Written by: Denika Piggott
In many ways stepping into West Africa is like stepping back in time. As a child growing up on a farm, my grandfather always told me stories about the “good old days” when there were no tractors to plow and plant the fields, where farm animals played a crucial part in farm labour, and where farms supported a diverse variety of crops to feed the family. Exploring farming techniques across The Gambia and Senegal allowed me to fully understand my grandfather’s stories of farming during his upbringing. As the Ecological Agricultural Intern I had the pleasure in working with many farmers to learn the agricultural methods practiced in rural communities across these beautiful countries.
Village girls helping hoe the Millet feilds
Here in North America, our farmers rely heavily on mechanical and chemical input for all farm operations. West Africa differs in that mechanical machinery is uncommon making farmers rely mostly on animal power and human labour for farm operations. Fields are small with a devise variety of commercial crops where strip cropping, intercropping, and minimum pesticides use is widely practiced. Most of the equipment used on the farm is locally crafted with minimal moving parts allowing for low maintenance and ease of operation. Farm inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation are minimal, as they tend to be expensive and/or unavailable.
A Gambian woman carring rice seedings on her head to the rice paddies.
Another differing factor is the climatic seasons. During the months of June to November, West Africa enters their rainy season when field crops and rice paddies are planted. The main cash crop of The Gambia is groundnuts, however there are other widely grown crops including, millet, corn (maize), beans, sorghum, and rice. There are some speciality crops such as tobacco, cotton, and findi grown in certain areas of the country. Fruit crops are also common and a commercial viable option for farmers, however the initial financial investment is usually too expensive for the common farmer. Market prices for field crops have fell in the last decade making it harder and harder for farmers to sustain their families on farming alone. It is critical for rural farmers to grow enough food to feed their family as well as producing enough to be sold to the market.
A rural farmer showing his groundnuts
To efficiently run a farming operation, both men and woman must contribute to agricultural activities on the farm. During the field crop season, the man and boys work on the fields with the animals while the woman work in the rice fields. Young boys and girls in a rural community begin to learn from an early age the farm dynamics and operations. It is common for the elder boys within the family to look after a horse, mule or donkey and be responsible for plowing and planting with this animal. The farm as a whole runs by inputs from the communal family unit to ensure food security and the sustainable productivity of the farming system.
Elder boys working the field while the younger boys learn how it is done
As I return back to Canada, I look forward in sharing the many stories, experiences and pictures I have created during my internship in The Gambia with my father and grandfather and hopefully, incorporating a few farming techniques back into our family farm.