Crops grow really well in rich, dark soil with a lot of nutrients and adequate water at the appropriate stages in the life of the plant. They can also grow in plain old dirt with some water. In fact, you can even throw some seeds in straight water and they will germinate. Point being, the only input farming truly requires is… water. What has my village not seen in two weeks? WATER.
I tell you this with a mixture of desperation and hilarity. I knew when I got assigned to the northeast of Senegal as an agriculture extension agent I would be fighting an uphill battle. We’re plagued with Sahara induced dust storms and lucky to get 500 mm of rain a year (combine this with the heat that never dips below 100 degrees in daytime hours and that’s enough to grow a whopping one crop each rainy season). Our saving grace is our proximity to the Senegal River and it’s tendency to flood, but you need a little help from Mother Nature to get that going. And so far, that’s not going.
After a few big rains early in July all the farmers in Yacine took to the fields to plow (usually by donkey but some fancy people used horses) and prep their fields to seed. After one more big rain, around the third week in July, all my farmers planted their sorghum seed. This is the staple crop for Yacine Lakke, turned into a type of couscous after it’s harvested and dried, but a few women also farm beans and peanuts in our areas of sandier soil. Those few weeks in July were also a critical moment in my service. Part of Peace Corps Senegal’s agriculture program is the extension of improved variety seed to motivated farmers in our villages. They are given a small, experimental amount of seed (about a kilo) and asked to return two kilos back to us, the volunteers, if they have a good harvest. This promotes good seed saving techniques and gives the farmer their own source of improved seed for the following year (if you want to know more, nitty-gritty details on this program and the source of seeds, let me know in the comments section and I’m happy to expand on this). Over the course of the growing season, we go back out to these farmer’s fields and troubleshoot with them, while also recording data and tracking the growth of the plant. Later, these records will help the developers of specific varieties of crops to make them even better in later generations.
It all sounds very civil and straightforward when you begin as a new volunteer. Having done field studies and worked with similar crops and programs in China and Mexico during college, I was incredibly excited to run an extension program in Yacine Lakke. I picked out eleven farmers to work with in three field crops: sorghum, beans, and rice. I gave them the seed in painstakingly collected and cleaned, airtight plastic bottles, I carefully explained in well rehearsed and researched Pulaar the guidelines of the program and what was expected of them, and I sent them on their merry way. Three weeks later, well after when they should have planted, I started to hunt down the farmers and their fields and collect my first data. What did I find? Extension work is painful and behavior change does not happen after one 15 minute conversation.
Of the 11 farmers’ fields I still haven’t located three of them. One guy owns a field four miles outside of the village that I made the mistake of saying I could walk to the first time I went there. One person gave his wife the seed to cook for dinner because they were short that day and another never planted his in the first place because he decided he didn’t like the color. A woman I extended beans to inter-cropped them at random, 15 foot intervals in her husband’s sorghum field, effectively killing my chances of collecting plant density data on that particular plot. And the kicker of course is that after all of this it never rained again for my farmers who did plant the seed, with appropriate spacing, in fields I can locate without walking to Guinea.
Fear not, however. Another beautiful thing I’ve learned in Peace Corps is to hold out hope beyond what is reasonable. Things aren’t a complete failure yet. Beans and peanuts are pretty hardy crops and can handle some water stress. Sorghum as well can hold out a little bit longer in the dense, clay soil it’s been planted in. Although my village has hectares on hectares of our most crucial staple crop at risk of completely failing, I think I have been more worried about it than anyone else the last few days. While I meticulously track how long we’ve gone without rain, and run around consulting everyone and their brother about what happens if the crop fails, all my farmers pat me on the shoulder and say, ‘Janngo, inshallah‘ ‘Tomorrow, God willing’. Well God hasn’t willed and he doesn’t seem inclined to either, I want to say. But I don’t. I know their decades of experience run circles around my first-timer fears.
I don’t expect extension work will get easier anytime soon. I also don’t expect it will rain when I want or need it to. But I do expect that my farmers will keep me on my toes, laughing, and engaged in the work I hope will change agriculture here for the better in the future. Somehow, inshallah, I know we’ll have something to show for our efforts at the end of this season. In the meantime, you’ll find me out here under the hot sun, standing on a dry patch of ground, looking at the sky and doing a rain dance.