This Morning Over The Garden Fence ~ A Field For All Seasons

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I’ve watched this crop of rapeseed developing behind our house since the autumn when it was sown – back to back with the wheat harvest. All through the winter it clung to the ground and was much eaten by pigeons. In April, after a good dosing with agrichemicals, it sprang into life like Jack’s beanstalk, and was soon taller than me. By May is was a sea of acid yellow, that mellowed to gold. This morning at 5.30 am it was turned to copper. As I’m writing this, the field, under the full-on midday sun, is being visited by hosts of cabbage white butterflies.

So it is that the plants have survived deluge, bird predation, gale, blizzard, frost, three lots of snow, and now weeks of ground-baking drought. The plants look almost ready to harvest, although when I inspected a couple of pods last night, there seemed to be precious little seed inside. Which made me think that only the farmers who are harvesting sun with their fields of solar panels will be having a good crop this year.

Here’s a retrospective of Townsend Meadow during 2018.

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Five Minutes In A Very Yellow Field ~ Regular Random

The field of oil seed rape behind the house has burst into full yellowness under our sudden heat wave. Its scent is lovely too – for now. Later it will be all downhill to odour of rotting cabbage. Something to look forward to then. In the meantime I’ve been having great fun snapping away and capturing the glow in all directions. Those of you who often visit this spot will recognise the old windmill on top of Windmill Hill, seen here from my less than usual angle.

 

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Regular Random Frequently Flying Scientist Desley Jane challenges us to spend only five minutes with a given subject. Please visit her to find out more.

Let’s Hear It For The Bees ~ Three Big Cheers

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There are different kinds of achievement in this shot. The first is that I managed to capture it at all, teetering in a flower bed with my Kodak Easyshare. The sun was full on too so I could not see the camera screen. But by far the biggest achievement is the presence of three bumble bees all at once.

All over the world bee numbers have been declining. Swarms in the US have been especially hit. Over the last few decades many factors have played a part, including habitat erosion, lack of quality forage and disease. But in 2006 honey bee keepers began to report dramatic losses. It involved the deaths of whole hives and has been dubbed colony collapse disorder.

Environmentalists believe the cause to be the neonicotinoids in the new generation of pesticides. They want them banned until unbiased research proves otherwise. It is a sobering thought that without bees to pollinate fruit and vegetables, the US would be left with only three staples that do not require insect pollination: wheat, rice and corn.

To find out more, please visit Dear Kitty. Some Blog.  She has posted a good video that covers this topic. In the meantime, everyone needs to think about what they can do to encourage bees, including growing some bee-friendly plants. We also need to be prepared to pay a little more for organic produce, or to do what we can to grow our own food, WITHOUT chemicals.

This would be a real achievement – not only good for bees, but for us, the soil, and other wildlife besides.

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

 

 

 

Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms

For those of you who read my recent post Valentine’s Day Runaway this is one of the things Team Farrell got up to next; it had a lot to do with smut. And no: it’s not what you think.

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Smallholder farms on the Great Rift Escarpment, Kenya

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For most of the 1990s we were based out in Kenya, where Team Leader Graham, food storage expert and all-round fix-it man, was one of several  British scientists running a crop protection project alongside Kenyan scientists at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL). This work was funded by DFID, Britain’s Department for International Development, which in turn is of course funded by British taxpayers.

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Most of Kenya’s farmers are women. Their efforts feed their families and feed the nation.

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Many of the project’s programmes of work were done on farms, and involved helping farmers to devise their own research methods for controlling the numerous pests that attack their crops both before and after harvest. Since just about every Kenyan, from the President down, is some kind of farmer, or has a farm in the family, this was an important project, and just about everyone was interested in the outcomes. (Next time you are buying French beans or mange tout peas in the supermarket, look where they have come from. Much of this kind of produce is grown under contract on small farms like the ones below.)

