Life as a (Pseudo) Small-Scale Farmer
When I was discussing with members of the women’s farming group in Loggu upon my arrival in the village, I asked the question “What can I do to best understand what it is like to be an outgrower farmer for the nucleus farmer I am working with?”. I was excited and pleased by their response. They said that they would support me in growing one acre of crops. After a couple of seconds of considering what this would mean, I said that I would gladly take on the challenge. My intention was to have this undertaking be a valuable supplement to my learning and understanding of the system I am working in, hopefully allowing me to gain credibility and build trust with multiple actors.
After some discussion with my host brother and the nucleus farmer, I decided that I would grow ½ an acre of maize and ½ an acre of soyabeans, in order to gain an understanding of what is required to grow these two common crops in the Upper West. After mentioning “my farm” often in conversations to show that I was in fact committed, it was decided that I would sow the acre on Monday, June 25, before I left for the Mid-Placement Retreat in Mole National Park.
The Saturday before, I travelled to Antika [the inputs dealer] in Wa to pick the hybrid maize seed I would need to sow ½ an acre. I had decided that I would plant the only hybrid maize variety sold by Antika, which would hopefully allow my plot to act as a “proof of concept” for hybrid maize seed in Loggu. I also picked inoculant (rhizobium bacteria to support early development of nitrogen-fixing nodules in the roots of legumous crops) since my intention was to have my plot be a demonstration of Good Agricultural Practices, as well as an outlet for me to push my paradigm of how farming should be done with the available resources. I was taking my knowledge of how my family plants legumous crops in Canada, and applying it to the new scale I was working in.
When Monday came, I felt tired to begin with. I had stayed up late the night before soaking half of the maize and soyabean seeds in a Latvian peat fertilizer supplement solution and the other half of the seeds in water as a control. I was mixing integration and science and advertising for Antika all together, and it was getting complicated. I had decided to apply insecticide/fungicide powder to the seeds before planting, and I went to the nucleus farmer’s inputs dealer shop to collect two packages. I read the label of the insecticide/fungicide, and soon became skeptical if I even wanted to use it. The product was extremely toxic. It should not be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. People using the product should wear gloves at least, and any containers used to mix the product with seed should be disposed of. It is strictly forbidden to use the product in the presence of children. I mentioned these things to those around me at the time, and they laughed at me. They said, “But not in Africa.” This made me extremely upset and frustrated. The fact that scientific knowledge is so low causes people to completely disregard any procedures for safety. At the field, the product was mixed with the seed with bare hands in a basin that would be used for hauling water and grinding maize after being rinsed out later, and women ate shea nuts from nearby trees as they were sowing the treated seed. They thought I was so silly for worrying about this. I felt responsible for making the decision to apply the insecticide, yet any steps I took to improve the safe handling of the product would be regarded as unnecessary.
According to my direction, maize seed was placed in a hole on one side of a rope stretched across the field, and on the other side of the rope compound fertilizer was placed in a hole, resulting in about 5 cm space between the seed and fertilizer. In Canada, all fertilizer is applied with the seed straight into the ground at the time of planting, yet in Ghana fertilizer is generally spread on top of the soil near the plants. The latter approach allows for volatilization of the fertilizer, as well as allowing it to be washed away by heavy rains. After talking to Agricultural Extension Agents and others, I had learned that it is actually preferable to bury the fertilizer, but people do not do it because they perceive it to take too much time.
The reason I say that I am a “pseudo” small-scale farmer in Loggu is that I have so many opportunities that the other members of the women’s farming group do not have. For the sowing, I actually ended up planting very little seed myself. I found myself in a managerial/monitoring role, and also I did not want to cause confusion regarding where had been planted and where had not. My plot was ploughed first of any of the outgrowers, and the hybrid seed and inoculant were donated by Antika despite my insistence that I can pay. I did not have to get a fertilizer subsidy passbook because the nucleus farmer arranged to have the fertilizer put under another farmer’s name (not being a Ghanaian citizen I do not have the appropriate ID card). I have the ability to read the labels of inputs and have comparatively extensive knowledge of Good Agricultural Practices, including “innovative” technologies such as inoculant. For keeping records, I can read and write without a problem, and I know the importance of cost-profit analysis. The fact that I knew exactly where to get all of the required inputs and had access to them when I needed them allowed me to apply fertilizer, seed treatment, inoculant (soyabeans), fertilizer additive (for half of the crops), and a pre-emergent glyphosate chemical burnoff all on the desired day. The current plan with my plot, as I will be leaving before it is harvested, is to have the profit from the plot go towards buying tarpaulins for the women on which to thresh the soyabeans by hand without mixing in dirt and stones. My entire livelihood does not depend on the success of the farm, even though I am trying to do everything to make the farm successful.
It is easy for me to become disconnected from understanding the true challenges of a small-scale farmer in Upper West Ghana, because I am not working with the same situation at all. It will take a different empathetic approach to understand what it truly is like to not be able to buy fertilizer for your farm without the support of a nucleus farmer or NGO, or to be waiting for weeks or forever for a tractor to come plow so that you can plant. The nucleus farmer I am working with had to tell approximately 300 farmers that he cannot support them this year as expected, as he was unable to receive the requested loan from the bank. What will they do? Will they really just sit down and put their hands in the air like the nucleus farmer says?