Farmers can produce more crops and profit more by growing many crop varieties at one time. At first this might seem impractical or troublesome. But farmers say it is a good way to get higher, more stable yields.
Why is this strategy effective? To understand this better, let’s take a tour of a small farm in Ethiopia.
The farm we visit is half a hectare. We begin the tour at a patch of light, sandy soil. Only metres away we come across a patch of soil that is poorly drained and waterlogged. Then we move on to a part of the land that is sloping, and then there is a depression in the land, and so on. As we move around the farm we see that even on such a small plot there are many different soils and climates.
Because of these varied and changing conditions, farmers must find a way to stabilize yields. The best solution is to plant many crop varieties together. Ethiopian farmers grow many native varieties of sorghum even if they have only a small plot of land. Many varieties growing together can survive the many different weather conditions common on these farms. For example, in a mix of seeds there will be some seeds that are best adapted to clay soils or drought and will survive and thrive in those conditions.
The more diversity there is in a field, that is, the more different qualities the plants have, the safer the crop is. These different qualities help the crop to survive pest and disease attacks, and stressful climates such as drought. This way farmers prepare themselves for the uncertain climate and other conditions.
And there are other reasons why Ethiopian farmers like to grow different kinds of sorghum. Not only are different types adapted to different soils and climates, but growing a mixture also allows farmers to harvest sorghum for different uses.
Some types of sorghum are best for making porridge. Some are good for baking. Some have sweet stalks that people chew like sugar cane. Some are especially nutritious for pregnant women.
But sorghum in Ethiopia is not just good food. The stalks of some varieties of sorghum are used for construction. Some are used for alcoholic drinks such as beer. One type of sorghum contains a bitter chemical which can be used to repel grain pests in storage. Farmers place the grain in a storage pit in the ground. Then they cover the pit with a lid. Then they spread the sorghum with the bitter chemical over the top and cover it with soil. As the bitter sorghum ferments slightly a gas is released which repels pests.
The men and women farmers know which varieties are best for each purpose. Women especially know how to identify and select plants and grains which are best for each specific purpose.
So there are benefits to growing a wide selection of native crop varieties. By growing a number of varieties, farmers get the highest, most stable yields possible, even when conditions are unstable. The different varieties have different important uses for the farm families. Also, native varieties can be used for planting next year.
By planting this way farmers insure themselves against the many risks they face in one growing season.
This script is based on an interview with Dr. Melaku Worede, Scientific Advisor, Seeds of Survival Project, Ethiopia.
For further information about the Seeds of Survival project contact:
Seeds of Survival
56 Sparks St.
Canada K1P 5B1
The production of this script was made possible through the generous support of the Seagull Foundation.