Friday, June 24, 2016

How to survive crop failure? Swap with the neighbours

By Kagondu Njagi
KANJAU, Kenya, June 20 - On a sunny morning, Millicent Makena is sifting two bags of beans for storage, the flakes of chaff clinging to her black top and navy skirt.
However, the beans are not from her farm. Instead, she swapped two bags of maize for them, trading with Helen Cianjoka, another farmer who lives eight kilometres away, in another village in eastern Kenya.
After favourable rains, Makena’s maize did well last season, and her harvest in January netted her six bags of maize, twice what she normally grows in a season. However, the prolonged rainfall also destroyed her entire crop of beans.
Millicent Makena sifts grains for storage.TRF/ Kagondu Njagi
“When it rains a lot, we get a good maize harvest but the beans are destroyed because they cannot withstand much rain when they are maturing,” Makena explained. “When there is little rain, we harvest beans but the maize wastes away.”
Erratic weather, she explains, has been a growing pain for farmers the past few years. Nevertheless, a number of farmers like her are discovering new ways to bridge the grain gap: by swapping with neighbours.
Bartering of crops, without any cash changing hands, has probably existed as long as farming has. Nevertheless, such trades have increased in recent years as farmers struggle to cope with worsening weather conditions, said Eustace Thiginski, a Kanjau village elder.
“In the past, farmers would trade livestock for grain,” he added. “But that is no longer possible because the value of livestock has gone up, so bartering is done with grain only.”
According to Cianjoka, whose maize dried up and failed this year while her bean fields thrived, just a few kilometres of distance can make the difference between a lack of rain or an abundance of it.
 “This is affecting how we grow crops, because we do not know what to plant,” she said.
To prevent crop losses to erratic weather, Cianjoka now plants different varieties of grain, including maize, beans, sorghum and millet. She hopes that at least one of the crops will survive if nature “plays tricks on her.”
However, that strategy can go wrong if “some farmers end up planting the wrong crops because they do not receive reliable information about seasonal weather patterns,” said Ashok Khosla, co-chair of the International Resource Panel (IRP), an arm of the U.N. Environment Programme that focuses on using world resources more sustainably.
Still, Makena and Cianjoka say swapping grain has been a useful way to build resilience to climate extremes.
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