Then a friend called. For now, I ought to keep him anonymous, so let's call him Michael. Michael's an agronomist and we hit it off when we met earlier in my trip. He wanted to get together one last time and he offered to pick me up. I agreed, assuming we'd just hang out. But Michael had plans. He wanted to introduce me to his friend Charity and bring me to her small farm in Ngong Hills, Rift Valley province. So off we went...
As we got into Charity's car, Michael said, "This is Charity. She does charity." Specifically, she runs an organization that rehabilitates Kenyan "children on the street" (not street children, says Charity) and reunites them with their families. Most are boys, ages 8 to 14. The organization tries to find out why the kids left home and then sees how to fix the circumstances that drove them from their homes so they can return. If they cannot go home to their parents, then the organization tries to see if they can go stay with grandparents or aunts and uncles.
We drove toward Charity's farm, up into the hills. All of a sudden, Michael told Charity to stop. Then he turned to me and pointed out the corn on the right side of our car. The farmers in this area use purchased seeds and fertilizer, he said. And yet - look. Stunted, diseased corn. He identified head smut on some of the stalks near our car. This farmer would harvest very little this season.
On the other side of the car, the farmer had put up a greenhouse. These are the new trend in Kenya. They are expensive. Farmers use them to grow tomatoes, a high value crop. I couldn't imagine why anyone with year round warm weather would possibly want a greenhouse for growing tomatoes. Tomatoes, by the way, even lend themselves very well to dry farming, farming without irrigation in areas without much rainfall.
We then continued up the hill without stopping until we reached our destination. It was a gorgeous home that Charity told us is called Bethany House. This is where kids stay once they are taken off the streets and before they go back to their families. It's more than just a roof over the kids' heads - it's a place for healing and rehabilitation. Charity described it as "a safe place to get away from all of the things they experienced on the streets. Just a place to sleep, get some food, get relaxing, and because of their experiences with drugs, sex, that kind of thing - they are children, they need a bit of rehabilitation to normalize before they go back to their parents." She continued:
They spend time with us, they eat with us, they live with us. We talking to them, dealing with their health issues, and at the same time we are working together with their family to find out why did this child run away. And if it's poverty, we address it and see what the parents can do to receive this child back.
Bethany House will also house their office and some guest rooms, to serve as the hub of the group's activities and as a halfway house for the kids. They want it to be a getaway in a peaceful environment, away from Nairobi.
The group has eight staff people and they also want to use the land around Bethany House to make a bit of income to support their work.
In a small area in the front, Charity showed us the livestock. There were two male goats out front. I asked if they were for meat, because obviously two males alone won't produce milk. Charity responded that they have them just to have them, because the children really like animals and it's therapeutic for them to be able to interact with the animals.
Two bad little boys behaving relatively well.
Then we saw the rabbits. But as we went to see the rabbits, it was hard to miss the little baby girl cow. She was two weeks old and had been separated from her mother and all she wanted to do was suck on anything she could get in her mouth. Before long, she was sucking on Michael's fingers, trying to see if milk might come out of them.
The rabbits were just past the calf. Charity said, "The rabbits, we don't exactly know the breed. We just bought something that people can pet."
We left the rabbits and calf and went out to see the mother cow. She's a Friesian, and from what I've seen online, there's a lot of mixing between Friesian and Holstein cattle, so the cow might be a Holstein or at least very similar to one. The cow was confined and didn't seem very happy about it. But at least she was having a nice load of Napier grass for her lunch. The cow was absolutely enormous.
A little bit later, behaving a little bit worse
We left the animals behind as we sought a place for Michael to wash his hands. Michael told me that zero grazing is a setup in which "the animal hardly lives." I asked Charity why they separated the baby from the mother cow. "It's not supposed to suckle," she replied. The milk is for people, not the calf. (The calf does get some milk though.)
We walked over past the rainwater harvesting and a small kitchen garden that had nothing growing in it to get to the farm. They have 2.7 acres where they grow food to feed the kids living here and to sell as a fundraiser. In addition to the rainwater harvesting, they also have a well here.
Michael has been working with them to help them go organic - or at least move in that direction. Charity's expertise is not farming, and from what I gathered, she's pretty newly in charge of the farming aspect of the organization. So she's doing her very best, and the status quo represents her predecessor's work. As a start, Michael urged them to use the manure from the animals in the soil.
The very first thing we saw on the farm was maize. "Now, you can see. This is a good quality seed," Michael told me. "And they are not going to harvest anything. Yet it's the staple. And everybody's growing corn corn, but... so when that happens, the whole nation goes hungry."
"Kales" (as a Kenyan would say - they like to add S to every plural word whether it needs an S or not)
Then I asked about their drip irrigation. Michael responded, "What they are trying to urge us to do, they are trying to urge the nation to do conservation agriculture."
