Are farmers a dying breed?

by Luigi Guarino on September 24, 2007

I didn’t go looking for this. These three stories came to me independently, from different sources, from different parts of the world, but all within a day or two of each other. And all describing agriculture in crisis.

The first story is from Sierra Leone. Only 10% of its rice land is being cultivated, and Sierra Leonians eat rice imported from Asia. Why? Lack of confidence, according to Peter Kagbo, the coordinator of a rural development association in a village called Masongbo:

You have to understand that rice farming is hard and difficult work. You can’t do it as a hobby. And when you make a mistake – when you use the wrong seed or sow at the wrong time – you have wasted your time and energy, and you and your family goes hungry.

The long civil war disrupted traditional structures, dislocated communities, eroded knowledge. So Mr Kagbo got farmers to work together in an agricultural cooperative, pooling their labour, experience and resources, spreading the risks:

[Members] … get to borrow seed without paying interest and we monitor the seeds closely to ensure they pick the seeds that are right for their fields … After we recoup expenses we create a seed bank for farmers for the following year and then share the rest out with amputees and other people in the community who are incapable of farming.

Next, from Poland, an analysis of how things changed for farmers after communism. Again, it’s a story of increased risk, and how to mitigate it:

… in the rolling wooded hills of the Swieto Krzyskie area, Teresa Barwicka decided to add value to her farm in the village of Wzdól by going organic. People will pay higher prices for her vegetables, grain and meat because they are certified as uncontaminated by pesticides or other chemicals, she has found. Life is quite good now. “We decided we had to diversify our production, because the risks are smaller. If one thing goes wrong, then something else works out.” Her diversification included building a summerhouse for tourists, and a miniature food-processing factory, where she pickles cabbages, mushrooms and cucumbers and makes apple vinegar and fermented beetroot, which is said to ward off cancer.

But not everyone has learned that lesson, rural communities empty themselves, the young migrate to the cities. And so finally to Iceland, where a journalist visits the réttir, the annual sheep round-up at Fossvallarétt, like she used to do when she was a kid.1 And she realizes that something has changed:

… most of the sheep owners present at the réttir were in it just for fun. They live in Reykjavík or the greater capital region, rent facilities for their sheep and horses in a collective farm nearby called Fjárborg. They play around with pairing rams and ewes with rare colors to make their herds look pretty. They chase their sheep into the mountains surrounding Fjárborg in the spring, and though they could herd them by foot in fall, they prefer horses because they enjoy riding. They send most of their sheep to the slaughterhouse after réttir and eat the meat themselves or give it to their friends and family.

I suppose the risks just got too much, the alternatives too attractive. Sheep farmers decided to do something else. Sheep rearing became a hobby rather than a livelihood.

Farmers in Sierra Leone, Poland and Iceland probably have more in common among themselves than with city people in their respective countries. They

… face the same kinds of problems: too little land, uncertain markets and fluctuating prices. Those who get by best often choose the same kinds of solutions to ensure their livelihoods: finding novel new crops, processing crops on the farm, inviting paying guests from the city to enjoy their clean, rural environment, exploiting the higher prices some will pay for organic produce, and sending other members of the household to work in cities or even abroad. Those who stick with farming on its own often lead very meagre lives indeed.

That may be overly bleak. But it is clear that if salvation is to come, it will come in large measure from diversification, and from agrobiodiversity.

Footnotes:
  1. I’ve adapted my title from her opening sentence. []

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Glenn September 24, 2007 at 3:20 pm

Maybe us researchers and pundits should follow the lead of farmers??? Well, we are doing it anyway, consciously or not…

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Jeremy September 24, 2007 at 5:47 pm

What are you saying, Glenn. That researchers and pundits should abandon this tough life and seek a better one doing something completely different in the city? Or that, like the Icelanders, we should get other jobs and do research and punditry for fun?

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