I stood there on a mound of blood red soil overlooking Chief John’s farm. No large buildings were in sight. As a matter of fact, no other people were in sight. There were no other signs of human life as Anna, Bindu, and I looked out over the surreal landscape. Light green hills covered by rice seemed to go down like steps to what I could only assume was a stream that was hidden by shades of dark green coming from the palm, banana, coconut, and other bush trees. The mixture of green was met at the horizon by a grey, cloudy, and expressive sky. It was one of those skies that would have been perfect for a good cloud gazing session. However, there was no cloud gazing going on because the whole picturesque landscape was too amazing, too beautiful, too new-to-me to be able to focus only on one part. So we sat and just admired while we waited for Chief John and his wife to meet us on the mound by the farm kitchen.
While we were perched with the best view of the farm I took stock of the crops being grown. It was a typical Liberian farm: small, seemingly cut out of the bush, and most of the ground was used to grow rice and cassava. Within the rice field there were cucumber and pumpkin (not exactly like U.S. pumpkins) plants interspersed and at the edge of the farm where we walked through to get to the kitchen was a fenced in plot of peanuts. Over the few days that we had already spent in the little village of Kamada town, I had learned that rice and cassava were the major staples in Liberian cooking, and therefore Liberian agriculture as well. When I say that they were major staples, I mean that I was told that if you didn’t eat rice yet during the day “than you didn’t eat.” Cassava was not too far behind in that thinking.
Fast forward one week and we were out of Kamada town and moved into a house at Liberia’s Central Agriculture Research Institute (CARI) ready to learn from agricultural scientists about the methods and future for Liberian agriculture:
So far we have learned that there are two different systems for growing rice–upland and lowland. Chief John used the upland method, as do most farmers in Liberia. It is the least costly and labor intensive method, and I think the seed that the average farmer has readily available to them is an upland variety.
For upland rice, every April Chief John goes out and brushes the field (a technique that uses a machete in place of a lawn mower or bush hog) and then burns the organic material. This is a technique called slash and burn which regenerates the soil through a controlled burn and uses the burnt ash as fertilizer. Unfortunately, despite how well this practice fits into modern Liberian agriculture, today’s agricultural scientists have a negative outlook on this practice because it is not sustainable and leads to further clearing of the rain forest. Once the land is cleared and cooled (and sometimes they wait a few years to plant it again), Chief John scatters the rice seed by hand over top the soil. At the beginning of the season some weeding is done to help the small rice seedlings gain the upper hand on the field, but after that he and his wife let nature take its course. At the end of the year, about October, he and his wife harvest the small rice seed by hand, bag it up into 25 or 50 kg bags, and store it in the ceiling above the open-aired kitchen which will allow it to dry and be kept safe from insects from the heat and smoke from the kitchen fire. The process starts all over again the next April.
Fast forward again to our training at CARI, scientists told us that they wanted to push the future of rice into lowland production because yield could be 5 times better than what Chief John and other Liberian farmers are getting with their upland rice. In low land systems the farmer should either use natural wetland areas or work their soil around to create something like a pool or a rice paddy equipped with a water inlet and outlet. The rice should always be sitting in about an inch of water, and the seeds are grown in a nursery and then transplanted into the rice paddy as 8 day old seedlings. I was absoluetely amazed at the engineering of the lowland rice paddies at CARI and wondered how they thought the average Liberian farmer could make this work. They told me that it is more labor intensive upfront, but with a fifth of the size of the land that they have in rice production now, they could they could create a rice paddy that can go through 3 harvests in one year and produces just as much food.
Chief John’s cassava resembles a small tree with a leaf that has five leaflets like fingers on a hand. They are mostly grown by cutting a 5 inch peice of a fully grown stem and planting it back into the ground. Just like the rice, I think Chief John and his wife will weed the field of cassava for the first few weeks or months and then the cassava will be large enough to take over the field from there. After 18 months, the new plant will grow into a fully mature cassava plant with full sized cassava tubers (roots like potatoes, but bigger) as their product. The farmer harvests the root by uprooting the plant and digging up the tubers, which can and should be 1-2 ft long and 4-6 inches round. CARI researches told us that they really want to teach the average Liberian farmer that a cassava tuber can be harvested without fully uprooting the plant so that it will be productive again soon. Also, CARI is working on selecting for better varieties and multiplying them for distribution to the average farmer. One thing they realize they need to teach is that cuttings for new plants of cassava can be much smaller and plenty more than what most farmers are doing which will help farmers to multiply the improved varieties that they are given.
While perched on Chief John’s farm, one of God’s masterpieces in front of me, I realized that the average Liberian farmer was doing all they could to survive with century old practices and century old seed varieties. I had met and lived with a village of farmers that were great people, treated me like their own, and impressed me by the joyful way that they lived life, but they were missing access and knowledge of modern-age farming techniques.
While I stood amongst the rice paddys at CARI, impressive as it was beautiful, I realized that Liberia had the answer to their old-age farming problem. The CARI scientist that was teaching me about their research rice paddy was intelligent, passionate, vibrant, and hopeful. He had a vision for a bright future, for himself and Liberia, and it became clear to me as well. He was the answer. He and the people of this country are no different than any other human being (including yourself) that gets kicked down. You get right back up, stand up straight, and hold your head high. No need to seek retribution against the people or things that tripped you up. Retribution won’t ever be enough because the times when you were down will always be there to stare you in the face. But standing upright once more is enough. Standing in community, united and proud, and realizing that God’s grace redeems and fulfills you so much more than you could ever redeem yourself. “By His Spirit I’m alive from the ashes of defeat. The resurrected King is resurrect in me.”
When we are tripped up and fall flat we all have the ability to turn around and be strong. The person standing in front of me at CARI that day is one of the many Liberians that have the heart to pick themselves, and a country, up off the dirt, dust themselves off and keep moving forward. They didn’t need me or any other AgriCorps or Peace Corps volunteer to swoop in to save the day. The answer was right there in the heart of that Liberian CARI scientist, just as it is in the hearts of so many other Liberian’s I’ve already met.