How Can Modern Agricultural Practices be Utilized by Smallholder Farmers?
Mar 17, 2015
Today on National Ag Day, we celebrate the abundance provided by American agriculture. While most of the equipment that embodies modern agricultural technology on a commercial farm in the United States would be cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of smallholder farmers around the world to adopt, some of the concepts that lay behind this technology may not be. If we can identify ways that these concepts can be transmitted, then these farmers will be able to realize some of the same benefits as American farmers, and that abundance can be shared worldwide.
Clearly, smallholder farmers in developing countries lack some of the sophisticated technology U.S. farmers have come to rely on. Rather than the large combines found on most American farms, complete with GPS tracking and auto-steering, the majority of African farmers rely on manual labor to till their fields. For example, 65 percent of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa still use hoes and other hand tools, while only 10 percent have access to mechanical traction. Similarly, while over 90 percent of the corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in the United States come from GMO seeds, many farmers in developing countries lack access to even hybrid seeds--in Ghana, only 10 percent use improved seed of any kind. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that average corn yields in Africa are only about one-fifth of those in the United States.
Nonetheless, there are some agricultural practices and/or concepts than can be transmitted through technology currently available to smallholder farmers. In Africa, there are estimated to be more than 600 million people with access to mobile phones. It seems like every small village in the continent has at least one shop where people can charge their phones for a modest fee, so even those households without electricity can have a mobile phone.
The implications of the widespread availability of this means of communication are immense. While an American farmer can gauge whether he can finish planting his field by checking out an approaching thunderstorm on a radar app on his I-Pad in the comfort of his enclosed combine, an African farmer can receive local weather reports via SMS texts on his phone while leaning on a hoe. Similarly, while extension agents are very scarce in developing countries (in Guatemala, there is only one agent for every 7,333 people), many smallholder farmers can seek advice about their crops or livestock from experts at their national agricultural university or other locations using their mobile phones. In Uganda, a poultry farmer can text a description of the symptoms of an ailing bird to an expert system program being run on a pilot basis and receive back a diagnosis and proposed treatment of that bird’s illness.
In his book The Last Hunger Season, Roger Thurow describes the precise application of fertilizer by Kenyan farmers participating in the One Acre Fund program. Rather than utilize variable rate fertilizer application equipment attached to a combine, as an American farmer could, the Kenyan farmers are instructed to work together as a team to plant each hybrid corn seed individually, then fill the cap of a soda bottle with fertilizer and empty its content for every seed. It is a slow, painstaking process, but allows the participating farmers to greatly increase the yields from their fields, doubling or tripling them in many cases. Higher yields allow the participating farmers to diversify their farming operations by adding other crops or livestock to the mix, pay their children’s school fees, and feed their families year-round.
Ultimately, it will take sustained investment by a variety of players in agricultural research and development (national governments (in developed and developing countries), private sector firms, foundations, and multilateral organizations) to enable the world’s estimated 450 million smallholder farmers to prosper, but the farmers can make the first down-payments themselves by harnessing these types of modern farming concepts to improve their farming operations.