"Who, the government?" I asked.
"And everybody including the expats," he answered. "Israel, which is in a desert, is able to feed itself. Why can't Kenya do it? So one of the recommendations is to conserve water and only put it where you only need it. And so at least they are able to get some greens, both for themselves, and the market. But you can see you are really bucking against the elements."
Look at the bare soil! How the heck is anyone going to conserve water without a thick layer of mulch?? I wondered as I saw it.
In the photos, you can also see a row of Gravillea trees. As we walked, Charity pointed out various crops - onions, amaranth, eggplant, black nightshade, etc.
Michael mentioned that there is a myth that the developing world has too much labor. That is not true in Kenya, where the adult population has been decimated by AIDS. (The extent to which this is true varies from place to place within Kenya. In the Luo area I visited where one in five adults has AIDS, it's certainly true - but Kenya's national average AIDS rate is 6%.) Both workers on this particular farm are from far flung parts of Kenya, because the locals are not willing to do farm work unless they are paid a lot for it. One way to reduce labor needs is by using tractors to plow. This land is likely flat enough and large enough to plow, but some farms I saw were so steep that there would have been no way a tractor could have plowed them.
"All these things used to be called weeds, we have discovered they are so wonderful as food," Michael said. He said:
There's a program now by the government after realizing that what used to grow naturally is what is actually beneficial and it doesn't need so much water, so much fertilizer, and so much chemicals to keep the bugs off. The ministry and the government has created the program called the Orphan Crop program and they are trying to urge people to grow back to all these traditional crops instead of just planting these, you let your weeds come back, which is really good for our environment. And the children's home happens to be in a good place because they have an educated population here now in the city, and the people in the city are asking where are the traditional vegetables that we used to have, so if they let their farm become weedy, they make money.
Another nice thing about these native crops is that you don't need to buy the seeds. They just grow as weeds.
When I looked up the so-called orphan crop program, it appeared to me that the government was involved in a World Bank funded project that involves getting credit to farmers and giving farmers vouchers for inputs like fertilizer, as well as the orphan crop component. And in some orphan crop programs - although not this one as far as I know - there are efforts to produce hybrid seed and sell it commercially for so-called "orphan crops" - which typically include sorghum and millet. I've even seen soybeans (NOT a traditional African crop!) listed as an orphan crop by some of these programs and that blows my mind.
Amaranth, known locally as terere
Not a weed-free zone.
Then, Charity showed us her greenhouse, which was built in 2009. It cost 200,000 Kenyan shillings, or $2400. Then they did a ton of work to mix manure into the soil inside of the greenhouse. She wants to grow tomatoes in here.
We walked into the greenhouse to see the inside, and Charity told me to close the door quick because otherwise pests might come in. That caught me off guard! I'd never heard of using a greenhouse to keep pests out. In my world, you use a greenhouse to extend your growing season. I would use a physical barrier to deal with pests in some cases - a fence to keep out mammals, gopher baskets to keep gophers away from the roots, a net over berry bushes to keep the birds from eating half and pooping on the rest perhaps - but a greenhouse to keep pests away from a crop...?
Inside the greenhouse
Here is an organization that needs to make some money to support their charity work, and Charity, the director of this organization is asking for help from somebody who is supposed to have done several degrees in agriculture. And here I am trying to figure out what to do because climate change, the reality is so, so deep.
So combining intensive agriculture, and you can see they've really, like, double digging and all that. They've gone in and removed the top soil and turned it around and mixed it with a lot of manure and... So we've had some principles of good biointensive farming. But then, essentially need water. Water, water, water.
Whether you put fertilizer, which kills all the good biology, which is what I'm trying to avoid here, you eventually get a very good growing crop and you only have to accidentally leave it [the greenhouse door] open and then pests are eating everything on top. And unfortunately, the outside they have been using dimethoate to spray on the tomatoes.
Dimethoate was recently banned in Kenya. Not that a pesky detail like that would actually keep anyone from using it.
At this point, I started babbling. I grow my tomatoes intercropped with some basil, calendula, borage, and marigolds. Except for the marigolds, which kill nematodes, I don't know what the actual mechanisms are for why these crops are supposed to be grown together. I just know that I read recommendations to grow them together. I've never once had a pest problem on my tomatoes. As I babbled, Charity and Michael began looking at me. What, did they really expect me to know anything that a PhD agronomist might not know about growing tomatoes organically? I just grow them in my garden for myself!
Then Michael found a pesticide container and picked it up so we could read it. A Bayer product. Nematicide. Ethoprophos. As we read the label, I wondered aloud why Charity wouldn't just use beneficial nematodes? "We are not using it now," Charity explained. "We need to fumigate before we plant again."
