Lessons I Learned from Farmers in Developing Countries

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on July 31, 2017 | Print

We’re winding down our posts regarding agriculture and farming systems. In no way have we been comprehensive on this topic and will return to it by and by. But before we go, I want to talk about a word of concept that is many times overlooked by those of us from the west trying work with agriculture in developing countries.

Most of us raised and trained in agriculture in a developed country are schooled in monoculture, high production systems. We use hybridized seeds (oftentimes GMOs), heavy fertilizer and pesticide applications, and high-tech to produce some of the highest yields and best crops worldwide bar none.

But most farmers and farm families in the world today are under low-production and simple-input systems that are fairly fragile but have been working for them and their ancestors for centuries. Here are some principles for small farm development that I’ve learned while working with small farmers around the world:

  1. Start where they are. Learn their systems. Understand what they do and why they do it before giving advice. They have been farming for years and they have survived. They are doing something right. If you and I were given only the resources they had and we were told to make a living at farming, we would fail miserably. They have been doing something right all these years.
  2. Diversification is the small farmer’s friend. When we look at their systems, it looks messy from our perspective. We are used to clean rows in our cornfields – our massive cornfields! When we see the average small, poor farmer and his/her farm, we see integration, mixing of crops, simple animal systems, etc. It doesn’t look like the way we learned to farm. Relax. It is their way and there are some beautiful things about it. They don’t have crop insurance or an IRA retirement fund to fall back on. Diversifying their farming system is one way they can ensure that they will have food and income today and tomorrow.
  3. We in the west are “horizontal” farmers. We look at flat fields and plan. Most small farmers worldwide are horizontal and vertical farmers. They use intercropping (beans between the rows of corn), multi-story cropping (vegetables growing under trees), and plant/raise animals on land that we would consider unfit for agriculture (e.g. roadsides, hillsides, nooks and crevices).
  4. Land is often a premium. I grew up farming 100 acres with my father and siblings. That was a small farm (in Tennessee). In many places of the world, having one acre or two to farm on is a luxury. Don’t think “large scale”, think good production in small areas.
  5. Keep the inputs simple. We use hybrid seeds in the west. Most small farmers in developing country use open pollinated varieties. They can’t save and plant back hybrids. We use commercial fertilizers and pesticides in the USA. Most small farmers use locally available and natural ways to maintain fertility and control pests. They rotate crops and cropping areas. They use animal manures. They also can use plant biomass to make their own compost. And, there are several ways to help control pests without having to use expensive and in many cases harmful chemicals. Learn these ways.

I have often remarked that many years ago, when I went overseas to work in agriculture missions, I thought that I was going to teach Filipino farmers how to farm better. What I learned early on is that they had a lot to teach me and many things that I had learned from my agriculture days and training in Tennessee and Kentucky were of little use in a third-world, small farm situation. The principles were similar but the practices were much more complicated than I ever dreamed.

What are some things you have learned and would like to share? Or would you have any questions or observations about what we’ve written here? I would love to hear from you.

If you are interested in these principles, you may be interested in our blog posts about Community Development!

JMurphree 7 years ago

Awesome article!

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