Steps toward improving small-scale agriculture
As with many good things in life, improvement of small-scale agriculture is not easy. Since every region (and indeed every farm) is distinctive, there are no automatic solutions to the improvement of agriculture. Nevertheless, from the experience of many persons, a few principles can be instilled as follows:
Literature. Agriculture requires information. Follow this document with other publications that teach principles. Be sure to obtain a subscription to ECHO Development Notes (free for those who work overseas with small farmers) and your own copy of this book, plus back issues after EDN 51. Enrich your library with publications of the country or region in which you will serve. Be cautious with information developed for other regions or countries with different soils, climates, and social-economic conditions. Do not believe that miracle solutions can be found or that any publication will solve your problems. Information is like a set of tools to be used judiciously.
Diagnosis. The first step in improving rural agriculture is to ask the right questions so as to arrive at a diagnosis. These may include the following, and others: What land is available, and what are its limitations? What crops are grown, during what seasons, with what techniques, and with what results? How are the crops harvested, stored, transported, and used? What crop residues remain, and what is done with them? What animals are produced on the farm, using what techniques? What is done with the animals and their by-products? What do people eat? How is food prepared and stored? What parts of the diet are inadequate? How does this change with time of year? How does animal production interact with human welfare? What do people buy, trade or share? Where do they get the money? What markets exist for new products? What purchased inputs are available (tools, mineral fertilizers, fungicides, etc.)? What is the health of the people? What are the social and economic factors influencing distribution and marketing? What is the infant mortality rate and the life expectancy? Does the diet appear balanced? From what diseases do people suffer? As answers are compiled, you will form an impression of the fundamental problems in the community. In addition to general problems faced by everyone, there will be idiosyncratic problems belonging to specific families or persons. Some decisions will need to be made about the most important problems to be attacked as well as their root causes. The fundamental problems may not be agricultural.
Selection of Alternatives. From this point, the discussion will concern only agriculture, the theme of this article. While other problems are too numerous and complex to be discussed here, they merit equal or perhaps greater concern.
From the diagnosis of the agricultural situation, plan several alternatives. The closer the alternatives are to current practices, the more likely they will succeed. Select rational alternatives, based on knowledge and previous experience if possible. They may have experimental aspects (in the sense that one can never be sure of the results). By organizing alternatives that address real problems as the people perceive them, chances for success are enhanced. Some of the alternatives may be...
A new crop, a new variety
Similarly, additional alternatives may be sought for the animal component of the farm.
Testing Alternatives. Try selected alternatives first in plantings completely managed by the innovator. These plantings could be in schools, churches, backyard gardens or rented fields. Test alternatives alongside plantings which use the farmers' technology. As soon as possible, involve farmers in testing alternatives alongside their own plantings. The same principles are applicable if the alternatives include storage or cooking techniques or any other aspect of production and use of food. Trials should be made for comparisons before new technology is introduced to farmers or cooks. If the alternatives require new markets or marketing techniques, these should also be worked out before the alternatives are presented to farmers.
In normal practice, a foreign innovator is closely watched. It is a serious error to introduce a technology that is not a significant improvement. (However, you should expect some disappointing results along with successes on your personal trial plots!) On the other hand, successful aspects of a technology (successful alternatives) will be watched and tried by others.
Verification in Farmers' Situations. Even when new alternatives have been demonstrated to be successful they must be verified in the hands of the farmers. Farmers will put them into use in their own way and will find strengths and weaknesses not obvious to the innovators. These verification trials allow farmers to adapt and adopt innovations useful for them. A grassroots approach is the most useful in the spreading of innovations; but as acceptance becomes generalized, new doors may be opened for more formal training in agriculture, food processing, nutrition, and hygiene.
Relating to Local People. While learning about a new culture it is not necessary and may, in fact, be undesirable to practice wholehearted local rural ways. You may wish to dress, eat, and balance the diet, practice hygiene, and comfort yourself in your own way. But, private and personal practices which are so important to you may not be appropriate for the people around you. The virtues of tolerance, understanding, and appreciation ought to be your guidelines at every step of the way. You will undoubtedly find that those you work with are loveable and will love you.
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