Last month I returned from 2.5 weeks of farm and agricultural visits to Uganda in Africa. Following that and a few weeks on the tractor planting this years crop, I been able to process some of my experiences and offer the following reflections in this post.
We’ve turned farming into a dream job. What I do for a living now would barely be recognisable to my Grandfather who founded the business that I work in. It wouldn’t be believable to his grandfather. I’m writing this post on the tractor while it drives itself in a perfectly straight line, pulling our 17m planter through the paddock. This is not what farming has been for most of history, nor is it what the majority of farmers in Africa and maybe even the world understand their profession to be.
Farming is hard work for these people. Not mentally, but physically. 80% of Ugandans are farmers. Uganda has more than 32 million people which means that there are more Ugandan farmers than there are Australians. But most of them don’t own a tractor, or a ute, or anything more sophisticated than a hoe or a backpack sprayer.
It’s blindingly obvious that the solution to continuing African food crises lies on the continent, with its own people and it’s own smallholder farmers. Sure farms there could be aggregated and made more efficient using modern machinery and yes that would increase food production immensely. But that would displace the heavily populated rural areas, further crowding cities with people who can’t find work. It would create more problems than it would solve.
Many of these small landholders don’t value what they have. Farming is hard work. Much easier to find a job in the towns if you can. But what they have is incredible. Naturally fertile soils, 1200mm of annual rainfall spread across two wet seasons. The entire country is perfect for dry land double cropping! The reliability of their climate could only make this Aussie farmer jealous.
But some things are universal. Farmers complain about weather even in an equatorial country with an amazingly reliable climate. ‘Its been such a dry summer’ they said. Apparently the temperature got into the mid 30s there for a while. Too be fair on the complaining locals the pasture grasses were only shin height and not knee height and some of the veggies were slightly wilting. But farmers everywhere blame the weather for their misfortunes, instead of focusing on what they can control and making the rain that does fall enough.
The economics of farming are vastly different in Africa. 5-10 acres of land properly managed can house and clothe a family and support the kids going to a good school. Not to a western standard, but to a humane one. Farming might be an obvious career choice in a country with reliable rainfall, fertile soils and a huge market for food right on your doorstep. Especially with youth unemployment at eye-wateringly high levels. But it’s not a popular one. As. I said earlier, farming without engines is hard work. As it is in Australia, so it is in Uganda. Much more popular to study IT or accounting, if you can afford to study anything.
There are those precious few however that do get it. There are those few entrepreneurs that see that a population of 32 million which is going to become 100 million in my lifetime will need to be fed. They can see that good farmland managed properly will change their future. They know that farming done well is not a necessary chore for survival, but a pathway to a prosperous future for themselves and a healthier community around them.
People like Livingstone, a science and Agriculture teacher at a High School about an hours drive out of Kampala. In addition to his job as a teacher, Livingstone has his own small 2 acre farm that he runs when he’s not teaching. He grows bananas, tomatoes and a number of other veggies, and he’s passionate about both teaching and doing Ag. He must be, with the assistance of just one worker Livingstone plants and mulches his 2 acres by hand. Not the way most teachers spend their weekends.
Or the pastor we met who farms 5 acres and is still getting his business going, but sees his farm as Gods way of providing for his family and allowing him to serve in ministry. Not only that but his goal is to teach his Local community about farming through his farm, to lift incomes and living standards in his community. He’s slowly building a drip irrigation system to secure his future.
We were travelling with this pastor the day after I visited his farm, when we happened to pass what counts in Uganda for a farm machinery dealership. In the small yard there where 2-3 small tractors (I’m guessing 30-60hp) maybe Massey Fergusons or Mahindras. They also had a few small implements to go with these tractors, including what looked to be a small 8 row planter. As I pointed them out to the group of us in the car, the pastors response has for some reason stuck with me. “Oh, that is my dream to have one of those!” Whether or not he will ever achieve this dream I don’t know. But if he does he will have earned it through years of sweat and hard labour.
I am living the pastors dream. Agriculture without engines is hard work.