Farming Almanac


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12″ x 16″ Acrylic on stretched canvas

 

Enough time has passed that a generation have reached adulthood without seeing the six grain elevators once situated beside the CNR tracks running through Maidstone, Saskatchewan. Like the majority of elevators on the Canadian prairies, they were decommissioned and demolished years ago.

As a youngster, I often accompanied my Dad when he was hauling grain from our farm located fourteen and a half miles north of the town. Dad had built a wooden box on the back of a  two ton Ford truck and in that, we made the trip. This was a big improvement over the days before my time when my Grandfather and his neighbours used horses and wagons to do the job. Riding in the truck with Dad was always a good time. Occasionally if I was very lucky, Dad would take the time to buy us ice cream cones as a special treat.

Years later, when I had a go at farming, I hauled my own grain from my place five miles further north,  past my Dad’s farm, down through the Big Gully and back up, and on into the town. If I began early in the morning and if everything went well, I could sometimes make three round trips in one day with two hundred bushels of wheat or canola on each load. However, if there was a snag, like a loader that wouldn’t start, or a truck that got stuck, or a line-up causing delays, or a side trip to get machinery repairs, or groceries that needed to be bought, that meant two trips with perhaps enough time at the end of the day to load the truck for an early start the next morning.

With the elevators now gone, grain is hauled by semi-trailer to high through-put elevators located much further away. It has become “big business” – no time for ice cream cone treats for youngsters anymore.

When painting this, I referenced a numbered print drawn by friend and very well respected local artist, Velma Foster. The print hangs in my Mom’s home in Maidstone and brings back memories for me every time  I see it.

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School children with trees after one year of growth

School children with trees after one year of growth

During a recent visit to my oil palm farm at Kwame Adjei in the Ashanti Region, I was able to check on what you might refer to as  a long term project – my “timber plantation”.

Allow me to explain. About the time that I was buying the farm in 2004, a Quebec based nursery company had been commissioned by the Forestry Department to demonstrate an improved method of starting nursery stock used in reforestation in Ghana. In a serendipitous meeting at our hotel, the African Rainbow Resort, we met the expert who was overseeing the project, Claudine Ethier. Claudine described her work, which was very fascinating, and spoke about the potential for communities to become involved in nursery and reforestation projects.

The project was coming to an end, and Claudine told me that a number of seedlings had been started and were likely to be discarded. I offered to take them off her hands and she was pleased to see the seedlings planted rather than have all of that effort wasted.

Comfort and I drove our pickup one day to the nursery near Kumasi and in two trips we were able to collect almost 1,200 seedlings. The first 60 seedlings were taken to the Primary School in Comfort’s home village, Amudurasi. The children planted them in a row between one of the classroom blocks and the highway. Within 24 months, the tallest of these was more than 25 feet tall!!!

The remaining seedlings were transported to my farm. I hired four men from Amudurasi to go with me. These were all men who are accustomed to the arduous work of clearing bush in

A cederella which has grown through the canopy

A cederella which has grown through the canopy

preparation for farming. Within a period of a week, they had managed to cut paths through the dense undergrowth to enable the seedlings to be planted. The majority were planted in four rows along one side of the farm, with two rows around much of the remaining perimeter of the farm. Within several months the first rains had come and the pathways that had been cleared were overgrown again but the species are adapted to such conditions and will eventually grow through the canopy and in time they

This is the forest that it grew through

This is the forest that it grew through

will tower above it.

In thirty years, these trees will be approaching a size large enough to begin harvesting them for timber. Many of the local inhabitants questioned the economic wisdom of planting something which would require more than thirty years before it could be harvested, especially considering that the man who was doing the planting would not likely be the one who was going to benefit from the harvest. I have not been too bothered by those concerns.

Planting trees was part of my upbringing on my father’s farm. As a child, I played on maple trees that had been planted by my grandfather shortly after he and his father homesteaded. I remember accompanying my Grandfather as he drove a horse drawn cultivator in the shelter belts that he and my father had planted on that farm before I was born. As a teenager, I helped my father and mother and brothers when we planted even more tree belts. And when Comfort and I bought our farm a number of years later, one of the first things we did was plant rows of trees around the farm yard.

The trees at the school yard - 4 years of growth

The trees at the school yard - 4 years of growth

I guess you could say that planting trees has just been a part of my life. Planting trees in Africa is just a continuation of my previous life, and with global warming almost a buzz word these days, I am sure that I have not yet planted my last one!

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A few days ago I drove out to my oil palm farm near Kwame Adjei. My wife, Comfort, and my brother-in-law Nkrumah accompanied me. It is not far from our house – about a kilometre to New Edubiase, then another couple through the town, and east out of town for four kilometres on the Oda road (the one that the previous government promised to pave during the 2004 election – they delivered on the first one and half kilometres and then ran out of interest, or money, or both, or perhaps they hoped, against all evidence to the contrary, that the people would forget, which they did not when the electorate returned the opposition to power and in this constituency in overwhelming numbers).

