International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Ugandan farmers reclaim killing fields to feed their families

Grace Abalo, Walter Nyeko and their fellow farmers in an Agoro field
Finally back on their land after the long and brutal Lord's Resistance Army conflict, Grace Abalo and her fellow farmers are experimenting with new planting methods with support from the IRC and agricultural trainer Walter Nyeko (center).

Photo: Kate Sands Adams/IRC

KITGUM, Uganda — Round thatched huts dot farmland embraced by mountains blanketed in mist. Women balancing bundles on their heads tread quiet dirt lanes, the babies on their backs sleeping in the shade of a dried calabash gourd. Farmers work their fields with hand-hewn hoes, preparing the rich, brown earth for groundnuts, sesame, beans and rice.
On this sunny April morning in Agoro, a village in Uganda’s northern Lamwo district, it's hard to believe that less than a decade ago the region lay fallow.
Between 1996 and 2005, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army controlled this fertile land. Most of Agoro's residents had been driven from their homes into a makeshift camp that grew up around the local trading center. These displaced farmers, with little space or incentive to grow their own food, lived on relief rations provided by the United Nations. Those who did start kitchen gardens were limited to groundnuts and other crops that would not interfere with the Ugandan Army’s reconnaissance of rebel activity.
Eventually the Ugandan soldiers began escorting some of the women—they did not trust men in this war zone—to cultivate the fields skirting the camp so that they could supplement their families' diets with fresh produce. But the harvest was disappointing.
"They grew practically nothing," says Charles Okello Owiny, who oversees the International Rescue Committee's economic recovery programs in Kitgum. "The soil in this highly concentrated area was soon tapped out."
In the years Agoro's residents spent in the camp, Charles says, many lost touch with their agricultural traditions, including the practice of drying vegetables and grains for storage. Now that the fighting is over and they have returned to their land, many can but eke out livings as subsistence farmers, consuming what they harvest without putting by for the future. "When it comes time for planting," Charles explains, "they are nearly starving."
That's why the IRC is working hard to reintroduce the skills Agoro’s 1,100 farmers need to sow, store and sell their crops. We are enrolling selected community members in “farm and field” vocational schools so that they can share what they learn with their neighbors. As they reintroduce local agricultural traditions to a generation that grew up without them, these agricultural trainers are also teaching older farmers modern methods that can result in more bountiful harvests. 
Agoro’s farmers have been eager to learn—and to experiment. One group of 30 farmers divided a field reserved for groundnuts 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," says Grace Abalo, the group’s leader. Planting in rows also helps prevent the spread of disease, a tip Grace and her fellow famers gleaned from Walter Nyeko, an agricultural trainer working with their group. They’ll see the results of the experiment during the August harvest.
Farmers in Agoro have also been learning to control weeds and pests, as well as level their rice fields to make the best use of available water. They have formed a farmers’ cooperative to bargain for better prices on cash crops such as sesame seeds (in high demand for the production of sesame oil). And they have embraced new threshing, drying and other processing methods that make their rice and other agricultural products more attractive to buyers.
The farmers also are taking advantage of an IRC-supported village savings and loan association to put money aside for their families’ needs, and to take out loans to invest in better farming equipment. With 670 acres of exceptionally fertile farmland to cultivate, Grace says, "we want to stop using hoes."
One of Grace’s neighbors enthusiastically agrees, noting that, after two years working with the IRC, her group is ready to try farming on a much larger scale. "Our biggest hope is to see a brighter future in commercial production," she says.
Agoro, Uganda
The soil in Agoro is rich in minerals that wash down from the surrounding mountains and nourish crops of rice, beans, sesame and groundnuts.

Photo: Kate Sands Adams/IRC
Agoro farmers meet in teh groundnut field
The Agoro farmers' group meets in a field outside the village. Grace Abalo's son Walter sits in her lap — the baby was named in tribute to Walter Nyeko, an agricultural trainer whose expertise has brought many positive changes to the lives of farming families here.

Photo: Melissa Meredith/IRC


Read an update on Grace Abalo, the Agoro farmers, and their groundnut harvest - Oct. 15, 2013

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