or for cold nights, but to ensure that urine collection is not overwhelmed by heavy rain at night
Kraal should be as small as possible – possibly just a stall, but big enough for milking as well- to ensure maximum urine collection

Fodder production: key points
– Choose appropriate, high-yielding cops
Decide on strategy, summer crops preserved (as silage/hay) for winter feeding AND/OR winter crops for daily cutting/pulling and feeding fresh; rotation (possibly summer food crop: winter fodder); mixed planting (legume and …) or monocrop; daily return of urine from night-feeding kraal to recently cut fodder plots to avoid N-loss.

Milk production: key points
– Choose/acquire cow with sufficient milk yield genetic potential to be able to respond directly to an improved plane of nutrition with an increased milk output
Try to arrange for autumn calving for the cow which is to be fed cow so that she will be dried off when the commonage would be expected to start recovering with spring showers

Area required
 – Basis: assume on average that 3 kg of high quality fresh fodder converts to one litre of additional milk production and the cow is fed for 6 months. This would require 183 days x 3 kg = 549 kg, say 600 kg of fresh fodder or silage or 200 kg of hay. But there are major constraints:

• summer fodder crops produce roughly twice as much as winter crops per m² per day,

• making silage on a small scale inevitably incurs a high proportion of waste as well as a higher investment in materials used in the ensiling process (plastic mainly)

• labour requirement for silage-making is high (but for a short period) because the green material usually requires chopping

• making hay is much easier, but even one shower can greatly reduce its feeding value and palatability; high-yielding summer fodder crops (maize, sorghum, napier fodder) are difficult to dry for hay.

The website’s microfarm figure for fodder yields is based on plots managed to produce both summer (for silage) and winter (for feeding fresh) is 20 kg of fresh material per m² per year, thus suggesting a minimum area of 30 m². But in the light of the above constraints, this figure should probably be doubled making the area required for a one-cow x 6 months supplementary fodder unit to be 60 m².

There are many, but the main one is the possibility that there may be insufficient locally available sources of material for mulch, compost-making and general soil amelioration. If this is the case, the planted areas will need to be increased to allow addition of plots for deep-rooted legumes to be grown for green manure. Like lucerne. Later, when the soil has been improved sufficiently, an increasing proportion of this may be diverted to feeding a cow or goats for milk production.

End Note: The Spirit Level: "Why Equality is Better for Everyone" (Paperback) by Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett Published by Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom (2010) ISBN 10: 0241954290 ISBN 13: 9780241954294

Friday 1 August 2014

Latest from UK Allotment Microfarm

So CAN microfarms feed the world? The 2014 potato crop in my allotment in Gloucesterhsire, UK, suggests that they can! Six square metres of King Edward potatoes produced 38 kg, equivalent to a yield of 6.3 kg per square metre - or 63 tonnes a hectare - and compared with 39 kg from a similar planting in 2013. They were planted 9th April, lifted 23rd July so giving them 105 days in the ground. Compare this with the Queenstown, S Africa, figures: 5 kg and 4.0 months (say 120 days) in the ground. Both crops were irrigated but neither received either fertilizer or pesticide. Onions: 13.5 kg from 3 square metres, or 4.5 kg per square metre (45 tonnes a hectare), grown from sets and in the ground for 105 days (Queenstown average, from seedlings, is 9 kg per square metre and 6.7 months say 204 days - twice as long.)

Saturday 12 July 2014

More on waste disposal and climate change

Here's a bit more on climate change and methane from landfill and those rubbish mountains:
I cycled past one of these at Frampton, Glos., UK the other day and dropped in on it to see how the capture of methane generated from all that food and packaging thrown away by the good people of Gloucestershire was getting on.
Bad News.
A site inspector informed me that:

  1. the initial biogas-fired generator which had been installed there had been deemed "too big" for this site and had been re-deployed elsewhere;
  2. that the three parties involved - landowner, dump management, and the power company - could not agree on how to share the revenue from the sale of electricity so generated;
  3. that consequently no smaller replacement unit had been installed, leaving
  4. all the biogas to be flared off so that
  5. one third of a megawatt of power was being used to heat the atmosphere and add yet more carbon dioxide to it.  (Better than methane, admittedly)
Big Biz once again does a bit more for climate change...

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Soil organic matter content and the future of climate

Attended an informal talk by Dr Robin Chadwick of the Hadley Centre (Met office, Exeter), at Cafe Scientifique on Monday, 7th April - "The Future of our Climate". He is an optimist so it won't be too bad. But in reviewing the carbon balance of earth:atmosphere, which will be the future climate's main determinant, he was not aware of the key role arable farming can have on the positive side. See my post on my "Farm Walk" on Tony Reynolds's farm in Lincolnshire on 29th March where he reported an increase in soil organic matter (SOM) from 2% to 6% over 10 years: such an increase represents

Microfarms' website updated at last

themicrofarm website has now been completely overhauled and updated. The basic practical work has been done and it is now time to draw some conclusions, look at their broad implications for Sustainability, Climate Change, Global Food Supplies, Health and the New Economic Disorder. So have a look at it here. And then please post your comments below.  Or you can email me here.

Sunday 6 April 2014

No-till Farming

No-till farming: attended a seminar (IIED, London) and went for a farm walk (Thurlby Grange Farm, Lincs., UK - Tony Reynolds) 28-29 March with Bill ("No-till Bill") Crabtree ( ). The IDEA is to plant seed of annual crops (wheat, maize, oilseed rape etc) direct into the stubble/residue of previous crop without any tillage or burning at all and depend entirely on herbicide for weed control. Huge economy in diesel and tractor use, but requires a very special planter/drill - expensive. Also benefits from use of a combine with a stripper head rather then the usual reel and cutter bar which takes the straw as well. Am nervous about long-term effects of such steady herbicide applications, but am deeply impressed by resulting increase in soil organic matter up from 2% to 3% in SW Australian semi-arid and from 2.1% in 2003 to 6.2% in 2013 on Thurlby Grange. The heavy soil "feels" much better, many earthworms, moist soil doesn't stick to boots (!), infiltration so good that there was no evidence of there having been standing water on the wheat and rape during the recent wet winter (450 mm rain in 3 months approx). There are big economies in fertilizer application as a result as well. We Microfarmers could think of not digging our plots any more, just spreading organic material (mulch, compost, manure) on the surface and planting through it and being extra careful to do our weeding.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Update coming soon on website

My website has not been updated for several years, and as a result, it is more a history than a statement of what is/has been going on at my place in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. I am therefore re-writing the text and adding some photos to broadcast not just the results (crop production stats etc) but the implications for the current global debate on sustainability. My website can be found here.