Dr. Paul's Research Perspectives

Teaching composting for soil improvement in northern Ghana
In the first of a series, Paul describes a three-week volunteer effort to help West African villagers learn about organic farming methods

By Paul Hepperly


Editors' note:
As New Farm Research and Training Manager at The Rodale Institute, Dr. Paul Hepperly has been a regular contributor to NewFarm.org for some time, providing research updates, op-ed pieces, and white papers on topics like carbon sequestration in organic farming systems.

None of those venues do full justice to the range of Paul's experience, however. Paul grew up on a family farm in Illinois and holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology, an M.S. in agronomy and a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has worked for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, in academia, and for a number of private seed companies, including Asgrow, Pioneer, and DeKalb. He has overseen research in Hawaii, Iowa, Puerto Rico, and Chile, and investigated such diverse crops as soybeans, corn, sorghum, sunflowers, ginger, and papaya. He has witnessed the move toward biotech among the traditional plant breeding community and the move toward organics among new wave of upcoming young farmers. Beford coming to the Rodale Institute Paul worked with hill farmers in India to help them overcome problems with ginger root rot in collaboration with Winrock International.

Now we've decided to give Paul his own column, in which he can report on agricultural research from around the world and reflect on its relevance to The Rodale Institute's research program and to the progress of sustainable agriculture more generally in light of his own broad perspective. Enjoy.

May 26, 2005: Last month I traveled to northern Ghana as a volunteer with Opportunities Industrialization Centers International (OICI), a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization founded by civil rights leader Leon Sullivan and mainly supported by Southern Baptist churches.

Known as "the Lion of Zion," Sullivan was an influential black Baptist preacher in Philadelphia who understood the economics of empowerment. He proclaimed that equality was possible if minorities could achieve parity in their job skills. To reach this goal, he opened job training centers in many urban ghettos. In time, the success of these centers led the creation of similar programs in Africa and elsewhere.

Agriculture is a bit out of OICI's traditional area of effort and expertise. On the strength of its many successes, however, the group was awarded a US State Department Agency for International Development (USAID) grant for coordinating a farmer to farmer service in Africa program called Farm Serve. I volunteered my time and effort to help this project get going in the area of organic agriculture.

My assignment was to work with 26 extension agents from OICI and from Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture. My goal was to better equip them to help village farmers learn about and practice organic farming methods.

Ghana is a former British colony on Africa's western coast and was one of the first independent African nations. It is considered a beacon of stability in an area wracked by civil war. Both Togo and Ivory Coast (to Ghana's east and west, respectively), are currently in the throws of civil insurrections. Ghana is about the size of Oregon and is a major producer of cacao, the plant whose seeds are used to make chocolate.

Starting in Pennsylvania, my route to Africa was circuitous, passing from Michigan to the Netherlands and then to Accra, the capital of Ghana. From Accra I took a small plane to Tamale.

Next to me on the flight from Amsterdam was a Ghanaian lady from Toronto. She was well dressed in bright tropical colors topped with a fancy headpiece. She told me I would notice two things about Ghana: first, how hot the climate was, and second, the dark nights.

She was right on both counts. Getting off the plane at night the heat and humidity were stifling. And as I approached my hotel I realized how accustomed I was to night-time lighting--it was dark!

Dryland farming

As you head north through Ghana the climate grows more arid—the green goes out of the landscape and the few, isolated trees seem to hug the ground. This is part of the expanding Saharan region of Africa. For about seven months of the year it is too dry to grow food crops. Planting of corn, sorghum, cowpeas and pigeon peas starts with the rains in May and June. When I arrived in early April the dry season was still in full force but by late April, when I left, it had rained a half-dozen times and planting season had begun based on this earlier-than-normal rainfall. Whereas daily temperatures soared to around 110° F at the beginning of my trip, by the end of my visit maximum temps were closer to 95° or 100° F. At those temperatures you can really appreciate the difference of ten degrees.

The farmers I met told me that the beginning of the dry season comes as something of a relief, since the rains can bring diseases and pests as well as the season of growth. As the dry time settles in, however, and the land grows hotter and dustier, the general anticipation of the coming of rains is palpable. Life depends on this annual cycle of wet and dry, so it is not taken lightly. To survive the dry season people gradually sell off their animals to buy grain. This is the delicate balancing act of farming here, the sub-Saharan tightrope.

After the end of the growing season animals are left to roam uncontrolled. They forage among the crop residues and eat the weeds. By the time I arrived only the unpalatable and toxic weeds were left. Yet with rains that panorama changes quickly. Plants promptly spring to attention, and as the fields are planted animals are confined again until after harvest.

The soils here are both red and acid. Soil infertility is generally recognized as a major cropping limitation. Pedro Sanchez, Director of Tropical Agriculture at Columbia University's Earth Institute, has estimated that 67 percent of tropical soils are acid, but in this area of Ghana the percentage is even higher. Four-fifths of the soils in this area appear to be acid. Traditionally, these lands were farmed until they were no longer farmable because of the decreased fertility. In the villages I visited, everyone knew that their system of farming was not working and that crop yields and quality were falling.

The classic, fertilizer-based development approach does not work here. In the first place, commercial fertilizers are too expensive for native farmers. In the second place, even if they were available, fertilizers would only exacerbate soil acidity problems in an area lacking agricultural lime or other mineral resources for raising soil pH. The economic picture changes markedly when labor is abundant and capital is scarce. For African farmers with small holdings, the use of composts is the best remedy for acid soil infertility.


Successes with composting

Before starting our intensive classes on organic agriculture, in visiting different villages I learned that composting as an organic practice already had a small following and was gaining in popularity. The composting was done in pits, with static piles to maintain scarce moisture and prevent the piles from drying out too fast. If the piles are made at the beginning of the wet season, the compost decomposes well and can be used the following season.

In the area around Tamale and in Walewale, three hours to the north, a core group of composters existed thanks to the efforts of Catholic Agency for Relief (CARE) staff people. CARE had trained some locals in composting and they were continuing the practice based on their excellent results.

In Walewale, a former CARE employee and current farmer, David, had encouraged composting among a group of women farmers. David explained that women are parceled out the poorest land for growing staple food crops. One woman, Maria, was desperate after seeing her crops fail and her donkey die. David taught her pit composting and in the harvest that followed she had enough surplus to sell that she was able to buy a new donkey. Maria proudly showed me both her composting techniques and her new donkey.

In another case, a woman explained that she had been composting for four years and had noticed significant improvements in her own health and in that of her family. This woman was cited as one of the area's most successful and forward-looking farmers. David took us deep into the bush where he was planning a demonstration farm so that people could learn organic farming methods first-hand. It will include watering systems, woodlots and strategies to prevent fires from destroying cropping efforts.

Back in the Tamale area, Kpilo was a model village that relied exclusively on composts to maintain soil fertility. The villagers explained that yields had improved and—just as important--that compost-fed crops withstood drought better than those fed with fertilizers. I discussed with them how water penetrates the soil more easily when compost is present, and how crops fed from the soil develop stronger root systems that can make use of soil moisture more effectively. They have been composting for six years, and they say that their corn tastes better and stores longer than it did before.

For these farmers, the biggest challenge in using compost is the effort required to carry it to distant fields. I asked if I were to give them fertilizer what they would use it for. They replied that they would not make the mistake of using fertilizer again because it was very costly to them. They were sticking to compost.

Based on these vivid experiences I decided to concentrate on teaching composting and on showing the class of extension personnel how to work with villagers most effectively. We would focus on learning from existing village technologies and using them as a springboard for further improvements.

Next time: An intensive learning--and teaching--experience.

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