Saturday, September 27, 2014


Last weekend at the demonstration farm we were joined by a "patrol" of Senegalese eclaireurs - boy and girl scouts!  Here in Senegal there is actually no distinction made between boy and girl scouts, they are all simply referred to as scouts or eclaireurs and both girls and boys participate in the same group.  This troop had traveled from the other end of Dakar to camp out, sing songs, and learn about sustainable agriculture.  Although I made it all the way to webelos, I never did make it out of cub scouts into the much more honorable world of boy scouts.  I'm pretty sure though that scouts in the US do not have the same awesome repertoire of camp songs as this troop.  Most of them were in Wolof so I have no idea what they were about, but for every activity it seemed they had a song to passionately belt out.

Here's the group singing a number beneath the Senegelese and scouting flags.

 Their second day at the center the Scouts got to work on the farm. Here they are clearing out an area of weeds to prepare the soil for planting.  If you look closely, you can see one of the scouts on the right holding the ilere tool I talked about in the last post.
Below are two hard working scouts double digging the soil.  Preparing the soil to a depth of 2 feet aerates the soil and gives roots lots of room to access water and nutrients.

The troop ended up planting out two beds of Okra.  Clemson Spineless, Burgundy Red, and Cajun Jewel were the varieties we had started as seedlings for them.  The work really goes fast when you have such a large group all working together.

Here Fatou (in the gray t-shirt) is giving the scouts instructions on watering in their newly planted okra seedlings.  Together, Lamine and Fatou run the Fankanta demonstration farm in addition to co-ordinating the other aspects of the Oasis Grow Biointensive Association.  On the left hand side of the picture you can see that some neighbors were interested to see the team planting out their okra and came by to watch.

And here is the proud patrol of Senegalese scouts posing in front of their handiwork.  Lamine is actually the commissaire général of scouting in Senegal, in other words, the top scout in the entire country.  He has been able to introduce sustainable, low input farming to a lot of youth this way.  For most of their stay the scouts were on their own under the leadership of the camp cheif, the tall scout in the middle.  I have to say I was rather impressed by how self sufficient they were when it came to making their own fire, cooking, and carrying on with their camp activities.

Thanks for the help eclaireurs du Senegal!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Upland rice / Progress on composting project

Two weeks ago at the Fankanta demonstration farm we were busy planting out a large swath in upland rice.  Upland rice is rice that does not need to be grown in a flooded paddy.  This particular variety comes from further south in Senegal.  One of the association members brought back some seed from his mother's village.  Apparently farmers in this village still have not come into contact with urea fertilizer. Instead these farmers use mostly animal manure. I was told though that there is no horse manure as tsetse flies in this region transmit nagana (a parasite) which kills horses.
Luckily there are no tsetse flies this far north in Senegal! 

Below you can see the beds just before the rice was planted, and then two weeks later.

Here is Sadibou using an ilere, a combination shovel/hoe to make ridges (pints in Wolof) around all the beds.  You could say it is the spork of farming tools.  Though at first, using it was a bit like trying to eat with chopsticks for the first time.  The metal blade can be used to move small amounts of soil when held as in the picture.  But, if the ilere is held further toward the end of its handle, it can be pushed back and forth across the ground, cutting weeds down in the sandy soil.

 As water is very precious here most farmers grow in beds that have raised ridges like Sadibou is making here. This ensures that water stays in the beds and does not run off into the pathways.  Watering here is done almost exclusively with watering cans which can take quite a long time.  This is another reason why it's helpful to make sure the water stays in the bed.  The less water that runs off into the pathways the less one has to walk back and forth to the well with their watering cans.

Rice is a staple of the Senegalese diet yet most of it is imported from India, Thailand, or South America.  Lamine is hoping to show that local rice production is feasible and worthwhile with the organic upland rice we are growing.  Below you can see an example of one of the 50 kg sacs the rice comes in.  Every bag of rice I have seen so far and every meal I have eaten has been "Brissures de riz" or broken rice peices.

Our community composting program just started up last week.  Right now we're just targeting the local market.  Each day a horse cart brings the food scraps from the market to the demonstration farm.  Here is Lamine painting the initials of the Association Grow Biointensif onto the container we provide the market.  

The pile is getting bigger every day.  Right now it ranges between 115 and 125 degrees F depending on how old the scraps are.  We're excited about getting some finished product out to farmers.  The soil here is extremely sandy and this compost could do wonders for soil fertility and moisture retention.  Farmers here rely heavily on urea fertilizer and pesticides. Urea is certainly effective at delivering nitrogen to plants, but there are many other nutrients that plants need and over time the urea acidifies the soil. It becomes a cycle where the plants recieve poor nutrition, they become more susceptible to pest pressures as a result, and then farmers are forced to use pesticides and fungicides which further damage soil health and the ability of plants to access the nutrients they need.  People here are curious about alternatives to urea and pesticides though.  Cow and chicken manure is definitely in use, but I'm hoping that the compost will prove to be a more easily accesible resource in addition to being more beneficial to soil health.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Chocolate pudding fruit, plant stimulants and a pepper puzzler

The Association Grow Biointensif had a meeting this past Saturday at one of the member's farms to discuss their current programs.  We sat under the canopy of an amazing orchard filled with fruits I had never even heard of.  In fact there are enough intriguing edible and medicinal plants here to fill up several dozen blog entries.

