Monday, 6 August 2012

One woman's story

This is Dave Zarembka's Journal Letter, describing his wife's farming in Western Kenya. It's one example among many of the benefits of small scale agriculture.

AGLI Report from Kenya #184 – August 5, 2012

Gladys' Two Acres of Corn


Dear All,

Since at least the end of World War II the conventional wisdom in the western world is that the increasing numbers of people in the world with increasing wealth to spend on food will be fed by mechanized, large scale, commercial agriculture. As a result most agricultural research has been devoted to increasing this industrial production while the small scale farmers, who actually control more than half of the farmland in the world, have been left mostly to fend for themselves. I want to weigh into this controversy by describing how much more Gladys was able to produce on two acres of corn (maize) than local commercial Kenyan farmers.

Gladys obtained forty 200-pound bags of corn from her two acres. This is the equivalent of what good local commercial farmer did in the same good growing year. Good farmers in the corn belt of the US get about 60 bags per acre, but they live on some of the most fertile, well-watered agricultural land in the world with decades of research on how to improve their yields. I always wonder, as I drive through the eastern part of the US Corn Belt on my way from DC to St Louis, why these American farmers aren't wealthy. Their houses and cars reflect only a normal middle-class income. Clearly someone else -- the seed companies, fertilizer and agricultural chemical manufactures, and the farm equipment manufacturers -- are the ones making the big profits on this commercialized farming.

If we stopped here with the comparison between Gladys and the local commercial farmers, we would have to call this a draw. But Gladys got so much more that commercial farmers didn't. First she planted beans in between the corn. She harvested this as the corn was growing and got about a bag of beans per acre. This would have been two or three bags of beans, but a hail storm hit the beans just as they were flowering which depressed the yield.

Moreover, our family ate some of the fresh beans -- much more delicious than the dried beans -- which were never dried (and counted). Then for three or four weeks Gladys harvested what is called "green maize." This is used as boiled corn (corn on the cob, but the corn here is hard), corn roasted over a charcoal fire, and corn kernels cut off the cob to mix with beans. It is impossible to measure how much additional harvest we ate in this fashion. Gladys also got a small amount of greens and squash from the field. Since she had rented the two acres, she was unable to plant sweet potatoes in some of the plot. For many small farmers this is a second yield crop. Only a small part is planted because sweet potatoes don't store well so a person can only plant what he/she can eat or sell locally.

To top off all this, after the corn was shelled from the cob, the cobs were dried and used as a cooking fuel.

The total result is that Gladys obtained a bigger harvest with much more variety than the good commercial farmer.

Gladys also used a lot less fuel. While she plowed and harrowed with a tractor, she planted with oxen cutting the lines and people dropping and covering up the seeds. Weeding was done twice with about ten to twelve people working in the field for a day. Like the commercial farmers she used hybrid seed (which she had to buy from Kenya Seed Company), and used fertilizer twice (imported from South Africa, Egypt, or India); once when planting and again after the second weeding with a top dressing. Harvesting was done by hand, the first day putting the corn stalks in stacks as the Amish still do in the US and then a day of harvesting the corn cobs from the stalks. My main activity in all this was the five trips I made in our pick-up to carry the corn from the field to our house. After the corn dried by being spread out all over our yard, a tractor came with six men and within half an hour had shelled the 40 bags. Unfortunately the tropics are very buggy and Gladys had to put insecticide in the corn that she stored in order to keep it from being eaten by bugs.

The result is that Gladys spent less than half the amount of fuel per acre as the commercial farmer. Moreover she did not have to truck the harvest to market.

Gladys only farmed two acres, but 40 bags of corn is much more than our family -- including all our guests -- could consume in a year. Every time we visit my father-in-law we take a half a bag to him. Guests are frequently "rewarded" with some corn to take home with them. Nonetheless Gladys sold some bags of corn which more than covered her costs. We still have more than ten bags in our storeroom.

The way to feed this world is to increase research and outreach to the hundreds of millions of small scale farmers so that they can become more productive. I think that average yields could easily double which would be more than is needed for the increasing world population and to spend on more meat and dairy products.



David Zarembka, Coordinator
African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams
P. O. Box 189, Kipkarren River 50241 Kenya

Phone in Kenya: 254 (0)726 590 783 in US: 301/765-4098

Office in US: 1001 Park Avenue, St Louis, MO 63104 USA 314/647-1287

Webpage: Email:



Ending Cycles of Violence: Kenyan Quaker Peacemaking Response after the 2007 Election by Judy Lumb -- Available for $15 at


Since 1998, David Zarembka has been the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. He is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region (also available at