When I first traveled to Senegal in 2012 for a farmer to farmer volunteer project, it was during the heart of the rainy season in August. The smell of ocean, fish, palm oil and traffic permeated the air as I arrived in a foot of water at the airport in Dakar.
Since then, Senegal has continued to flow into my farm life and professional journey—and the suddenness of the Saloum's riverine current combined with the predictability of tides gives me pause in considering what is in greater demand now than our attention? What during our brief time on this planet do we need to attend to most? I carried this question with me as I washed ashore in Senegal this past November, supporting a Farmer to Farmer project working with the women farmers who are just getting started with organic vegetable production in Thiangalahene Village southeast of Kaolack. Starting anything new is overwhelming. Their are myriad tasks you need to tend to, let alone the possibilities to explore for your markets. What has helped in my own farm journey is having opportunities to learn and share knowledge, resources with other farmers and eaters for perspectives and advice as well as engaging expert knowledge. This is why I am so attracted to the F2F program model and so appreciative of the opportunity to volunteer—supporting my farmer peers with insights I have learned about what to tend to when getting started.
Above photos: Baobab giants, a day at the Mabo market, peanut harvests in the field en route to the villages. Photos by Erin Schneider
It always takes me a few days of unlearning before I fall in the familiar rhythm of field visits fueled by the passing of pelicans, baobabs, street music, and the drumbeat of wooden mattocks threshing and picking at peanuts en route to the villages. I initially had in my mind that I would be working with one village over a two week period. Though village in this context referred to an association of villages and my time in the field would involve meeting with as many farmers in the village network as possible. The farmers had only a few hours of their time to give as the peanut harvest was well underway. I know all too well how hard it is to break away from the farm demands during harvest season, so while our trusted and skillful driver, Ibrahim, cruised us past moringa and mango trees—forever on the lookout for the renegade goat crossing the road—I found myself thinking what can I do in three hours' time in each village that might have an impact, support the farmers' success?
I found success by taking time to meet people wherever they are at—trusting that whomever shows up are the right people at the right time. The first hour, we took the time to get to know each other—meeting and thanking village Chiefs and Mayors and the farmers for inviting me and trying to unearth what is working, what is challenging, what tools do they have on hand and where they are at with growing their gardens—individually and as a group.
Above: Demonstrating compost piles in the villages. Typical compost materials include greens: Neem tree leaves, crushed acacia leaves, and other herb leaves (mint family)2. Water 3. Manure: Decomposed cow, chicken or goat manure Nitrogen layer – groundnut crop residue, leaf litter4. Charcoal or wood ash– 5. Egg shells – good source of calcium especially for Tomato plants – note can top dress directly around solanaceae plants6. Air/oxygen – adding larger sticks, grasses, woody material will help create air space, balance carbon: nitrogen ratio.7. Time – Turn/add water 2/week (for example Sundays/Thursdays).8. Love - Photo by Erin Schneider
What is heartening in all my experiences farming and with the F2F program is that composting is a universal language farmers speak the world over. It's accessible, uses the resources at hand, involves the entire family (children and elders can help with turning – adding to the piles) and facilitates a way to feed the earth which has just fed you without having to rely on outside inputs. In all of the dozens of farms and hundreds of farmers I've interacted with through the F2F program, everyone was composting in some manner. There's always more to learn about the soil and ways we can humbly collaborate with the humusphere. This remained true in working with Thiangalahene village and we creatively constructed compost pits, piles, and heaps with the resources at hand and made turning compost into a dance party.
Two hours in and so much terrain to cover in so little time! Time to stack functions. By composting you simultaneously improve your soils' ability to hold water and partially decomposed compost can serve as a mulch. During my farmer to farmer assignment we leveraged composts' ability as a teaching tool; exploring low to no cost methods for water conservation through composting and mulching—thus reducing the need for constant watering. A challenge the women face in the village are many. Their garden wells have gone dry, they are facing shorter and more unpredictable rainy seasons, and they have to pay for daily water use for their crops. I am reminded not to take water for granted.