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A typical farmstead in the Kenya Highlands north of Nairobi. The volcanic soil is very fertile, but also susceptible to erosion.

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Today Kenya is undergoing a massive hi-tech revolution through the proliferation of cell phone and computer technology, but it still relies on agriculture for survival. When you discover that only 15% of Kenya’s landmass has enough rain or is fertile enough for arable production you may begin to see the scale of the problem for a nation that is only now beginning to industrialize. There are of course the big multinational outfits that grow wheat, coffee, tea, flowers and pineapples, but most of the food that Kenyans eat is grown on thousands of tiny farms, many less than an acre in area.

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Gathering Napier Grass from roadside plots to feed ‘zero-grazed’ dairy cows. Most farms are so small that cattle are kept in small paddocks and their food is brought to them: yet another daily chore, along with gathering cooking fuel and attending to children and fields.

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Furthermore, most of Kenya’s farmers are women. Providing most of the the country’s food, they are in every sense the backbone of the nation. They stay in their rural homes, tending the crops and bringing up the children while husbands work away to earn extra cash to repair homes, buy fertilizer, educate their children and fund small business enterprises.

These men usually head to the cities where they work as security guards, clerks, hotel staff, house servants and drivers. Most take their annual leave at harvest and planting times so as to be back on their farms to help with the year’s most arduous tasks. So however you look at it, everyone in Kenya works very hard. Certainly in the nineties even most professional Kenyans believed that owning a plot of land to work at weekends was an essential insurance policy in a nation with no social services.

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Most of the milk from smallholder’s cows is sold to provide cash to pay for children’s education and medical bills. While primary education has been free over the last few years, there are still expensive books and uniforms to buy, and secondary education is not free. On this farm the owner is also using any disposable income to bit-by-bit replace his timber farm house with a good stone house.

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So back in 1998, as part and parcel of protecting Kenya’s agricultural production, Team Leader Graham invited Nosy Writer (me) to accompany him on a fact finding mission around the farms north of Nairobi. We were on a quest to plot the incidence of SMUT, a fungal disease that was affecting Napier Grass, an important fodder crop. Most smallholders kept a small number of dairy cows because the selling of milk provided a valuable supplement to their income, helping to pay for school fees and medical expenses.

Most farms are too small to include pasture and so the cows are ‘zero-grazed’, that is, kept in small paddocks and their fodder (mostly Napier Grass) brought to them. This grass, if well-tended, grows into huge perennial clumps that can be cut at intervals. It can also be usefully grown on vertical banks to consolidate field terraces, or wherever the farmer can find a space, often on roadside verges. However, once smut gets a hold, the plant will gradually weaken and its food value decrease. Not only that, smut spores blow on the wind, and infect other plants. The only remedy is to root up the infected plants and burn them.

Graham and Kungu delighted to find smut on Waiyaki Way

Nothing pleases plant pathologists more than to find a nicely diseased plant. After a morning spent searching for smutted plants out on the farms, Doctors Graham Farrell and Jackson Kung’u are amused to spot a case back in the city. Here it is on a highway verge near the National Agricultural Research Laboratory in Nairobi. Smut lives up to its name and turns the flowering stems a sooty black. The fungus gradually weakens the plant and reduces it in mass and nutritional value.

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My job on the smut quest was to hold the clip-board and the other end of the measuring tape while we sampled farm plots. Our third, and  most essential team member, (in fact he was the real team leader) was Njonjo. He was the one who heroically drove us up and down the hilly Kikuyu lanes that had recently been ravaged by torrential El Nino rains.

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Rift lane after July downpour

As well as being one of NARL’s top drivers, Njonjo was himself a farmer, and so had a vested interest in getting to the bottom of the smut infestation. Since Graham’s Kiswahili was a bit rusty, and many of the older farmers preferred to speak Kikuyu, Njonjo provided them with on-the-spot lectures on what they should do with their smut-infected plants. He also talked our way onto every farm, where we welcomed in with huge courtesy, despite arriving uninvited.

