After his first two sentences, I knew Joel Yiri from Jirapa was the man I was looking for. I had asked Peter Kuupenne, an extension officer from Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture, to meet “a creative farmer”. And that is what I found: Joel was a man with a vision.
As we shook hands, and sat down in front of Joel’s house, he introduced himself in perfect English. I asked him how come, and if maybe he had been a teacher. But he shook his head: “You know, over here, you are born as a farmer’s son, so that’s what you do for your life: you farm. Just as your father and your father’s father. But that also includes the core challenge: with the current climate change, we can’t farm anymore like they did. We need to adapt our methods. Our fathers had fertile grounds. The rains were plentiful, and for generations they used the same tools, the same seeds and the same technologies. Our generation needs to change.”
From that moment on, I just knew it was going to be an interesting testimonial as part of the series we were recording for the CCAFS program.
Joel inherited his plot of land from his father, but the soil had become infertile. For years, he was one of the many migrant workers who go south to farm on other people’s land. “But I realized I was wasting my energy. I work on someone else’s land, to earn money, and buy food. Why not farm my own plots?”.
With the help of his extension officer, Joel tried to use the manure from his two pigs. “I tried it on a small scale first, and found it worked much better than the mineral fertilizer. With the manure, you mix it with the soil, waiting for the first rains. No matter when the rains finally come, the soil is ready. But with mineral fertilizer, if it does not rain within a week, the soil turns hard again, and the fertilizer is wasted.”
He gradually increased the size of his piggery, so he could also apply the manure to larger plots, and turn them fertile. He showed us the difference: the field treated with manure had green crops growing in a soft soil. Right next to it was a parcel he intended to start treating next year. For the moment, it was barren, with a hard top crust. “This soil almost resembles compacted sand”, Joel said, as he kicked his heel into it, “Nothing grows here. But look over there: with the manure, I harvest maize, soya, cowpeas, cashew and even mango. Untreated soil used to give me two or three bags of maize per plot, if I was lucky. Now, I get twelve bags.”
And he should know, as he keeps record of all input costs, and revenue on his farm. “My statistics showed me I was loosing on the traditional cash crop of ground nuts. I switched to soya beans and cow peas instead. Those yield better on my ground, and with the shortened rains. I also switched from the local millet and guinea corn to maize.”
Joel does not sit still. He reckons the rainy season will continue to shorten in the years to come, so he planted mango and cashew trees on the plots where he also grows other crops. “Those trees go well in combination with the soya beans and cow pea, but I also combine it with bee-farming. The bees love the cashew flowers. I thought…, even if later on we will only have two short rains in a year, my other crops won’t yield enough. But the cashew and mango will, even with less rain. Combined with the revenue from the honey, I will still have an income, even if my other crops completely fail.”
Every year, the rains have started later, and stopped earlier. To make matters worse, the first rains are often followed by a drought, which sometimes lasts for a month. That’s why Joel is looking further ahead: “I want to take a micro finance loan, to dig a borehole on my land. If I have access to water, I could grow vegetables even during the dry season. A borehole with a simple irrigation system would cost about US$7,000.” A considerable investment, but Joel is sure he could pay back the loan in two years. “An NGO came to look at my plot. They found termite heaps and several indigenous scrubs indicating there is water nearby, so they won’t have to dig deep. My plot is ready. With my 65 pigs, I have enough manure to treat that surface, so only thing I now need is water. It would also benefit the other people on the nearby plots.”
“Farmers should be thinking of the future”, Joel concludes, “We should farm differently from our grand fathers. They took to farming only as a way to survive, to eat : if a crop failed, the next year they would try the same thing again, and again. No, that is not the way. We have to change. The way the climate is changing, we too have to adopt new crops, new seed varieties and new farming techniques.”
The way ahead for researchers and smallholder farmers facing current and coming challenges posed by climate change lies in learning from each other while sharing knowledge and experiences.
Photos in this article by Peter Casier.