BRATTLEBORO >> A tomato is a tomato is a tomato, whether it’s grown in Vermont or Mozambique.
Drew Adam, long-time Brattleboro resident and soil scientist who retired in 2012 from the Brattleboro office of the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, recently returned from a two-week volunteer stint in Mozambique.
His trip was arranged through the United States Agency for International Development, which supports a Farmer-to-Farmer program. An international development organization, Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, manages the program in Mozambique, Malawi, and Angola.
“USAID hires only Americans to do this,” Adam said. “We’re their ambassadors on the ground. They recruit natural resource professionals and match requests from CNFA. For example, they might post for a horticulturist who’s an expert in small fruits, or a marketing specialist because farmers who produce a crop need to know how to package it right, keep it fresh, transport it to the city, and market it.”
After a friend referred him to the web site, Adam saw a posting for a Natural Resources Planner.
“They wanted someone to help them make a soil map and help with farm practices,” Adam said. “I applied, they accepted, and we negotiated a time to go.”
In Lamego, Mozambique, the CNFA staff set Adam up with a driver, an interpreter (the official language is Portuguese), and a place to stay.
Lamego is a village of thatched-roof structures, some concrete, some mud- and-stick, Adam said.
“The first day, the group met in a common area in the village under three or four big mango trees,” he said. “Their big, glossy leaves provide a lot of shade. I brought pictures of my family and home. After I shared, I asked them to tell about their families.”
For the rest of his stay, Adam conducted his lesson plans and demonstrations in the fields where the farmers grow their vegetables. This process included a soil investigation of each farmer’s fields. Adam explained that soils are categorized in three particle sizes — sand, silt, and clay, and these particles can be coarse, medium, fine, or very fine. While additional factors influence soil classification, those are the basic categories. The soils in the test holes the farmers dug proved to be silt loam on top, which is a good soil to work with, and clays underneath, which are very difficult to plow.
On the group’s common land, they practice dry land farming because this acreage has no access to irrigation water from the river, so any crops on this land grow only during the wet season.
“They’re located in the Southern Hemisphere, so their rainy season is October to May, and their dry season is from June to September,” Adam said. “They plow in November and seed down maize (which is what they call corn), sorghum, or sesame.”
The farmers irrigate their individual plots by means of one-horsepower irrigation pumps they either own or borrow, and they plant vegetables which are familiar to Vermont farmers — potatoes, maize, green peppers, onions, leaf cabbage, head cabbage, eggplant, okra, and tomatoes (Roma-style).
“They never stake tomatoes there,” Adam said, “so they lose a lot to rot. Staking would help them increase volume. But you can’t just tell them. You have to demonstrate.”
Because the farmers need free or low-cost suggestions for farm management, Adam showed them how to compost as a way to improve soil health, increase water retention in the irrigated areas, and reduce fertilizer costs.
“We set up a two-meter square compost bin using locally bought materials: two-meter poles, chicken-wire fencing, and metal ties,” Adam wrote in his report on the project.
He showed the farmers how to layer the compost, three brown layers to one green layer.
“They have lots of weeds for the greens,” he said. “The browns can be straw, manure, or wood chips. Then they have to add water, let it heat up, and provide aeration. At 160 degrees, the material starts to break down. The microbes need a year to work. In the tropics, organic matter is used up pretty quickly, so composting should work well.”
Other suggestions Adam made included accurate record keeping to determine which crops are most productive; the making of value-added products, such as sun-dried tomatoes; mulching to reduce both weeds and labor costs; and the implementation of proper crop rotation. Although the farmers indicated they rotated their crops, “often times it might be with a crop from the same family, for example, tomatoes following peppers, both of which are in the nightshade family,” he wrote in his report. “I observed a number of tomato fields with leaf blight, which is a soil-borne fungus and will only get worse as tomatoes are mono-cropped. The only real way of ridding yourself of soil-borne diseases is to proper-crop rotate and not plant the same family for three years.”
Adam helped the farmers set up a demonstration field as a control so they could see how some of his suggestions worked, e.g., the yield of staked tomatoes in the demonstration field to the yield of unstaked tomatoes in the farmers’ individual plots, or the yield of mulched crops compared to the yield of un-mulched crops.
The Agripel farmers face a number of other challenges.
The distance from the village to their fields is five kilometers. Farmers walk to and from their plots every day, yet they can’t move closer to their fields due to occasional flooding. They weed and cultivate using only hoes, no other tools, “not even a shovel,” Adam said. As the farmers have only bicycles, no carts or mechanized vehicles, transporting produce to market is a daunting problem.
Seed is a “really expensive commodity there,” Adam said, so he brought with him several packets of open-pollinated seed (white clover as a cover crop, beans and lettuce) to be grown in the demonstration plot. Because open-pollinated seed never loses its potency, the seed can be collected and distributed to all members of the group the following year.
One goal of the Farmer-to-Farmer program is to assist farmers in the developing world with low-cost agricultural practices they can continue on their own in order to improve their economic well-being. Adam believes his suggestions, if carried out, will help the farmers accomplish that goal. However, he learned as well.
“I loved my time with the members of Agripel,” he wrote in his report. “We traveled to the field every day in the truck, and there was always much talking and laughter … It was hard for me to leave Lamego.”