Senegal's Peanut Basin region is made up primarily
of the low-lying area between the Ferlo and Gambia
||Fertilizer subsidies were dropped
six years ago and now none of the farmers I interviewed
uses fertilizer. Dafa cher. It’s expensive.
West Africa calls you back
West Africa gets deep into your marrow, haunts
you, calls you back.
After two years there in Peace Corps working
with farmers in Mali, I was yearning to return
to the region. In 2003, that call drew me to Senegal
where I spent a semester as an intern at The Rodale
Institute to compliment my graduate research in
sustainable agriculture. I wanted to see how TRI
was able to transfer its expertise to farmers,
helping to improve their livelihoods.
The Senegalese farmers I met were eager to share
their stories, their food, and their laughter.
Their resilience and creativity farming on the
edge of the Sahara can serve as inspiration to
us all. – Nathan C. McClintock
“They’re yellowish. Reddish.
And soft. Dafa soon. Dafa xonq. Dafa
nooy.” Farmer Fatoumata Kâ describes
a jóór soil to me, the predominant
soil found in her village Taiba Ndao, 20 or 30 miles from
Senegal’s second largest city Thiès, deep in
the heart of the Peanut Basin.
Fatoumata is a member of the village women’s group,
Groupment de promotion feminine (GPF), that New Farm Senegal
worked with to improve the soil, improve yields, and provide
access to credit for livestock fattening and seed production.
She answers my question confidently, as one of the more outspoken
in the group of 30 or so women who comprise Taiba Ndao’s
There is the faint purple stain of antimony dye around her
mouth, a common practice among Halpulaar, or Fulani-speaking
people, across West Africa. She and Aby Sow, one of the other
Halpulaar in this Wolof-speaking village, usually drill me
with Pulaar greetings, but are serious during our focus group
discussion. “Deg dafa ñuul, dafa deger.
Deg soils are dark. And hard,” she continues.
The others nod in agreement.
According to the French soil classification system, a jóór
(or “dior” in the French spelling) is a “sol
ferrigneux tropicale peu ou non-lessivé”,
an unweathered tropical soil with high iron content. According
to the USDA soil taxonomy, a jóór is
an Entisol, a Ustipsamment to be specific. That means it is
a “young” soil, unweathered from its parent material
of sandstone bedrock, in an arid moisture and temperature
regime. A deg (or “deck”) is more weathered
with slightly higher clay, silt, and organic matter content.
It is an Alfisol according to the USDA system.
While such nomenclature may sound as exotic and indecipherable
as their Wolof analogues, they give a soil scientist a pretty
good idea of how each soil was formed, the changes in temperature
and moisture they regularly experiences, and their make-up.
All of these things factor into how fertile each is and how
it behaves under certain management practices.
More important, however, is how local farmers themselves
classify the soil and decide how to maintain its fertility.
Often the divide between science and the real world seems
impossibly vast. Scientific scrutiny in the lab or experimental
field plot is by its nature centered on the microscopic, on
teasing out the factors at play in a given system. Yet as
most things in life are greater than the sum of their parts,
a microscopic focus often misses the obvious. It’s like
not seeing the proverbial forest for the trees, though that
metaphor hardly seems appropriate in the scrubby Sahelian
It’s easy for an agronomist to figure out what amendment
produces the greatest yield on a given soil type, but this
insight is of little human value if it remains tucked away
in a scientific journal somewhere along with legions of other
papers by the likes of “Dimpledirt, et al,
The essential task for appropriate agricultural development
is to put these findings into the fields of farmers struggling
to produce crops with few resources. New soil-care techniques
have to work as part of a farming system that recognizes the
local constraints, ecological as well as social, economic,
political, and cultural. Why waste time and money promoting
a farming practice that violates a cultural taboo or gender
division of labor, or is impossible due to lack of access
to capital? It’s not that it’s unimportant to
figure out if a soil is an Alfisol or an Entisol, but to help
farmers to regenerate these soils, you have to understand
how they see it themselves.