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Njonjo and Margaret the farmer. She was busy making compost when we arrived on her farm.

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This farmer was so grateful to be told about his smutted Napier Grass he presented us with some sugar cane. We also came home with chickens, maize cobs and bags of pears

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One of our tasks on the farm was to sample farmers’ Napier Grass plots to see how far they were infected, and to what extent the affected plants had lost mass. Njonjo organised a team of unemployed lads to help with the sampling.

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Before the cell-phone revolution of recent years, farming information was hard to come by. Here Njonjo delivers his Smut Lecture to an impromptu gathering of smallholders who have spotted our arrival in their district and want to know what we are up to.

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And here are three good reasons why Kenyans work so hard…

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…education, education, education.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

In the Rift: in and out of focus

WP Photo Challenge: Focus

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You may have seen a version of this photo in an earlier post, but it’s worth another look for various reasons – all of them to do with FOCUS. This shot was probably taken late morning. The farmsteads of Escarpment are shadowed by the Eastern Rift behind. Out under the sun, the old volcano Longonot flattens and drifts into mistiness. Your brain tells you that your are witnessing a mirage.

You can climb up Longonot if you want to, and walk around the rim. (We never did.) Inside the crater, Rider Haggard-style, there is a wonderful hidden forest filled with wildlife. In the middle distance, but not quite visible, runs the old road from Nairobi to Naivasha, built by Italian prisoners of war in WW2.

But to come back to the foreground, and the largely Kikuyu community of Escarpment, this is one of the places where, in 1997-8, Team Leader and Nosy Writer carried out some of the Team Leader’s doctoral fieldwork on SMUT. Smut is a fungal disease that attacks Napier Grass, an important animal fodder crop. If you didn’t read the smutting post, coming up is a photo of the smut team in action, complete with some Rift Valley fog which usually happens during Kenya’s cold season in June and July.  Here it provides  the soft-focus-background-look without need of any technical jiggery-pokery.

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Team Leaders Njonjo and Graham weighing clumps of Napier Grass. The object to establish a disease assessment scale for estimating the food loss of a smut-infected field.

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Actually, the real leader in Operation Smut was Njonjo. He’s the one holding the bundle of Napier Grass. His family’s land is in Escarpment, much sub-divided between himself and his brothers. When we visited his home he told us that his own holding was about a quarter of an acre. This was one reason why he worked as a driver for the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and was not as a full-time farmer. He had children to educate, and his land alone could not support them all.

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Napier Grass in the foreground with Escarpment farms beyond. This important crop is grown on road verges and field terrace boundaries to feed ‘zero-grazed’ stock. The small size of most farms  (some less than an acre) means there is insufficient ground for both pasture and cultivation.

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Kikuyu farmstead on a drizzly El Nino day.

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And if you are wondering why Kenyan farms are so very small (several acres in the fertile Central Highlands would be considered quite large for many families) then that’s old colonial constructs for you. Kenya may have been an independent nation state for fifty odd years, but the colonial concept of land management and ownership, along with many other inappropriate British institutions, is alive and well.

Because that’s the thing about British institutions – they are sneakily feudal and thus very hard to unpick. Even in Britain, most of the population is generally unaware that most of the nation’s land is owned by a small number of people who are fully committed to keeping it that way. Ownership in the form of title deeds coupled with an elitist sense of superiority and personal entitlement based on heredity fortify their position. Increased urbanisation is in their interest; it keeps hoi polloi out of the deer parks and off the grouse moors (unless of course they are paying high fees to be there.)

In Kenya much of the population still occupies plots that were part of the designated Native Reserves back in the 1900s.  Since those days the population has increased many-fold, and family farms have been subdivided to point where they cannot easily support one family. This situation underpins much of the creeping poverty that you will see in Kenya today. It is the reason why at least 75% of the nation’s food is grown by women smallholders.

