Science in Society Archive

Organic Farmer Who Values His Freedom Above All

Moses & Mary Mulenga work hard on their organic farm and is richly rewarded in ways other than simply financial Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Moses and Mary Mulenga were bursting with pride and enthusiasm as they showed us around their farm, medium-scale by Zambian standards. They have a total of 14.9 ha, 9.5 of which are cultivated and the rest left as woods for keeping bees.

On a makeshift table were 14 bags of seeds all cultivated on the farm; as green manure crops, ground cover between crops, or food crops.

“We used to do 17 crops,” said Moses.

Moses explained that they have a basic two-year rotation between green manure crops and food crops, using ground cover crops “to improve fallow” in between. But they also rotate between plots; so I gathered that for any single plot, the rotation period is 12 years.

Green manure crops consist of four varieties of velvet beans - white, black, black summerset, and green – sunhemp, and black sunhemp. Why so many? Simply “to maintain the varieties”, Moses said. The different varieties have different uses for controlling insect pests (“Brother Paul's organic cotton and vegetable farm”, this issue) or for improving soil. Green velvet beans, for example, are good for acid soils. The ground cover crops are Sesbania sesban and Tephrosia , and the food crops are cowpeas, soybeans, red sorghum, a local open-pollinated white maize variety, pigeon peas and groundnuts.

Moses said he never grows hybrid maize because they give poorer yields than the indigenous white maize variety. He has increased the yield of white maize from 2 tonnes per ha when he was using conventional farming methods to 3 tonnes per ha when the farm became fully organic.

Moses has not been a farmer for long. He used to work for Zambian Airways in ground transport. But one day in 1995, he and his fellow workers went to work only to find the gates firmly shut; the airline had gone out of business.

So he decided to become a farmer instead, something he had always wanted to do, as his father was also a farmer.

He started to farm conventionally and “almost gave up”, because he had great difficulty making ends meet.

At that point, Brother Paul of the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre invited Moses to come and see what they were doing at the Centre. After a week's training on sustainable agriculture in Kasisi in 1996, Moses started to reduce pesticides and fertilizers, substituting for organic inputs until he stopped applying agrochemicals completely in 1998 and became fully organic.

“The most important thing for me is the freedom I now have,” said Moses, “I don't have to depend on loans, I can grow whatever crops I like, save and replant my own seeds.” The farm provides all the needs of his household, for him, his wife, and their five teenage sons aged thirteen to nineteen. All the sons are attending school , which is quite an achievement, as Zambia does not have free education, and few farmers can afford to send their children to school. Apart from all the food they eat, the family makes about 12 million Kwachas (US$3 000) a year selling seeds.

Moses and Mary took us first to see their compost heaps. There were several rectangular mounds of the ground, some covered over with a polythene sheet. “To make a compost heap, you must prepare the ground beneath the compost by poking holes in it to improve aeration, then you find some small branches or twigs of trees, such as pigeon peas, Sesbasnia sesban , which rot easily, and lay it on the ground,” Moses explained, “then you layer it with dry material such as dry grass, velvet beans, etc followed by green materials, and then manure, and keep on piling up the layers until it is no higher than you can reach to water the whole pile.”

“Now, you see this long stick poking out from the pile?” He said as he pointed to a long straight branch sticking out from the top of one side, which looks as if it is buried diagonally deep into the pile. “This is how you know if the compost is working properly. You take it out and feel the end of the stick; if it is warm, the compost is working properly.” He asked Mary to demonstrate, which she did, elegantly and with obvious pleasure in showing off.

Next, they took us around the fields, some of which have been harvested, and lots of crop residues have been left on the ridges “to improve the soil and retain moisture”, Moses explained. I asked if the ridges were permanent, and he said yes. So they have adopted some practices from conservation farming as well as being organic; which goes to show how farmers are learning from one another, and innovating all the time.

We went finally into the woods, which consisted of relatively small trees and shrubs, obvious re-growths from a previously cleared area. Across a wire fence was barren land with a few isolated trees left standing.

“We had to put up this fence,” said Moses, “Before we did that, people would come in and clear away our trees, as they are still doing with the land out there.” They chop down the trees for no other reason than to obtain firewood.

Soon, we came upon a rectangular wooden box about 1.5 metre x 0.5 m x 0.3 m mounted on bricks in a small clearing among the trees.

“This is a small hive with about 35 000 bees,” Moses revealed. “It is harvested two times a year, in June and again in October, each harvest giving about 35 litres of honey, or 70 litres per year. We leave some for the bees of course, so they can feed their babies.”

There are five hives in the woods, three giving 100 litres a year. Selling the honey from one hive is sufficient to pay school fees for one child for a whole year.

As we were walking back after the brief tour, I asked Mary if she and her husband enjoy farming. “Oh yes, we like it very much.” she said emphatically.

“How many hours do your work a day?”

“We work for eight hours in the morning, and five in the afternoon,” she said.

“Every day of the year?”

“Everyday in the months of November and February,” she answered.

“Do you have any help at all?”

“No, except from the boys during the holidays.”

That too, is characteristic of organic farmers. They work quite hard, at least partly because they love farming so much.

Article first published 04/11/05

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