Fortunately, over the last couple of decades, government
development agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
alike have begun to recognize the importance of involving
local farmers in the process of agricultural research and
development. Baseline surveys are a now prerequisite to any
attempt to introduce appropriate technology in the field.
I’ve traveled with the Rodale Institute’s staff
to the villages they serve to get a better understanding of
local soil management practices. I’ve had individual
interviews and discussions with the women’s groups and
smaller focus groups in the villages of Taiba Ndao, Diouffène,
Keur Banda, Thiawène, Keur Sa Daro, Touba Peycouck,
Mboufta, and Ndaimsil. I’ve been struck how similar
soil classifications are across the Peanut Basin -- and how
well adapted the practices are to the harsh climate.
Senegal Soils 101
Farmers here classify soils according
to color and texture. Jóór soils
are “soft” (nooy in Wolof) and light-colored—red
(xonq), yellow (soon), or white (weex).
Soils classed as deg are hard (deger), and
dark or black (ñuul). There was some variation
in nomenclature between the villages. In Taiba Ndao, they
used the word deg interchangably with xur
to describe the darker soils. A xur is a low lying
area, a basin, or where deg soils are generally found.
When I asked which type of soil was most fertile or productive
(naat), farmers in all villages agreed that degs
were the most fertile. However, this depends on rainfall.
Under drought conditions, crops planted in jóórs
yield better, whereas in years with ample rainfall, participants
noted, “Deg moo gënë naat”,
degs are more productive. The higher clay content
of the deg allows for a greater water-holding capacity,
extending the moisture exposure to plants after a rain.
Because a jóór soil is often 95 percent
sand, water drains quickly away beyond the root zone. Under
drought conditions however, the may quickly harden due to
higher clay content, impeding root development and resulting
in lower yields. So while degs are inherently more
fertile than jóórs—they have
a greater quantity of organic matter and a greater ability
to hold nutrients—yields are more a function of rainfall
than which soil a crop is planted on.
When I asked farmers what crop they planted on a given soil
type, they laughed and agreed that they don’t get much
choice in the matter. If all your fields are jóórs,
then you plant everything in jóórs!
I appreciated their good humor and recognized that familiar,
lighthearted acceptance of what God has divvied out as the
fine thread of fatalism running through the Sahel, prerequisite
to survival in such a fragile environment.
So I rephrased my question. If they have the choice, what
do they plant where? Peanuts, which require sandy soil, are
planted in jóórs. Millet grain in degs.
Usually, however, because most fields are jóórs,
farmers rotate annually between peanuts and millet. Fallowing
has more or less disappeared from the rotation. Each year
more and land is cultivated to make up for a drop in production
that can be attributed both to declining fertility and declining
rainfall over the last several decades.
If a field is fallowed at all, it is often only left for
a year. Of those who carry on the practice, a few said their
goal is to let the soil rest and regain its strength. Most,
however, said that they simply lacked sufficient quantities
of seed to plant all fields. Instead of fallowing, some farmers
work a cowpea crop into the rotation. In many of the villages,
women were in charge of this crop.
Rationing out manure
Local soil classification is also important to the application
of amendments. Most farmers here fertilize their fields with
manure from the household manure pile, the sentaare,
which is made up of manure collected from corralled animals
(mostly sheep, goats, and horses), food scraps, fallen leaves,
and cooking ashes. When I asked what makes the soil fertile,
they invariably responded with manure, compost, and trees --
the kadd (Acacia albida) tree, specifically. Mbalit
(household waste) and dom (ashes) figured into everyone’s
lists in all the villages.
If there is a limited supply of sentaare manure,
it is applied to the less fertile parts of the fields. “How
do you identify these?” I asked. “The color of
the soil, if it’s yellow or white,” they responded.