This interesting fellow is Diospyros nigra.  The genus Diospyros also contains asian persimmons and means divine fruit in Greek. Here people call it sapote although in the other parts of the world it's known as black sapote to differentiate it from the unrelated mamey sapote and white sapote.

The tree gets quite large as you can see below.  This one was planted in the late 1990s and should grow even taller.

The fruits on this one weren't ready but I've been told they have the consistency and flavor of chocolate pudding.  Apparently there in the markets right now but I've been too fixated on mangos and haven't branched out.  Getting my hands on one of these chocolate pudding fruits is a new priority now.

Another common plant around here is thiakhate (chyakhat is what it sounds like although I'm terrible at pronouncing it correctly).  You can see this vine crawling along the ground as well as climbing trees.  The entire plant is used to brew tea and the leaves are often eaten in local dishses. I was told it can help combat fatigue and is used to treat various ailments.  It's hard work here at the demonstration farm so I started drinking quite a bit.  Since yesterday I've probably had about two litres of thick thiakhate tea.  I have to say I feel pretty good as of late, although I can't be sure it's from the thiakhate.

After much suffering, tonight I figured out that the binomial name is Leptadenia hastata.  This paper by Steven D. Thomas, Leptadenia hastata: A Review of its Traditional uses and its Pharmacological Activity, shows that there is indeed something happening when one drinks a nice warm glass of thiakate.  The plant has been shown to have anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-androgenic properties.  That last one might have something to do with this vague sense of vitality I've been feeling.  It could also just be that I ran to the demonstartion farm the past two mornings.

Outside of the orchard, there was also a large plot of peppers that were clearly suffering.  The grower asked me what the problem was and there I was in the hot seat! I said it might be an immobile nutrient deficiency or a virus but I would research it some more. If you have any ideas what's going on I'd love to hear them.  I'll walk you through what I thought was going on (this is might be really boring if you're not into plant nutrition).

As you can see, the new growth is curled and the leaves are rumpled. It looks like maybe an immobile nutrient could be deficient as the new growth is the worst off. The whole plant seems to have rumpled leaves though. Since the young leaves are curled in on themselves it seems like it could be a calcium problem.

Later, the farmer showed us his supply of wood ash. He was very proud to be using an organic fertilizer and had stockpiled an enormous quanitity of it. I imagine they were using quite a bit on the farm.

Wood ash contains a fair amount of potassium and calcium, so if they were heavily applying this to the soil it seems unlikely calcium would be deficient.

The picture below though shows what looks like soft intervenal chlorosis on the newer leaves. Could it be manganese? This "soil" was extremely sandy, and the cation exchange capacity was probably quite low. Sand only has a CEC of about 5, Maybe all the potassium and calcium that was added was hogging the exchange sites and preventing the uptake of manganese.  Wood ash also raises the pH of the soil. This would seriously decrease manganese ability if the pH went much above 7.  I have also read that manganese affects plants ability to properly utilize calcium, which could explain the first picture.  So this is one theory.

There seemed to be an epicenter to this issue where some plants had already died and some looked like this.  Possibly a spot where more wood ash was dumped than other places?

I'm not really sure what this variety of pepper is supposed to look like but here are the fruits.

Having a basic ten dollar soil test that showed the pH, cation exchange capacity, and nutrient levels would be really useful for this type of puzzler.  Unfortunately that's just not available here.  For some reason I always want to see every problem as a nutrient issue, maybe because that means there's a straightforward solution to the problem.  With these peppers though the issue could just as likely be a virus. Given the mottled yellow coloring and the twisting leaves a virus might be a better candidate for what's going on.  It could also be a mite problem and I just couldn't see the mites.  So I'm going to say either manganese, a virus, or mites.  That's probably not going to be a very satisfying answer.  Let me know if you have any ideas!

Picture of Cassava re John Beeby's comment

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Association Grow Biointensif

Here is the Association Grow Biointensif, a group whose goal is to teach low input organic farming methods and better the lives of farmers in West Africa.  They are a diverse collection of activists from all walks of life. Among them are farmers, business executives, teachers, secretaries, and accountants. I'm currently working with them at their demonstration farm, Fankanta. This is where we are working to start a small composting program. The association, led by Lamine Diawara (center in green shirt), has several garden projects in local schools that teach organic farming methods.

At the Seargent Lamine Camara high school, across the street from Dakar's main soccer stadium, you'll find one of these garden projects maintained by the school environmental club.  Every Tuesday the club meets after school to work and learn in their vegetable garden with Lamine and Fatou from the Association Grow Biointensif.

Here's the team just finishing up planting out a bed with Seneca Red Stalker flint corn.  All the way from the Iriquois nation in New York to Dakar, Senegal - via Seed Savers Exchange of course.  We'll see how it does.  We have a lot of seed varieties which are new to Senegal that we'll be trying out.

Unfortunately the watering cans were locked in the prinicpal's office, but the club made do with buckets of water.  They're a great group who are eager to learn and are not easily discouraged!  It will be up to them to water the bed two times a day - no automatic irrigation systems here.  It's a lot of responsibility but they're already talking about expanding the garden.  I'll try to keep posting updates about their progress.
The garden has also been decked out with several young mango trees.  Here you can see the new leaves just coming out.  Note how they have the same shiny brown hue as the young leaves on poison oak, a distant relative of the mango.