In conjunction with National Cooperative Month, we will be featuring a series of posts detailing the recent work Farmers Union members have done in western Africa through the Farmer-to-Farmer program. Erin Schneider, a Wisconsin Farmers Union member, recounted her time abroad.

By Erin Schneider

Farm Visits and Horticultural Techniques

Well, how exactly do you farm in the Kedougou region of Senegal? And what exactly do you grow? And why is it important to share with others what you know? Well, you don’t need fancy equipment, nor vast tracks of land. In fact most of the women do the work side by side, by hand on a hectare or less. It should also be noted that most of the women tend to their own family’s gardens in addition to market gardening (in other words, farming on top of farming)

Soaking in the eggplants, peppers, okra, and legumes outlined by living fences of fruit trees, I knew I was right at home. Weeds, water, insects, and soil fertility challenges are also universal to vegetable farmers the world over and witnessing these issues in their fields I again felt right at home. We spent a lot of time demonstrating methods and sharing ideas that help mitigate these challenges. It starts with the soil. In all the groups we worked with from Dar Salaam to Daloto, whether  Malinki, Pular, Woloff or French was spoken, everyone understood and could translate the language of compost. And the compost piles we discussed and the women helped build were works of art. Specifically, their recipe for compost represented the following:

  • Neem tree and Hypdis Suasuavedene herb leaves– insect repellent, biopesticide/mosquito repellent
  • Water
  • Decomposed cow or goat manure
  • Nitrogen layer – groundnut crop residue, leaf litter
  • Charcoal or wood ash– phosphorous and helps deter termites (whose mounds were the size of castles)
  • note: kitchen and food scraps were used very sparingly as they were often fed to the animals and there was very little food waste in general.

Farm Visits and Horticultural Techniques

Well, how exactly do you farm in the Kedougou region of Senegal? And what exactly do you grow? And why is it important to share with others what you know? Well, you don’t need fancy equipment, nor vast tracks of land. In fact most of the women do the work side by side, by hand on a hectare or less. It should also be noted that most of the women tend to their own family’s gardens in addition to market gardening (in other words, farming on top of farming)

While NPK fertilizer was made available by USAID’s Yaagende Project to the farmers we were visiting, as a small farmer in the U.S., the techniques you use when growing mixed vegetables and fruits on a small plot of land year after year, really needs to focus on building soil fertility, composting/integrating animal manures and crop rotation and association. These techniques reduces a farmer’s costs of production and reliance on outside inputs, while rotating crops helps reduce disease and insect pressure alongside replenishing the soil. This is especially important in the Kedougou region of Senegal where we worked. Many of the farms we visited were in the beginning stages of production, and the soils lacked organic manner, were more sandy and gravelly due to the more mountainous terrain and parent material, and were not always near a reliable water source. Thus, building and keeping the fertility cycle local is a more efficient and sustainable way to farm vegetables here.

On the fruit realm I was envious. Mango, papaya, shea butter, cashew, coconut, baobab, jujube trees, and the juice creations, such as bissop (hibiscus derived) that resulted from such blending of tropical bliss was heavenly. Sigh. And year round! No frosts to contend with just challenges with water and animal browse. Some of the grower groups we worked with were utilizing agroforestry techniques such as intercropping, field borders, and living fences, while others struggled. (The struggles were in part due to lack of time in the field to delve deeper into subjects and demonstrations). From my observations, agroforestry practices (will) work well in Senegal. The climate is ripe, seed and plant material plentiful, and input costs are minimal. Fruit and perennial herbs will also add value in terms of product offerings, season extension, and increasing income streams. Additionally, fruits and herbs perform critical ecological roles as pest managers, insect repellent, and soil nutrient builders on the land.

Overall, the focus on soil fertility, composting/mulching, integrating perennial plants as living fences and field borders will further build resilience, reduce erosion, and retain water, while adding value and products for women farmers to sell. Thus their reliance on outside inputs and subsidies are reduced while their income streams increase and extend beyond their rainy season.

Song, dance, and balance, helped make the farms and our visits come to life. This was especially true in the villages of Bawal and Daloto where we were greeted by and introduced ourselves in song, summarized our lessons in dance and I attempted to teach them how to polka and play harmonica.

(insert photo of dancing/greeting with women farmers)

The last day of August I spent crossing the River Gambie. Perhaps that is what Senegal is for me, crossing that space where you choose to live life/flow forward, leaving behind shores of stagnated comfort.

Was I successful? It’s hard to know long term what systems will be further developed or created on their farms or whether women will be engaged as linkers and educators in the decision making process. It’s hard to gauge what will ultimately work for their farms and their communities. Was my time and service appreciated? Definitely. Whether it was two hours or two days spent with the different groups, and KEOH staff/linkers, the Senegalese people are very welcoming, open, colorful and willing to share viewpoints/express opinions. I left Kedougou already missing the street music, spontaneous soccer games, the colors and market chaos, goat led traffic jams, sunshine adorned by the people, morning wake up calls of bee-eaters and barbets, afternoon thunderstorms, and evening frogsong by the River Gambie.

Back on the road to Dakar past the Nikolo-Kobo jungle, savannah, salt fields, flooded streets, and the ever present baobab, I again had to ask myself why I was here? Why again did I travel across the world to a tropical place during the rainy season, leaving my farm in the middle of the growing season, only to witness what is universal to small farmers, man or woman, worldwide? Maybe I felt a pull, a calling, like the daily, frequent, calls to prayer heard in the villages. Maybe, for two weeks straight, I needed daily and frequent reminders that what I was and am doing, is needed now more than ever—ultimately helping feed ourselves, our families, our spirits and our future. In other words, farming.

I remain forever grateful to KEOH and the women grower groups for your generosity and willingness to welcome us to your homes and farms and openness to learning and sharing with us; to Eric Wallace, Farmer to Farmer Program Manager with NCBA CLUSA for all of his help with logistics and program support before, during, and after the trip; to Melissa Augusto NFU Communication’s Director and my Senegal travel and project partner, to Abibou Diaw for his coordination and translation during our assignment; to Maria Miller, NFU Education Director for connecting me to the Farmer to Farmer program and to NFU in general for helping facilitate connections with farmers worldwide. Special thanks to Ibrahim, our fearless, calm, and competent, driver, when, despite traffic jams (car, goat or otherwise), potholes, brush, and roads to rivers during the rainy season, got us safely to where we needed to be, when we needed to be there.

Erin Schneider,  co-owns Hilltop Community Farm outside LaValle, Wisconsin where she and her husband, Rob McClure run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and specialize in uncommon varietals of Midwest fruits. Erin also coordinates the efforts of the Organic Tree Fruit Association, is a member with the Wisconsin Farmers Union, and was a past participant in NFU’s Beginning Farmer Program. Learn more about her farm and her adventures in growing fruit, building community on their website: hilltopcommunityfarm.org. Or LOVE their farm on Facebook.

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