Illustration 1: Demonstrating seed bed techniques and crop rotation at Thiangalahene and Koki villages. Photos by Erin Schneider and Boubacar
Soil, water, and seeds go hand in hand in growing food. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization links soil's and the simple act of composting to many different areas of sustainable development – poverty reduction, hunger eradication, economic growth and environmental protection. I think this is noble and noteworthy, since promoting the sustainable management of soils contributes to soil health and stable ecosystems, and thus to the effort of eradicating hunger and food insecurity.
Baba Khady with Nguindor Village holding lettuce and onion seed he has saved at his farm. Upper right, photo of typical vendor ware selling seeds at the local market alongside chemicals. Sourcing quality seed is a challenge for the farmers in Senegal. Photo by Erin Schneider
Halfway into hour two and the floodgates of ideas pour. What happens once we grow soil via composting? Well, we can now grow plants. Another tool we shared involved setting up seed bed demonstrations to experiment with crop rotation plans and to test different varieties of peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, turnip, okra and lettuce and see if planting herbs such as basil, lemon grass, and vitaveer can provide multiple benefits including deterring pests, building soil, and preventing erosion. I was able to source some of the seeds used from another local farmer, Baba Khady, who farms at Nguidor Village and is part of APROFES network. I worked with Baba and others with APROFES on a seed saving F2F project earlier and it is uplifting to learn that he and others are now producing enough quality vegetable seed to sell to local networks. Finding ways to facilitate local village to village farmer networking was uplifting!
The Sahale sunshine penetrated through the papaya leaves—no time to linger—and we needed to retreat to the neem tree before wrapping up. How is it that time can be so sudden? We would close out training with a brief review, reflection, and a commitment to share what we learned with those who could not take time away from the fields to participate. Asking lots of questions, encouraging and instilling a sense of confidence and hope in the farmers and just soaking in the place goes a long way toward success in the field. Laughing lots and generally being willing to make a fool out of myself while attempting to dance and speak Wolof makes for a long-lasting impression to a short time in the field. There is always space for singing and dancing.
I credit my time in Senegal, volunteering with the Farmer to Farmer program, not only in opening doors professionally, but also opening my heart. The longer I farm, the more I discover that science and technique, while essential to production and business, only gets you so far in growing food sustainably. You need to balance this with love and celebration. It was uplifting to walk through the garden gate in Thiangalahene village, Senegal, and be welcomed in song and smiles by farmers who have taken the time out of their day to listen, learn, and share—to step into Wely Cisse's home at Koki village and see questioning eyes turn to confident expressions when we finished a compost demonstration and walked the site of a future shared garden discussing potential plantings. As I revisit plans and comb through seed catalogs for next season's CSA and flower program, I find myself humming a tune to the plum trees in our orchard while pruning their limbs. I imagine the moment when it dances into fruit and I can share with my neighbors and compare notes, swap scion and stories with my soil sisters in Senegal and in Wisconsin.
I am grateful for these opportunities that the Farmer to Farmer Program has provided in growing professionally and personally I think we need more farmers who are willing to engage with our hands, hearts and heads to build a better world one compost heap at a time. So while you are resting from a season of being bent over the bean fields, let your mind wander, scheme and dream while humming a tune that blends Wolof and English to the drumbeat of wooden mattocks threshing peanuts and erupting in laughter. Dream of harvests, travels, and that time-honored life giving tradition of sharing stories, seeds, and knowledge, celebrating our connection to our food and to the Earth. And pause to think about what needs tending to most in your own gardens and the gardens of your heart.
Erin Schneider, farms, teaches, and loves fruit. She co-owns and stewards Hilltop Community Farm a diversified CSA and market garden in La Valle WI and teaches through UW Madison's Farm and Industry Short Course Program and College of Ag and Life Sciences. For the past 16 years Erin has developed, managed, researched, taught sustainable agriculture and conservation programs that further innovation and capacity for farmers and communities to thrive in the world.
In addition to the people, plants, and dirt-scapes she tends to, Erin serves on the Administrative Council for the USDA North Central SARE Program, is the Sauk Co. Chapter President of Wisconsin Farmers Union, and a recent North American delegate for the World Farmer Organization - Women in Agriculture Committee. This is her 5th time volunteering in Senegal with the Farmer to Farmer program supporting women farmers in organic vegetable production.
For more information about the Farmer to Farmer program and opportunities to volunteer visit: