Random Thoughts on Another Trek

Four days on the road gives you many observations as one travels across two thirds of America.  Beginning my journey on a Saturday morning meant I had very little traffic with which to deal.  I sailed through our Keystone State and noted some closed rest areas.  This is happening everywhere as states cut budgets.  I’m not sure how many rest areas I passed were shut down but it was many.  This creates a real hazard for motorists.  I hit Columbus, Ohio, as planned, after the Ohio State game began and hit my hotel in Dayton much earlier than last time.  As you might recall a jacknifed truck cost me several hours in June.  I’m not sure why I can’t find a decent place to stay in western Ohio, it may be there aren’t many.  Each place had a pet fee but aside from that traveling with dogs was no problem.

I got through Indianapolis Sunday morning well before the Colts game and driving through southern Indiana and Illinois is tedious.  There is NOTHING to see but flat expanses of farm country speckled with an oil rig here and there.  Then you cross the Mississippi at St. Louis and see that giant Arch over the river welcoming you to the west.  Again, I arrived during the Rams game so there was very little traffic.  As long as one plans their fall trip around football driving is easy.  The freeways around St. Louis were as empty as they were in Indy.  From there it was still a long haul to Springfield, that night’s destination.  It rained intermittently that entire day and I was very relieved to get to La Quinta Inn.  I’ve never stayed at one and this was very nice.  I relaxed in the spa across the hall from my room and had a nice breakfast in the morning.  At that point I had 1100 miles under my belt.

The dogs were extremely nice, loving and experienced travelers.  I think it helped that we were in their owner’s car but I speculated if they wondered “who is this man and where is he taking us?”  Walking them gave me a nice chance to stretch my legs every day.  We bonded nicely but I was no substitute for their Mommy when we got to Santa Fe and they jumped at the sight of her.  I’m just chopped liver now, lol.

Oklahoma was greener than I remembered in June but offered very little in cuisine.  The rest area option was McDonald’s and…nothing.  Those who know me know I hate fast food.  I found a chicken club on the menu and was glad I packed a bunch of energy bars.  Monday was clear and bright as we sailed along at the posted 75 mph speed limit.  Even at that speed it takes eight hours to cross Oklahoma.  I ran into some traffic through Tulsa and Ok City then hit the broad expanse of prairie towards Texas.  We spent that night in Elk City where the chef at the Clarion has no idea what medium rare means.  Those $20 baked potato and green beans really burned me.  I had breakfast in Amarillo, a city you definitely want to miss if at all possible.

Since I’d hit the tourist spots along Route 66 on the June trip I continued on and spent all day going west towards Albuquerque.  The towns are few and far between, nothing but prairie and then desert.  Most of the time there were no other vehicles in sight.  Many of the rest areas were closed and I saw quite a few people pulled over on the shoulder relieving themselves.  I pulled off at one exit for gas and found a lone building, old and rustic, with old fashioned pumps.  A German Shepherd lounged outside the door until a black and white cat came along and took the spot.  I pumped 420 and continued to New Mexico Route 285.  This was the first time in four days I was going north.  The two lane road was posted 65 mph and it was forty miles until I encountered an intersection or building.  This is very soothing and relaxed driving, I could feel myself unwinding as the Rocky Mountains came into sight before me.  We coasted in The City Different and I handed Zombie and Lou Lou to their excited Mom.  The 14 year old Lab took one look at Linda and jumped over the Element’s tailgate in joy.   It only took me an hour to miss those two dogs.

I crossed many rivers on my trip and aside from the Ohio and Mississippi they looked like dry beds.  I’ve never seen such massive drought before, especially considering I went 1900 miles.  In Oklahoma they were nothing more than mud holes.  Climate change is having a severe effect on the Southwest and it is very obvious.  I’m not sure where the water will come from after weeing what is left of the Canadian River which flows (not any more though) through the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma.  It is the main source of water for that region.  This must be a wake up for action.

Using the Market to Create Resilient Agriculture Practices

Cross posted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Care International’s work in Zambia has two main goals: increase the production of staple crops and improve farmers’ access to agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers. But instead of giving away bags of seed and fertilizers to farmers, Care is “creating input access through a business approach,” not a subsidy approach, according to Steve Power, Assistant Country Director for Zambia.

One way they’re doing this is by creating a network of agro-dealers who can sell inputs to their neighbors as well as educate them about how to use hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and other inputs. At the same time, “we are mindful” of the benefits of local varieties of seeds, says Harry Ngoma, Agriculture Advisor for the Consortium for Food Security, Agriculture and Nutrition, AIDS, Resiliency and Markets (C-FAARM). Care and C-FAARM are working with farmers to combine high- and low-technology practices.