At that point, the road arrives at the village of Brunikrom ( the name literally means “white man’s village”, although there are no white people for miles around and the origin of the name remains a mystery to me), and we branch to the right off of the unpaved but reasonably passable dirt road onto a logging trail for the next three kilometres. The trail is narrow and from time to time marked by large holes usually filled with water that hides who-knows-what lurking below. It crosses two low lying marshy areas where makeshift “bridges” consisting of large rough cut timbers and/or tree trunks have been laid to accommodate passing vehicles. These never appear particularly safe but one has little choice but to trust local wisdom and proceed to cross over. Presumably there would be a pile of deserted vehicles mired in the mud if other vehicles had encountered problems but we were the only sign of vehicular life on the trail that day.

We drove through the small village of Kwame Adjei, across another marshy area, up the short hill that marks the one side of my farm, and a brief distance further I parked the Land Cruiser in the turn off to the next village of Kwame Asare. We began strolling around to see how things were shaping up. The rains have just started, and as with farming everywhere, it is important to time operations well and in harmony with nature. Farmers around the globe face similar weather uncertainties these days – it is no longer as easy to predict the seasons as it once was. Global warming has turned the seasons inside out here and extremes have become the norm.

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The farm is approximately 32 acres in size, quite a large area by local standards. The land had been allowed to revert back to an original state for the fifteen years before I purchased it. In the first year, 18 acres were cleared, and oil palm seedlings were planted on 12 acres. Through various errors, two much was cleared and not enough seedlings purchased to plant the entire area, and so the remainder began to grow back. Last year, three acres of that remainder were cleared again and planted.

The remaining area of several acres has recently been cleared and burned. I will purchase oil palm seedlings the next time I get a chance and have them planted in time to take advantage of this rainy season. The man who has cleared the area will sow maize which will be harvested four months after planting. He will pay for the seed and keep two thirds of the maize crop as payment for his clearing of the land. At the same time, he will plant cassava (a starchy tuber which is one of the main stays in the diet), which will be harvested next year about this time. Half of the cassava crop will be his share and he will be responsible for keeping the area weeded until the cassava is harvested. By making this arrangement, I will minimize my cash outputs for the year. This is a similar arrangement which I made with the same man last year for the three acres.

Farming is farming, but farming in the tropics is not the same as dryland farming on the Canadian prairies. The past four years have taught me much, and there is still a great deal for me to learn. Unlike the arrangements which I just described, I tried a much different approach in the beginning. I was naïve enough to think that it would be better if I was in control of the inputs and outputs. I contracted people to clear the land, then to plant the seedlings and the corn and the plantain that were to act as cover crops. I was not there to monitor the work on a regular basis, and even when I did go, I really did not know what I should be expecting. It was a disaster!! I spent a considerable amount of money; many of the seedlings did not survive; the maize crop was abysmal; and the plantain developed legs and walked away… The man whom I had hired to oversee the work spent most of his time in the nearby forest reserve searching for kola nuts which he sold in the market for cash. The rest of his time was spent praying with his friends at the mosque in New Edubiase. He apparently was not praying for a successful harvest and as I say, the experience was a disaster and a rather expensive lesson.

Back on the farm, Nkrumah and Comfort and I continued our walk. I expressed to Comfort my disappointment with the way the farm was going. She listened sympathetically and reminded me that the new arrangements that had been made would yield better results. Of course, I was not particularly convinced that things would get better – at that particular moment I was wondering where I would get the money to buy some more seedlings.

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We were now entering the area that had first been cleared and planted in 2005. Nkrumah pointed out how the first oil palms that had been planted that year were now clearly showing above the undergrowth. He walked over to one of the oil palms and cleared away undergrowth with his cutlass as he walked. He pointed down to the base of the tree and showed me how the first bunch of palm kernels had already formed and was beginning to ripen to that deep red colour that is so distinctive of oil palms. Yes, I had to acknowledge – there was hope.

After returning to the car, we started to drive back past the farm. Nkrumah stopped me for a moment so that he could pick up a sack of cassava tubers which he had dug while I was taking photos earlier in our walk. He placed them in the back, beside the kuntumeri leaves (greens, much like the spinach grown in my mother’s garden on the farm) which he had gathered on the farm as we walked. I knew that these would later be cooked into a very nutritious and delicious stew, and the cassava would be cooked and pounded into fufu – my favourite meal. There has always been something about eating food that has been grown on your own plot of land – for some reason it always has more flavour and richer colour and better texture.

The thought of the coming meals put me into a better mood. The drive home was somehow brighter, and I relished a concept that is common to farmers back on the Saskatchewan prairie and that is the idea of “NEXT YEAR”. No matter how bad things seem on the farm at the time and how much money we seem to be losing, we farmers always cling to that one hope, and that is that NEXT YEAR things will be better…. As I say, once a farmer, always a farmer.