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Women selling their excess garden produce at Wundanyi market, Taita Hills.

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These essential growers are the rural wives who stay on what remains of family land to grow what they can, while their husbands  migrate to the towns to work in shops, hotels, and as drivers,security guards and house servants. These men will return home maybe once or twice a year when they have their annual leave. At such times they will help with the harvest and undertake house repairs. This is also the reason why most parents struggle so hard to educate at least some of their children – so they do not have to live this way.

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When the British occupied British East Africa at the end of the 19th century, they treated the territory in much the way a British landowner would manage his inherited estates. There was the presumption of absolute ownership. All indigenous people who hunted for a living were labelled poachers and treated accordingly. Land was divided into Native Reserves and Forest Reserves and latterly there were also Game Reserves. All the land that had not been alienated for European settlement was Crown Land unless it was Native Reserve land. By 1914, five million acres had been allotted for European settlement. The Maasai had also been removed from their fertile grazing lands on the Laikipia Plateau and relegated to the poor land that is now known as the Maasai Mara.

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European owned wheat fields, Laikipia, below Mount Kenya. Taken from a plane window hence the haze.

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Under colonial rule, Africans could not leave their Reserves unless it was to work for Europeans. Hut and poll taxes were imposed to force them to do so. When overgrazing and land erosion became evident in overcrowded Reserves, well-meaning British Agriculture Officers informed the locals that they were doing everything wrong. Farmers were urged to plant in a European way, to grow strains and varieties of crops to suit British markets. In particular, the growing of nutrient-, water-guzzling maize over traditional, more nourishing crops such as millet was promoted. There was the enforced terracing of land and the confiscation of stock animals without compensation if deemed to be in excess.

Meanwhile, large blocks of the best settlement land were taken  up by British settlers, including a number of British aristocrats whose descendants still live on large estates in Kenya. After the 1st and 2nd World War, British veterans of the officer class were actively encouraged to settle the so-called ‘White Highlands’ around the Rift and grow cash crops. When many sold up at Independence, their tea and coffee estates were taken over by European corporations. Other settlers who wished to leave at that time were bought out by the British Government who then apparently handed over the bill to the new Kenyan government. The new nation state thus started out in debt, having paid to get its own land back. It was not a good beginning.

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A beautiful corner of Lord Delamere’s estate of Soysambu at Elmenteita in the Rift Valley. The pink dots on the soda lake are flamingos.

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Egerton Castle, built in Njoro in the Rift Valley between 1930-40. Its owner was the Fourth Baron Egerton of Tatton, Cheshire. It is now part of Egerton University and used as a wedding venue.

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However you look at it,then, the land situation in Kenya does not present a pretty picture, and this is only a brief, soft-focus version. After the British left in 1963, Kenyans might have been able to leave their Reserves without passes, and walk on whichever side of the street they chose, but the Crown Lands concept of absolute possession has dogged the country ever since. Crown Land became state owned land; colonial institutions became state institutions. And as I said, such constructs are hard to unpick. Nor would the Kenyan elite wish to unpick them, any more than the British nobility would wish to surrender their hereditary land rights to the masses. As the fourth President, Uhuru Kenyatta (and son of the first President Jomo Kenyatta) takes office, so the thorny issues of land grabbing and wrangles over title deeds continue.

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A  tea estate with workers’ quarters near Nairobi.

Limuru tea fields in the long rains

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Today, ordinary land-poor Kenyans must look out on the large farms and estates still owned by the descendants of European settlers, or the ranches and flower factories of the Kenyan elite, or at the plantations of the multinationals whose profits go to foreign shareholders, or even at the great wildernesses set aside exclusively for wildlife, and wonder what Independence has brought them. Under colonialism most people were excluded from the wealth creating process except to provide manual labour. Today it seems that not much has changed.

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Rift Valley and Longonot from Escarpment (2)

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© 2013 Tish Farrell