Care thinks that this “business approach” will help farmers get the right inputs at the right time, unlike subsidy approaches that give farmers fertilizer for free, but often at the wrong time of year, making the nutrients unavailable to crops. And Care’s focus on training agro-dealers and giving them start-up grants allows the organization to remain invisible to farmers. Power says that Care wants to be a “catalyst to the market” and help transfer resources, without distorting the basic pricing structure.

Another component of Care’s work is improving the production of sorghum and cassava. “Zambia is as addicted to maize as we are to Starbucks coffee,” says Power. But by encouraging the growth of other crops, including sorghum, which is indigenous to Africa, Care can help farms diversify local diets as well as build resilience to price fluctuations and drought.

Care is promoting conservation farming in Zambia as well. The organization has been working in six districts since 2007, reaching 24,000 households. In addition to promoting minimum tillage practices and the use of manure and compost, Care is helping to train government extension officers about conservation farming so that eventually they’ll be responsible-instead of Care-for training farmers.

According to Power, the key to Care’s work is promoting business-like approaches to agriculture alongside more traditional ones, so farmers don’t become dependent on the organization for gifts of fertilizer or seed. These sorts of programs, according to Care, will be more effective at feeding people and increasing incomes than traditional food-aid projects that rely on long-term donor support. This is a big challenge in a country-and a region-facing the impacts of both climate change and the global economic crisis.

Stay tuned for more blogs about how farmers are linking to the private sector.

To learn more about Care’s work in Zambia, visit www.care.org/zambia.

Sweeping Change

This is the final in a four-part series about my visit to Stacia and Kristof Nordin’s permaculture project in Lilongwe, Malawi. Crossposted from Nourishing the Planet.

Travel anywhere in Malawi and you’ll see people sweeping-the sidewalks, the floors of their houses, and the bare dirt outside their homes. And while the sweeping makes everything look tidy, it’s also one of the major causes of damage to soils in the country. Because sweeping compacts soils, leaving it without any organic matter, erosion is widespread and the soil has very little nutrients. As a result, crops-especially corn-in Malawi rely heavily on the use of artificial fertilizers.

Kristof and Stacia Nordin have been working in Malawi to help educate farmers that “tidy” yards and gardens aren’t necessarily better for producing food or the environment. Stacia works for the German-base NGO GTZ, while Kristof runs the farm and is a community facilitator. Their home is used as a demonstration plot for permaculture methods that incorporate composting, water harvesting, intercropping and other methods that help build organic matter in soils, conserve water, and protect agricultural diversity.

“Design,” says Kristof, “is key in permaculture,” meaning that everything from the garden beds to the edible fish pond to the composting toilet have an important role on their property.  And while their neighbors have been skeptical of the Nordins’ unswept yard, they’re impressed by the quantity-and diversity-of food grown by the family. More than 200 indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown on the land, providing a year round supply of food to the Nordins and their neighbors.

In addition, they’re training the 26 tenants who rent houses on the property to practice permaculture techniques around their homes and have built an edible playground, where children can play and learn about different indigenous fruits.  More importantly, the Nordins are showing that by not sweeping, people can get more out of the land than just maize.

Such practices will become even more important as drought, flooding, other effects of climate change continue to become more evident in Malawi and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

For more about permaculture, check out Chapter 6, “From Agriculture to Permaculture” in State of the World 2010, which was released today.

Innovation of the Week: Land Grabs

(This new diary contributor is writing good stuff on important issues. – promoted by John Morgan)

Crossposted from Nourishing the Planet.

Over the last few years, China, India, and the Middle East have invested heavily in African land, spurred on by the global food and economic crises-as well as the threats of climate change, population growth, and water scarcity. By controlling agricultural land in Kenya, Ethiopia, and elsewhere on the continent, these nations hope to secure future food supplies for their populations, even as sub-Saharan Africa faces increasing hunger. At least 23 million people are currently at risk for starvation in the Horn of Africa. And this increasing foreign investment in African land has largely remained under the global radar. In addition, the push for alternative energy sources is driving investors to purchase land for energy crops, like corn and sugar cane, which can be used to produce biofuels instead of food.

Some experts argue that “land grabbing” or the investment in foreign soil is progress for agriculture, by bringing development and big agriculture to impoverished countries through the introduction of new technologies and jobs. But, as the article, The Great Land Grab, co-authored by Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group member Anuradha Mittal, explains, “corporate agribusiness has been known to establish itself in developing countries with the effect of either driving independent farmers off their land or metabolizing farm operation so that farmers become a class of workers within the plantation.”

Land grabs can come at a great cost to local farmers and communities. In Pakistan, for example, the United Arab Emirates purchased 324,000 hectares of land in the Punjab province. According to a local farmer’s movement, this purchase will displace an estimated 25,000 villagers in the province, where 94 percent of the people are subsistence farmers only utilizing about 2 hectares of land each. Because of these “land grabs,”not only are farmers removed from land, but the local economy also suffers.  Many hunger-stricken countries, such as Sudan and Kenya, will have to import foods that were once grown locally.