In essence, a jóór takes priority when
it comes time to apply manure. If the entire field is a jóór
and manure is limited, farmers often cover half the field
with manure one year, and amend the other half the following
year. They often apply manure locally, taking into account
the field-level variability in micro-topography and fertility,
shown by poor yields (“if the head of the millet is
thin”) and the presence of nduxum (Striga
hermonthica; a parasitic weed endemic in the Sahel).
Following harvest, peanut stover (ngooñ)
is collected to use as fodder for livestock, and is either
sold or stored for use over the dry season. All the remaining
green leaves are removed from millet stalks and fed to the
animals. One woman in Diouffène said, smiling, “We
feed the animals and they make manure that we then put back
on our fields.” Sturdy millet stalks are cut and gathered
for use in the construction of fences (sàkket)
around the family compound. As the sàkkets
eventually weather and collapse, they make it into the manure
pile as well. Broken and small stalks are left in the field
until the following May or June. At that time, all residues
are pulled up to facilitate cultivation and sowing. Useful
shrubs and weeds are collected and taken home, and the remaining
brush is piled with the crop residues and burned.
When I asked about chemical fertilizer use, most people said
that yields were better with chemical fertilizers, explaining
that harvests were larger in years past when they had “Two
sacks for every household.” Fertilizer subsidies were
dropped six years ago and now none of the farmers I interviewed
uses fertilizer. Dafa cher. It’s expensive.
While they acknowledged that fertilizer-induced yields were
greater, they also recognized that they were temporary. A
Thiawène farmer noted, “It only lasts that one
year. With manure or compost, it lasts three years!”
In Taiba Ndao, the group president said, “We have a
lot of animals now and a lot of manure, so we don’t
Seeking balance with local amendments
Most Sahelian soils are very low in available phosphorus,
as it is bound up by either aluminum or calcium in the soils.
So I asked about the use of locally-mined rock phosphate.
Most shook their heads, or said they didn’t know what
it was. In Taiba Ndao they said that the men never bothered
to pick it up when the government delivered it to nearby Thiénéba.
In Thiawène and Diouffène they said the natural
soil balancer was just clay powder and wasn’t useful.
In Keur Banda, Ngoussane Fall claimed that he and some other
farmers had used it and hadn’t seen any effect. “It’s
useless! The government gives us the leftovers after they
export the good stuff to foreign countries!” he added
somewhat irreverently. I heard his conspiracy theory a couple
more times in other villages.
Rodale extensionist Diagne Sarr shook her head every time,
dismayed that the government failed to explain why
they were providing farmers with free phosphate. “Il
n’y avait pas de sensibilisation. There was no
raising of awareness.” When I asked the farmers if they
noticed a purplish color to the millet leaves, a sign of phosphorus
deficiency, they said yes. She and technician Djibril Diallo
used the opportunity to educate them about the importance
of phosphorus to plant growth, likening it to breastfeeding
It’s obviously not an easy message to grasp, but a
few of the groups we met with seemed to take it to heart.
One of the fundamental differences between industrial farming
systems and those found in near-subsistence systems like the
one here in the Peanut Basin is that nothing is wasted. Farmers
here are in many ways regenerative already, but struggle to
manage their fields in ways that keep pace with the twin demands
of population growth and declining rainfall.
Every new idea has to earn its place in the shared farming
wisdom that allows farmers here to cope with their conditions.
Only by understanding and respecting the intricate and finely
woven relationships inherent in traditional local farming
systems can development organizations propose appropriate
Using this philosophy, New Farm Senegal promotes sustainable
soil management techniques based on good soil science applied
to local situations by:
- Recognizing that millet stalks are used as fences and
peanut stover as fodder.
- Identifying what works already and tweaking it, building
- Using local terms such as “jóór”
instead of “Ustipsamment,” “dark”
instead of “humic,” “vitamin” instead
When farmers hear counsel that reflects and fits with the
wisdom they already know, they will listen. Once one or two
of them take the leap of faith necessary to apply a promising
idea in their fields and see results, others will follow.
They will try the method and watch to see what happens.
Things might get better Insh’allah, as they constantly
say here. God willing.