Past the cashew groves and groundnut fields, pausing to wave at the workers and to let roving donkey carts, and goat herds pass, I stepped out of the truck, exchanged greetings, and settled in under the canopy of neem, acknowledging warmly the curious smiles and stares of villagers. “What's it like to farm here?” I asked Fatou Dianka, an organic farmer and founding member of the Jubo Farm Association, in Batamar, Senegal.
Gazing toward an open space where melons carpeted the ground and climbed the stray papya tree, Fatou extended her hand, “There,” she pointed, “We needed a place to grow food and make a living during the dry season.” Her eyes lit up as she relaxed into memory and I listened attentively, scribbling notes as she told me about how she started to cultivate space, turning over the Earth and singing as seeds beds were tucked—planting more than seeds that day.
The local priest saw the women working, noticed their commitment and need for space to earn extra income and sought a way to help. Soon after, Fatou found herself in Kaolack, with 20,000 CFA (just under $40) pooled together from interested farm friends in the village. She sought support from Caritas, a non-governmental organization working on agriculture and food security initiatives in and around Batamar and the Fatik region of Senegal.
Planting the seeds of the as yet to be imagined - a leap of faith from across the pond...
Back at my farm in La Valle, WI, after the last quince was harvested from our orchards and potato dug from our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) fields, I hopped across the pond, to discover what growing a farm and farm business entailed in other parts of the world. I hoped to lend a hand where I could in supporting organic vegetable production with women farmer networks as part of National Cooperative Business Association's Farmer to Farmer Program in Senegal. This was my fifth trip to Africa – third adventure in Senegal with the Farmer to Farmer Program. With each experience new life is danced and breathed into me. What I love about the farmer to farmer program is its ground-up, peer to peer approach. Your work is based on the needs, skills, and interests of the farmers—and not surprisingly, these needs, skills, and interests are characteristic of farmers in Wisconsin, the U.S., the world over.
I hung up my tools and traded glacial till for mangrove mud, bur oaks for baobabs, and breathed in the scents of ocean, fish, and Sahale heat. Next to Wisconsin, Senegal is a place I feel most at home in. I ventured inland to where my assignment would begin near the village of Sokone along Sine Saloum delta just southeast of Kaolack. Much of my work with farmers and agriculture extension staff with Caritas in the region entailed discussions, demonstrations, and swapping techniques such as composting, biological control of pests and diseases. We also designed a few crop rotation plans and schemed ideas for earthworks such as berms, swales, and raised beds for improved water management. I think all farmers struggle with finding the balance between production, pricing, scale, finding capital and markets to meet our farm's and community's needs. We are constantly tweaking, sourcing, seed saving, and experimenting as entreprenuers. How to best manage for the short term needs while at the same time balancing production systems and balance sheets for the long term is a dance that every farmer faces regardless of where you live in the world or sit on the agricultural value chain.
This search for finding balance with farming and right livelihood wove into the rhythm and cadence of song, dance, and compost that greeted me in the fields and faces of Batamar, Pakala Samthie, Toube Mouride, and Keur Momath Mbayang.
About a week into my work, I was able to pause from planting, let the compost tea discussions steep and spend a few hours in Batamar to interview Fatou. With translation, logistical help, and encouragement of Yaguemar Diop, NCBA-CLUSA program director in Senegal, I learned more about the stories of how the women farmers organize and find ways to make a living when they are up against so many challenges.
How you grow it is what you get—whether it's onions or organizations.
I discovered that more than onion seeds were planted that day Fatou traveled to Kaolack to meet with Caritas and ask for support to build a fence for her vegetable beds.
As Fatou shared her experiences, I was reminded that to grow food, you not only need sound science and technique, but also strong relationships, inspiration from a variety of sources. A little hard work, timing, and luck never hurt too! Luck and timing were on Fatou's side and her hard work paid off. In Kaolack, she found herself face to face with Dominique, a French nun, whose relationship would help catalyze the formation of Fatou's farm and that of 48 other women farmers in her village.
After initial support with fencing, Dominique encouraged and helped Fatou and others to apply for assistance from Caritas for building a well and accessing land. Both were granted and the women had funds remaining. Dominique's advice was heeded: keep these funds in a separate account when sharing plots of land and ask every farmer to pay 1,000 CFA (~$2.00) for membership. With strength in numbers, invested interest from farm women, and 2 hectares (~4.9 acres) of arable land granted from the village Chief, the Jubo Grower Association was born. Jubo—which means 'people who are together' in Serer—pooled together resources and ideas and sought formal recognition from the government to be recognized as a group. This was granted and with it the opportunity to open a bank account, access credit, as well as gain recognition from local 'agriculture extension like groups' from which they could receive additional technical training and business development support.
