Shall We Return to Traditional Farming Methods or Is Modern Better?

In my first post, I described how the stampede for material wealth became all-important to me as a baby boomer, and why I bear collective responsibility for global warming. Not everybody in my country of South Africa had the opportunity to share the bounty. In the countryside, life continued much as before.

The Way Things Were When I Was Young

Image Attribution: Huts in Pondoland: Megan Beckett BY CC 3.0
Image Attribution: Huts in Pondoland: Megan Beckett BY CC 3.0

When I was a teenager, I cycled quite long distances through the South African countryside for days in school holidays and accepted whatever overnight hospitality I could find. The local native population farmed with cattle their children herded across the veld, and patches of maize they used for their staple diet and beer.

They altered the land use with other indigenous crops such as legumes, gourds, and wild spinach. Where fruit grew wild on trees, they plucked it according to the season. They were in harmony with nature and gentle with their environment, although city-dwellers spurned their ‘primitive farming’ in favour of ‘modern methods’.

Those communities had not forgotten their hunter-gatherer roots. They were portable in the sense their huts were packed mud over wood frames without foundations. After they had depleted the soil, they packed up and moved on, giving the earth an opportunity to lie fallow and renew.

Image Attribution: Strip Farming: David Hawgood BY CC 2.0
Image Attribution: Strip Farming: David Hawgood BY CC 2.0

Small commercial farmers followed a related approach they called strip farming. They alternated the use of parallel strips of land between cultivated, and fallow use. This achieved several objectives. The land could rest: the wild grass soon grew back to support the natural food chain, and this helped prevent soil erosion.

The Changes That Happened On My Watch

Farming methods took a wrong tack in South Africa in the 1980’s. Corporates bought out small commercial farmers during droughts and turned their land into vast fields of single crops. When the soil is staggered under the demand, they pumped it full of chemicals. Intelligent consumers are starting to demand healthier alternatives. Alternatives like intercropping are calling, where plants in alternative strips have share synergistic benefits.

Image Attribution: South African Farm: Ryan BY CC 4.0
Image Attribution: South African Farm: Ryan BY CC 4.0

The Amish, Who Mainly Want Things To Remain the Same

Have you heard about the Amish people in the American state of Pennsylvania? This is in the far northeast of the country where the land is fertile. The wide variety of agricultural outputs lead with corn, cattle, dairy, mushrooms, poultry, fruits, sweet corn, potatoes, and maple syrup.

In the early 18th Century, a group of Christian fundamentalists settled in Pennsylvania and called themselves the Amish. They believed in letting go of self in favour of the collective, and isolating their culture from the individualism they saw around them. Their anti-individualistic orientation caused them to shun labour-saving technology because ownership could cause an individual to rise above the community.

Image Attribution: Amish Farmer Raking Hay: Joe Schneid BY CC 3.0
Image Attribution: Amish Farmer Raking Hay: Joe Schneid BY CC 3.0

Some Amish groups are still locked in their past. When we view them through a clear lens, and not rose-tinted spectacles, we can investigate whether farming methods were better in the past and if there is sufficient reason to return to them. I found two very different versions among the Amish people.

Option One: Preserving the Earth for Future Blessings – I found an article by an Amish traditionalist who comes across as genuine. He describes the natural rotation of wheat and hay when he was young, so there were no crop-damaging insects and legumes released free nitrogen to the soil.

He waxes lyrical about allowing weeds and grasses to grow among the plants to stabilise the soil in heavy rain, and using deep horse-drawn tilling so the soil absorbs more water. His description of living in harmony with nature, and how the birds come back when there is food for them, is idyllic.

Option Two: Turning New Knowledge to Our Advantage – An interview with a lapsed Amish farmer named Samuel Zook provides thoughtful insights of what happens when the old ways fall away, and blind science replaces them. When Samuel turned away from natural ways to pesticides, his crops were ‘riddled with funguses and pests that chemical treatments did little to reduce’ within eight years

Image Attribution: Amish Family: Kiwi Dea Pi BY CC 3.0
Image Attribution: Amish Family: Kiwi Dea Pi BY CC 3.0

Fearing he was about to lose his five generational farm – and disillusioned by modern farming methods – Samuel Zook took to the internet and discovered an Amish farmer turned entrepreneur named John Kempf. He taught him to implement a regenerative farming system that helped him grow disease and insect-resistant crops with balanced plant nutrition.

John Kempf describes himself as ‘a leading crop health consultant and designer of innovative soil and plant management systems’. Like Zook, he grew up in an Amish community but drifted into commercial farming. When his crops fell victim to ‘intensifying disease and insect pressure’ that pesticide treatments were no longer able to resist, he began investigating alternative methods based on plant physiology, mineral nutrition, and soil microbiology.’

A few years later, the reporter returned to Samuel Zook’s farm and penned this evocative description:

After trailing a leisurely horse and carriage in my car for several miles, I was greeted at the farm by a bounding dog and Zook’s young barefoot son. The boy stared silently with his arms wrapped around a watermelon almost as big as himself. In a straw hat and suspenders, he looked like a miniature version of his father.

The elder Zook smiled demurely through a neatly trimmed beard and extended his hand before inviting me on a tour of his fields. A hushed gaggle of children tripped along behind us as we walked among the bales of hay and rows of tomatoes, onions, melons, and squash.

Image Attribution: Amish Children Playing Baseball: Ernest Mettendorf Free Image
Image Attribution: Amish Children Playing Baseball: Ernest Mettendorf Free Image

John Kempf – who helped Zook recover his farm – is founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture. This promotes sustainable farming through maintaining good levels of mineral and trace mineral availability. He speaks regularly on biological agriculture and plant immunity and has a knack for simplifying complex concepts.

This, I believe, is the right approach for Africa. We have around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, roughly 60 percent of the global total, yet we cannot support our people solely using traditional small-scale agricultural methods.

This assessment is by Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of Nigeria and a member of the Africa Progress Panel, chaired by Kofi Annan. Read his article ‘How Africa Could Feed the World’ here. We need more productive technology in Africa, technology that is also a partner of the land.

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