Basic Premise: Was Something Overlooked?

ManualLandPrepSLOptOne of the basic premises for assisting smallholders over the past 40 years was that farmers were inefficient users of the resources available to them, and thus substantial increases in agronomic production and economic well-being could be accomplished with the resources already available to the farmers.

This premise started with the early on-farm work of IRRI and CYMMYT as part of the initial Farming Systems on-farm participatory research effort. It was based on some correct observations that one month after the start of the season a large percent of the land was yet to be cultivated. The assumption was that smallholder farmers were risk averse and deliberately delaying crop establishment, waiting for more assured and favorable climatic conditions. Based on these observations and assumptions it was projected that it would be possible to enhance the economic well being of the smallholders with the resources already available to them by increasing their knowledge of the agronomic potential through new technologies such as high yielding varieties of rice, maize and wheat, and motivating them toward earlier crop establishment. It only required a good adaptive research and extension program. The basic premise was a very good starting hypothesis, and it is necessary to start with some hypothesis.

The basic problem was underestimating just how long a family like the Sri Lankan couple depicted above takes to establish 1.5 ha of land. If, like most development personnel, the estimate is only three or four weeks, then the assumption would be correct and it should be possible to improve their economic well being by promoting earlier crops establishment, etc.

However, if a more accurate estimate is up to eight weeks with the farmers working as hard as possible from the first opportunity, then the extended crops establishment period will render the farmers late for most follow-up management practices such as hand weeding. After eight weeks the weed infestation and loss in potential yields will be substantial. The problem is the limited resources to manage the land in a timely manner. In this case it would be difficult to enhance the economic well being of the smallholder without first enhancing the resources available for smallholders to manage their lands. It seems in the academic and development worlds it is fairly easy to determine the labor and other resources required to complete a task, such as 60 man days required to transplant a ha of rice. However, it seems considerably more difficult to determine if that labor is available within a smallholder community. Labor can be family, casual and even migratory labor. It is also a mobile resource that moves through a smallholder community and needs to be evaluated on a community basis as well as individual farm basis. In the development community, who is responsible for determining if the farmers have access to the resources needed to implement the development recommendations promoted for the smallholders’ benefit?

Contributing to the oversight that extends the basic crop establishment well beyond the projected time could be the limited diet available to smallholders during critical times of high manual labor needs, such as basic crop establishment at the beginning of the growing season. Under nutrition and malnutrition are recognized as major concerns in smallholder communities, with the oft mention stereotype that smallholders may produce only sufficient food for six months. Also, much of the poverty alleviation effort is intended to reduce the nutritional deficiencies. Overlooked are the options available to smallholders to deal with undernutrition in which their could be a major deficiet in the Caloric Energy Balance, in which farmers may have access to only 2000 kcal. when they need nearly 4000 kcal. to complete a full day of diligent field work. The result is only enough caloric energy to work three or four hours a day and substantially increase the time or days required to complete different agronmic task which will seriously limit the farmers’ ability to take advantage of innovations such as value chain high valued cash enterprises presently being promoted for smallholders’ benefits.

If smallholders produce only enough to feed their families for six months they will be running out of food just as the next growing season begins. The question would be if they are consuming sufficient calories to undertake a full day of crop management field work? If it takes 2000 kcal. just to sustain someone for a day, and an additional 217 kcal/hr for sustainable field work, a person would need to consume nearly 4000 kcal. to work a full 8 hour day. If they are not able to consume this amount they will be unable to complete the days work and be forced to come home early in the afternoon to recover from exhaustion. This could give the appearance of “idleness”. A more typical diet would be 500 g/day of uncooked rice, which is the average per capita consumption in Myanmar and represents the highest average daily rice consumption in the world. This would provide only about 2000 calories, about what is needed to sustain a person without asking them to put in a full day of field work. Furthermore, even at the Low Consumer Prices found in most developing countries a person living near or below the US$/day poverty index would have to spend the majority of their income just to meet the 5000 calories required for a full day of field work. Just to meet this energy requirement would require 1.1 kg of maize, 1.1 kg rice, 2.8 kg cassava, or 3.8 kg of plantains, and may still leave the individual malnourished for protein and other essential nutrients for the good health required for completing a full day’s work. Thus, before any effort is made to mobilize “idleness” it would be appropriate to determine if the individuals have ready access to the upward of 4000 kcal. that would separate idleness from hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps the best motivation would be a hearty meal.

The best example of how enhancing the resources available to smallholders has resulted in substantial increased economic well being is the retirement of the water-buffalo in favor of the power tiller for rice cultivation in Thailand and other parts of Asia. This reduced the crop establishment period in half, allowed farmers to expand their holdings, diversify their farm enterprises and enjoy some comfort items such as refrigerators, motorcycles, TVs and VCRs. With rice production under control Thai farmers were spontanously able to undertake many of the value-chain cash enterprises envisioned in many development projects. Such enterprises included contract vegetables for the Japanese market, and poultry and pig production suspended over fish ponds (photo right). Photo3-1-webThis conversion from water buffalo to power tillers was all self financed and took place completely under the radar screen of the development community, and remains little recognized by the development community trying to extend the “green revolution” from Asia to Africa.

Even though this basic premise was first conceived some 40 years ago, it still guides much of today’s development effort promoted for the benefit of smallholders. This includes every time it is suggested conducting time of planting trials, or recommending early crop establishment, and even such things as plant population studies working with hill planted maize or transplanted rice. It would also include promotion of high valued crops without indicating the crop being substituted for or the need for additional labor to meet strict quality control requirements of the high value crops, particularly when intended for export to developed countries.

Until it is fully recognize and appreciated that smallholder farmers are more constrained by the available labor and that the extent of this restricts their obtaining the production potential allowed by the natural resource environment, there will be major limits on the long term sustainability of many development efforts.

The enhancement of the resources available to manage land quickly emphasizes “access” to mechanization, which can be substantially different from ownership. This needs to be carefully considered, but most likely not in terms of direct ownership but contract availability via some small family owed village based support service that have a Symbiotic Association with the smallholder producers. There appears to be considerable demand for these services even in remote parts of Africa where manual field operations dominate. In Zambia farmers have expressed an interest in such services and can even quote the price for it. The prevailing price in 2005 was ZK 100,000 (US$ 20) per hour. During this hour they could custom till between 0.25 and 0.50 ha. Similar quotes can be obtained in Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. In Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan most of the land preparation is now done by individually owned 65 hp tractors such as the Massy Ferguson 165. The importance of such contract tillage appears to take place under the radar screen of the development community, that remains fixed on the idea that maintenance of machinery is beyond the capacity of limited educated smallholder communities. Perhaps they are thinking of the difficulties with public sector mechanization units and unable to distinguish public sector from private sector. Will the mechanization of Africa be done without the development communities assistance as happened to Asia, as well as Madibira in Tanzania? Could the need for contract mechanization be provide through Reconditioning Used Tractors from developed countries?

It can also be done somewhat indirectly by other drudgery reduction efforts such as Village Grain Mills. What is the agronomic impact of them on women’s domestic drudgery, ability to remain in the field longer each day or arrive more refreshed and able to better manage the farm enterprises? Also, what would be the agronomic impact of improving access to Domestic Water. Not only will there be a health impact but the time saving will allow women to prusue other economic opportunities for the benefit of their families including assisting their husband with field work.

Last Revised: 5 October 2005

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