Qoal­ing farmer braves the el­e­ments

Lesotho Times - - Feature - Pas­cali­nah Kabi

He has never been known to give up eas­ily and vet­eran Qoal­ing farmer, Tšeliso Mpiti, is not about to start now.

The 82-year-old is one of Maseru’s prom­i­nent agron­o­mists but the pre­vail­ing el Niño-in­duced drought has tested this for­mer po­lice­man to the limit af­ter he re­cently lost an en­tire field of cab­bages and onions “worth a for­tune” to the ad­verse weather.

Yet when the Le­sotho Times crew vis­ited Mr Mpiti last Fri­day, there was lit­tle in­di­ca­tion of the dev­as­ta­tion this de­ter­mined farmer suf­fered this sum­mer crop­ping sea­son.

The lush veg­eta­bles rang­ing from beans, spinach and pep­per, an equally thriv­ing maize crop, and or­ange fruit trees sug­gest a farm in full bloom.

And lis­ten­ing to Mr Mpiti talk so af­fec­tion­ately about agri­cul­ture, one be­gins to see the sec­tor in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent light of easy pick­ings — un­til he men­tions los­ing “a lot of money” when in­ad­e­quate mois­ture saw his onions and cab­bages wither “right be­fore my eyes”.

To make sure the crop did not com­pletely go to waste, Mr Mpiti ended up feed­ing some of the veg­eta­bles to his live­stock, with the loss al­most break­ing his iron will to suc­ceed no-mat­ter the odds.

But never one to de­spair, Mr Mpiti con­tin­ued to nur­ture his orchard and new crop of veg­eta­bles which now ap­pears like the bib­li­cal ‘Gar­den of eden’ amid the des­o­la­tion of the neigh­bour­hood.

The ‘eden’ would have been enough to make any farmer happy but some­thing is cer­tainly eat­ing at Mr Mpiti.

He looks at the thriv­ing veg­eta­bles thought­fully, kneels down to help one of his work­ers tend­ing the plants and speaks slowly and al­most in­audi­bly.

“When I left the po­lice force in 1974, I joined pri­vate se­cu­rity and af­ter I re­tired, I de­cided to put my land to good use and be­came a full­time farmer in 1980,” he said.

“I was so de­ter­mined to suc­ceed in farm­ing, so I taught my­self about the best agri­cul­tural prac­tices as I was in­ter­ested in both live­stock and crop hus­bandry.

“Be­fore I knew it, I could feed my fam­ily with the pro­duce of my own hands. As you can see, we have fruits and dif­fer­ent types of veg­eta­bles which we sell to the lo­cal com­mu­nity and su­per­mar­kets,” he said.

Mr Mpiti takes a deep breath as he dusts off his hands and then re­lates his loss which he says could have ended his en­ter­prise if it was not for his never-die spirit.

“In the just-ended sum­mer-crop­ping sea­son, I suf­fered one of my big­gest farm­ing losses since 1980. I had planted 3000 heads of cab­bage, and was look­ing for­ward to a nice profit.

“I first watched my four big dams dry out, and had hoped the crop would sur­vive some­how. I was hop­ing the rain would res­cue my crop but in the end, I lost the bat­tle. I had to feed the veg­eta­bles to my live­stock be­cause it was ei­ther that or they were just go­ing to go to waste. At least, I had live­stock to feed them to but it was painful to watch my in­vest­ment worth a for­tune go­ing down the drain like that. I lost a lot of money as a re­sult, and could have eas­ily given up but that is not my na­ture. I don’t give up that eas­ily,” he said.

Mr Mpiti does not fore­see the sit­u­a­tion get­ting any bet­ter this com­ing win­ter crop­ping sea­son, but that is not stop­ping him from his farm­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. Weather ex­perts be­lieve the drought, which has dev­as­tated south­ern Africa since the on­set of the 2015/16 sum­mer sea­son, could only re­lent in 2017.

“We will start plant­ing cab­bages at the end of April and the veg­eta­bles should be ready for con­sump­tion by the end of Au­gust. Like I said, it was tough in sum­mer, and I don’t think I can sur­vive an equally hard win­ter farm­ing sea­son, but like I said, I am just hop­ing that I will be lucky,” he said.

The de­voted farmer then went through the var­i­ous stages one should un­der­take to en­sure a good har­vest.

“You start by till­ing the land with a trac­tor-drawn plough, and soon af­ter, you spread cow-dung and fer­til­izer on the field to make sure the soil has the much-needed nu­tri­ents. Be­sides the cab­bages, I am also go­ing to plant peas, wheat and fod­der this win­ter, and hope­fully, I will be lucky this time around.”

Asked why he was go­ing ahead with full farm­ing ac­tiv­i­ties de­spite the pre­vail­ing un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing rain­fall, Mr Mpiti said he was sim­ply hop­ing to be “lucky”.

Mr Mpiti fur­ther said there was no point in moan­ing over the ele- ments when the rel­e­vant stake­hold­ers were not com­ing up with al­ter­na­tive and ef­fec­tive farm­ing meth­ods re­spon­sive to the new and shift­ing weather pat­tern.

“Our agri­cul­tural su­per­vi­sors are sit­ting in their of­fices with no care at all about the fu­ture of this coun­try’s farm­ing. They only come to us to get our best pro­duce when there are big agri­cul­tural shows,” he said.

“They need to get out of their com­fort zones and come up with new cli­mate change-re­spon­sive meth­ods or else we will con­tinue dy­ing of hunger be­cause some peo­ple are not do­ing their work prop­erly.”

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions (UN)’S Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion (FAO), there is ur­gent need to re­verse the dire im­pact of food in­se­cu­rity and cli­mate change on many house­holds in Le­sotho.