This all started by planting a seed in an open space, opening the hearts and minds of others around Fatou. It is the hope of Fatou and the Jubo farm women that every child is fed. It is their dream that their children will be strong enough to finish school and financially stand on their own two feet—propping up their own lives and those of their families.
Just how far will hopes, dreams, a 1,000 CFA, and a few onion and tomato seeds stretch?
Most farm women with the Jubo Grower's Association, grow tomatoes, onions, greens, okra, eggplant, peppers, beans, mints, bissop (hibiscus) and cabbage along with other vegetables and herbs, rotated on about twenty square meters of space. Along with a steady water supply from wells, a few strategically planted papaya, mango and cashew trees and cassava, the women can earn their own money and invest it with other growers in the group. In turn, income earned is invested in their families, their children's education, and in their community.
Currently, the women are working toward financing a millet grinder through a variety of means including investment of membership dues. Member dues work in a few ways. In addition to funding a piece of equipment. At the individual level, every ten days, the women get together and choose a member of the group who will receive 40,000 CFA to use. This is done through discussion and voting. This works like a no interest revolving loan fund, as members will pay back the funds over a few months time. At the end of the cyle, all members will have received support and motivation to innovate grow parts of their farm business. One thousand CFA, in general will provide enough food for a day for a family of 8 in the villages. With 40,000 CFA a woman can start a business or buy a needed piece of equipment, and still support the food needs of her household.
“Gardening can and does change women's lives,” Fatou relayed. Her eyes met mine and with a smile and intensity matched by the mid-day sun, she relayed, “Tell the world that we are willing to work hard, we know how to manage our funds and make our own decisions. We know how to work together as a group and resolve conflict through consensus. Tell your farm friends in Wisconsin and in the world, that as farmers you are stronger when you work together. Tell them that we have skills to share, such as improved composting techniques and which plants grow well together. Tell them that we want to continue to grow our farm business, learn about new techniques as well as new products, and find ways to work with others toward shared goals.”
Learning from Fatou about how she and others got started and how different women grower groups organize in the region, I observed how much the women here (and throughout the world) could benefit simply from learning what their sister networks nearby are up to, with for example, tool design, composting, crop rotation, seed collecting, and making value added products such as bissop juice. As a farmer, I have witnessed well-intentioned experts and scientists deliver 'best practices and technologies' to our farm and farmer networks without an understanding of culture or practical applications to field or farm systems. The result is 'best practicitis' or thinking that farming, poverty, and agricultural development are a sort of entwined technical problems that we can fix through technology alone.
Farming is also a social act and we forget how much we rely each other to grow food. On our farm we look to other farmers and eaters for perspectives and advice as well as engaging expert knowledge. You have to create space for others' stories, ideas, and questions to emerge. I have been fortunate to both participate and facilitate gatherings at our farm and around the world.
So by meeting together, face to face, we can engage in dialogue, share stories and techniques, question assumptions and practices that seem to make our lives easier as farmers but actually work against our long-term interests. As a result we can find common threads to focus on wherever we might sit on the agricultural value chain.
The neem tree's shadow stretched to make room for waning daylight, and I was reminded that it was time to stir the compost tea as I didn't want to keep the growers of Keur Momayh Mbayang village waiting nearby. Fatou and I bid farewell with a shared understanding that our lives and stories as farmers were entwined.
So, with a spring to my step, gratitude in my heart, stories in my head, and techniques to share, I lept back across the pond to stir the pot of possibilities toward growing healthy food and building community, one guild at a time.
Erin Schneider is an organic farmer, educator and fruit lover! She co-owns Hilltop Community Farm in La Valle WI is a proud member of Wisconsin Farmers Union, and current member representing National Farmers Union, with the World Farmer Organization's Women's Committee. She along with her husband Rob McClure, have supported farmer to farmer trainings and delegations at their farm, around the U.S., in Nicaragua, Senegal, Argentina, Zambia, and Ethiopia.
With heartfelt gratitude to the following individuals: Yaguemar Diop, NCBA-CLUSA Program Director in Senegal, who provided interview translation from Wolof & French to English, to Athanase, Caritas Field Program Director in Senegal for helping arrange the interiview and field visits during my F2F assignment; and to Fatou Dianka for taking the time out of your very busy day to pause to let me interview her and share her success stories.
For U.S. Farmers interested in upcoming opportunities to engage in NCBA – CLUSA's Farmer to Farmer program contact Jane Podolsky at email@example.com or 202-383-5451.
Have a case study or farm practice to share with the world? Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for opportunities to write/contribute to the World Farmer Organization's website, newsletter. More at http://www.wfo-oma.com/