Michael explained further. "The problem - and that's why you're seeing that [the nematicide] - they've had problems with nematodes. They did a soil test. Nematodes were... and bacterial wilt.. And it dries out and what happens is, they go into cyst form and they can stay there for three to five years."
Now they've been told by a consultant to cover the soil and to fumigate it with carbofuran (Furadan). This pesticide is banned. And, as Michael reminded me, the Maasai have learned to buy it and use it to kill lions that eat their cattle.
I told Charity a few ideas off the top of my head. A drastic option is solarizing the soil, which involves heating the soil to a temperature that kills everything in it. Of course, since you want lots of microorganisms in your soil, that's the last thing I would do. You can grow a crop or a crop variety that is not susceptible to nematodes and bacterial wilt. And perhaps there are some biological products to buy like beneficial nematodes to take care of the problem. But I don't know which products are available in Kenya, nor do I know which crops are profitable to grow in Kenya. And, unfortunately, Charity can't simply make a decision without considering the financial side of the equation.
Charity's got a built in customer base from a church that supports the charity work. The church members would love to buy organics. But, as Michael said:
There is one organization that I will keep talking to - the Kenya - KOAN - Kenya Organic Agricultural Network. And they charge an arm and a leg for farmers to go organic certified. Then you have to now stop using chemicals and you have a three year phaseout. And you are waiting for the chemicals to get out of the system, so there is a three to our years. And then once you go into that, unfortunately, a farmer who wants to go organically certified will not have the benefit of going online or whatever and order solutions.
In his last sentence, he was referring to the biological controls that I had mentioned earlier. They aren't very available in Kenya. But, he mentioned a weed called Tagetes minuta, locally called michege, and "the roots actually produce chemicals that gets rid of your nematodes." It turns out that Tagetes minuta is a type of marigold. Brassica plants, on the other hand, could help with the nematodes but could compound the bacterial wilt problems. Then he explained solarization to Charity. You cover the soil in plastic and monitor the temperatures in the soil to make sure they get hot enough for a long period of time "that could actually be very good for cleaning out whatever is in there."
Charity responded, saying "The advice we got was to fumigate - cover it for 21 days and let it..."
Michael interjected, "That's the chemical solution. And we are trying to find a solution that is in between. You might not kill everything, but then, you are also not poisoning the soil for a long time. And then the problem," he added, "is their borehole, which is a few hundreds of meters below is also their domestic water. And once you put that chemical in there, it will go into your borehole. And obviously the people that are downstream are going to be taking that chemical in." (Charity's farm is on top of a hill.)
Michael summarized, "The win-win solution here is to go organic, but we don't have the knowledge of how to do it, yet we also need to make money back because you've invested quite a lot."
Then he spoke about the consultants that Charity had hired. He feels like they come in during the rains and everything will be green, and the consultants will get all of the credit for the success. But try following their advice when there is no water, and when everything is at its worst, and that is when you will see their failures.
You have all these chemicals that many farmers don't understand. You have all these new crops that are coming in from the seed companies, and somebody needs to get a little agricultural training. And then they come in as dubious consultants - expats. They are Kenyan but they have either worked with the chemical companies or they know what's going on. And just like now, the other situation, where you have hybrid seeds and then plenty of rainfall and plenty of good soil will make everybody happy and you'll be singing the praises of the seed companies. And saying "Oh I planted that, it's a very good seed.!" But you are not taking into account that everything has been person. You need to get that - what you call - good seed in the worst of times and see how it is doing.
We left the greenhouse and began looking at the maize.
Not much of a harvest here
"The reason we are planting tomatoes," Charity explained, "Is because that's what sells. It's what brings us a good income."
But without crop rotation, the repeated tomato crops in the greenhouse will keep feeding the nematodes and bacterial wilt. I turned to Charity and said, "You have enough land that you can repeatedly grow tomatoes - but not in the same place."
"I know we are looking at other capsicums [peppers]," Michael said.
"But that's still a nightshade," I put in. "Is it still susceptible." Yes, he replied.
We talked about a number of other options - mostly me babbling off the top of my head - but I understand the pressure Charity is under. Certain things just can't be done because the money simply isn't there. Period. If it were my own farm, I would definitely try planting tomatoes well away from the greenhouse in another area where there have not been nightshades growing for a few seasons. I'd intercrop with other plants. I'd mulch it heavily. That seems to work well for me in my garden. I can't understand why the greenhouse was needed in the first place, really. But in the end, I think we all agreed that it might be best for Charity to talk to some of the folks I met in Thika, since they are both organic farmers and Kenyan and they know what grows and what sells in Kenya and what can fetch a good price.
When we left Charity's farm, Michael dropped me back off at the guest house where I was staying, and a few hours later, I went to the airport and I left Kenya. Or at least, my body went home. I think my heart is still there, and my brain might be too.