International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Ugandan farmers reclaim killing fields to feed their families [Update]

On a sunny morning in April I stood in the middle of a large field in northern Uganda, surrounded by farmers singing in chorus as they worked the soil with hand-hewn hoes. They were preparing to plant a new season’s crop of groundnuts – for generations, a staple food for their families in Agoro, a village at the foot of a misty mountain range that marks the border with South Sudan.

But the age-old cycle of planting and harvesting in Agoro was violently interrupted when the rebel Lord's Resistance Army occupied this fertile land between 1996 and 2005. Agoro’s residents spent years in exile in a makeshift refugee camp, where many of them lost touch with their agricultural traditions, including the practice of drying food to store for lean times. On the drive up to the village my International Rescue Committee colleague Charles Okello Owiny told me, "When it comes time for planting, they are nearly starving."

We were in Agoro to meet Grace Abalo, who leads a group of 30 farmers who have been working with a local "farm and field" trainer supported by the IRC. As they reintroduce local agricultural traditions to a generation that grew up without them, trainers like Walter Nyeko are also teaching older farmers modern methods that can result in more bountiful harvests.

Grace showed us how, under Walter’s tutelage, the farmers in her group had divided the field where we stood into four equal plots in order to compare the "broadcast" method of planting—scattering seeds widely—with row planting. "The first lesson we learned was that we used fewer seeds when planting in rows," she explained. What the farmers hoped to find come harvest time, she said, was that sowing in rows would also result in healthier plants and a higher yield.

Back at the IRC headquarters in New York I was keen to learn the result of the Agoro farmers’ experiment, and when I received an email message from Charles in September I opened it eagerly. The photos he’d attached of farmers with arms full of bunches of groundnuts they’d pulled from the soil suggested that their harvest was a success.

The email included an update from Grace, who said that it was clear to the farmers in her group that the groundnuts they had planted in rows had a far greater yield. “We counted the groundnut pods from the row-planted plot and found that each plant had between 70 and 80 pods, compared to 20 to 30 for those plants in the broadcasted plot,” she said. And there was another advantage to adopting this new planting method: “We also found it very easy to manage the crops,” Grace explained. “One just walks between the rows to inspect and harvest them.”

Each member of the farmer’s group will receive a percentage of the crop for food for their families (Grace’s favorite dish is groundnut stew with smoked beef). Some of the groundnuts will be kept as seeds for the next planting, and the rest will be sold through a cooperative Agoro’s farmers have formed with the IRC’s support in order to bargain for better prices on cash crops.

Grace and her fellow farmers say they are eager to apply the knowledge they have gained in the two years they’ve been working with the IRC to farming on a much larger scale— they want to try their hand at commercial production. As Grace confidently noted in her September update, “We have learned a lot.”

Read the original story: Ugandan farmers reclaim killing fields to feed their families (May 7, 2013)

Update: The IRC grows farmers’ incomes in northern Uganda (Dec. 26, 2013)


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