In its lat­est Le­sotho Cli­mate Smart Agri­cul­ture (CSA) re­port, FAO noted th­ese im­pacts could be re­versed by “trans­form­ing agri­cul­ture and adopt­ing prac­tices that are cli­mate-smart and sus­tain­able”.

FAO also says farm­ers and ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties are un­der the great­est threat from cli­mate change but could also play a ma­jor role in ad­dress­ing this haz­ard.

“Cli­mate-smart farm­ing tech­niques such as con­ser­va­tion agri­cul­ture and im­proved home-gar­den­ing and nutri­tion would in­crease food­pro­duc­tion, in­comes and food-se­cu­rity while mak­ing agri­cul­ture more re­silient to cli­mate change.

“Be­sides, sus­tain­able land man­age­ment prac­tices are es­sen­tial to pro­tect Le­sotho’s nat­u­ral re­sources and ru­ral liveli­hoods,” the UN agency notes.

“Con­ser­va­tion agri­cul­ture holds tremen­dous po­ten­tial for all sizes of farms and agro-eco­log­i­cal sys­tems, but its adop­tion is per­haps most ur­gently re­quired by small­holder farm­ers, es­pe­cially those fac­ing acute labour short­ages.

“It is a way to com­bine prof­itable agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion with en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns and sus­tain­abil­ity.

“It is be­ing per­ceived by prac­ti­tion­ers as a valid tool for Sus­tain­able Land Man­age­ment,” FAO also adds on its web­site.

Con­ser­va­tion agri­cul­ture is a set of soil-man­age­ment prac­tices that min­imise the dis­rup­tion of the soil’s struc­ture, com­po­si­tion and nat­u­ral bio­di­ver­sity. This method of agri­cul­ture has the po­ten­tial to in­crease crop yields, while im­prov­ing the long-term en­vi­ron­men­tal and fi­nan­cial sus­tain­abil­ity of farm­ing.

In her speech aired on na­tional tele­vi­sion last week, Agri­cul­ture and Food Se­cu­rity Min­is­ter ‘Ma­palesa Mothokho urged Ba­sotho to take ad­van­tage of the cur­rent rain and pre­pare for win­ter crop­ping.

“Fel­low farm­ers, it is that time of the year when we are pre­par­ing to en­ter the win­ter-crop­ping sea­son. We there­fore, need to take ad­van­tage of the mois­ture in our soil which came as a re­sult of the show­ers that we are cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing,” Ms Mothokho said.

“Tak­ing ad­van­tage of this mois­ture would mean that we need to start cul­ti­vat­ing our soil to en­sure it is ready for plough­ing when the win­ter crop­ping sea­son starts. We know the plant­ing sea­son runs from April 15 – June 15 ev­ery year and we must be ready for this, es­pe­cially for plant­ing wheat.”

Ms Mothokho said win­ter-farm­ing seed would be sold at dis­counted prices from her min­istry.

“Like sum­mer crop­ping, win­ter crop­ping farm­ers will be given a 50 per­cent dis­count when buy­ing prod­ucts like ma­nure, seed, and pes­ti­cides. All farm­ers ready for the win­ter crop­ping sea­son will be given equip­ment by the min­istry,” she said.

How­ever, the min­is­ter warned that farm­ers were ex­pected to pro­duce proof of land own­er­ship is­sued by their re­spec­tive district agri­cul­tural of­fices.

“The min­istry is do­ing this be­cause most lo­cal farm­ers do not en­gage in win­ter crop­ping,” she said.

She fur­ther said the govern­ment would con­tinue to en­gage in Block Farm­ing in se­lect dis­tricts. In­di­vid­ual farm­ers, she added, would be ex­pected to be fully in­volved in the ini­tia­tive and pro­tect the pro­duce against van­dal­ism.

“Landown­ers will get 40 per­cent of the har­vest while the rest goes to govern­ment. In­de­pen­dent Block Farm­ers will also re­ceive im­ple­ments from the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture,” the min­is­ter added.

The min­is­ter re­it­er­ated the pur­pose of Block Farm­ing which is to im­prove Le­sotho’s agri­cul­tural prac­tices and max­imise har­vests while also en­sur­ing ma­chin­ery ben­e­fits the en­tire coun­try.

“Fel­low farm­ers, you will re­mem­ber that we are en­ter­ing the win­ter crop­ping sea­son with sore hearts as we ex­pe­ri­enced se­vere drought in the just-ended sum­mer crop­ping sea­son,” she said.

“Al­though at the mo­ment we don’t have num­bers con­cern­ing the sum­mer har­vest, the sit­u­a­tion sug­gests it will be at its low­est if ever we do har­vest.

“ex­perts show the cur­rent se­vere drought is a re­sult of cli­mate change and this means we must be very care­ful with our farm­ing meth­ods. We must en­gage in con­ser­va­tion agri­cul­ture as it keeps wa­ter and mois­ture.”

The Le­sotho Liveli­hood Sce­nario Im­pact 2015 showed that ap­prox­i­mately 460 000 Ba­sotho were in need of food aid and this num­ber was likely to in­crease given the poor agri­cul­tural har­vest, she added.

“This means as farm­ers, we need to go into win­ter crop­ping in full force to en­sure that our har­vest is big­ger. You will agree with me that this cur­rent drought hasn’t only af­fected crops but live­stock as well.”

She there­fore en­cour­aged farm­ers to plant fod­der this win­ter and also build small dams for their an­i­mals.

Qoal­ing farmer Tšeliso Mpiti is ex­pect­ing a good har­vest de­spite the drought.

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