The Sower

Spring 2024
The Agricultural Edition

In This Issue

Seeds of Change: How regenerative farming techniques change lives and land, for good

By Scott Sabin  

I frequently guest lecturer at Point Loma Nazarene University. In most of my classes, I ask the students to visualize a farmer. What typically comes to mind might be a tractor, maybe in the Midwest or the California Central Valley, probably driven by a man, usually on a level field, producing a crop such as wheat or corn, none of which is destined for the farmer’s table.

When we talk about farmers at Plant With Purpose, almost every detail is different. Most of the farmers we work with farm steep hillsides. They cultivate the land no one else wants, because it is too steep, too rocky, or too degraded. Tractors or other machinery would likely be useless, even if farmers could afford them. Instead you see people using hand tools, such as short-handled hoes or machetes. Unlike in the United States, where the majority of farm workers are men, in most of the countries where we work, the majority are women. Furthermore, female farmers are far more likely to live in conditions of poverty, with less access to land, training, or technical assistance.

More meals each day

Finally, the farmers we partner with are often growing food that is destined to be eaten by their own families. Despite this, many of them are not getting enough to eat, which is a terrible irony. When we first began work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the people we were working with were eating 1.3 meals per day, on average, and those meals often consisted of little more than cassava leaves. Within two years they were eating 1.9 meals. In Haiti, where the current political crisis has led to growing food insecurity, the farmers we are serving are eating significantly more than those in neighboring watersheds.

Through our program, people often produce enough to sell a surplus in local markets. For example, in the Dominican Republic, participating farmers are growing cacao and coffee for export markets, giving them income for things like school shoes or medicine.

Although environmental and cultural conditions vary widely between the countries we work in, we have developed a curriculum for use in all of them. This curriculum allows for a lot of local contextualization, but also ensures that a number of core principles and ideas are taught consistently.

Developed collaboratively by our country partners

This curriculum, Seeds of Change, was developed collaboratively by the agricultural experts from all our country programs, throughout the Plant With Purpose partnership. Beginning with a workshop hosted by our Thai partner in 2016 and facilitated by our program team, our agronomists decided on the fundamental principles that all of our training should cover. Then, together, they wrote the six units: Soil Conservation, Soil Fertilization, Biointensive Agriculture, Conservation Agriculture, Agroforestry, and Watersheds.

Soil is one of the most important assets for any smallholder farmer and so much can be done to conserve it, and to improve it, without the addition of expensive chemical fertilizers. Several units address issues of soil health.

Agroforestry, or the practice of incorporating trees into traditional agriculture, is something we have been promoting for nearly forty years, and is one of the reasons participating farmers have planted over 67 million trees. Trees can provide an incredible array of benefits such as nitrogen fixation, soil conservation, pest control, and the production of fruit, fodder, and wood. Additionally, they are often better suited to steep hillsides than row crops and begin to restore some of the ecosystem services that are lost with deforestation. So much can be done when we learn from God’s creation.

Our curriculum is taught via a long-term participatory method called a Farmer Field School. These schools are incorporated into our Purpose Groups and allow farmers to choose techniques to try out from among those they are learning about. A small piece of land donated by a local church or even a group member gives them a risk-free place to see for themselves what works. In this way they are able to get hands-on experience and really believe in the efficacy of a technique, resulting in higher adoption rates.

Additionally, over time, Farmer Field School participants gain the confidence to propose and try out their own innovations in this group setting, allowing them to continue to grow and adapt their agricultural practices even after they have graduated from our program and we have moved on.

Development in graduated communities continues long after our work is done.

Unconventional and Creative Ideas Boost Regenerative Farming

What do worms, rabbit urine, soda bottles, and jalapenos all have in common? Despite their apparent disconnect, these unconventional tools can all be used in the same way: to enhance regenerative agriculture. Plant With Purpose has observed farmers embracing these out-of-the-box techniques with remarkable success. It's a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those who till the land, proving that those who work the land bring unique and effective ideas to boost its health .

Worms are utilized by farmers for vermicomposting. This process involves the use of earthworms to break down organic waste into nutrient-rich compost, which can then be used as a natural fertilizer. By harnessing the power of these tiny creatures, farmers are able to enhance soil fertility and improve crop yields.

Rabbit urine, surprisingly, is not just waste—it's also a valuable resource in sustainable agriculture. Rich in nitrogen and other essential nutrients, rabbit urine can be collected and diluted to create a potent liquid fertilizer. Farmers have found this method to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and minimizing water pollution.

Empty soda bottles may seem like nothing more than trash, but in the hands of innovative farmers, they become indispensable tools for irrigation. By filling them with water then putting them in the soil next to a plant or seedling, the bottle provides a simple and effective “slow-drip” irrigation for the plant. Farmers can keep their crops watered, even in dry seasons.

Who would have thought that jalapenos could serve as more than just a fiery addition to your favorite dish? Often used with garlic, onions, or ginger, crushed jalapenos are mixed with water to create a “tea” to be sprayed on crops. The capsaicin found in jalapenos acts as a natural insect repellent as well as an organic fertilizer. This organic pest control technique reduces the reliance on harmful chemical pesticides, promoting a healthier and more sustainable farming environment.

While these techniques may raise eyebrows at first, Plant With Purpose has seen firsthand the transformative impact they can have on agricultural practices. By embracing nature's solutions—from worms to urine to recycled soda bottles—farmers are not only boosting their crop yields but also paving the way for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future in agriculture.

Livelihoods Improved Through Agriculture

For rural subsistence farmers, increased crop yields can be life changing. By achieving higher crop yields, these farmers can generate more food and income for themselves and their families, leading to better living conditions and increased economic stability. Plant With Purpose’s Seeds of Change curriculum equips farmers with the skills to effectively care for their land and crops. We have witnessed the life-changing transformation that occurs when farmers adopt improved techniques. A study conducted in our Burundi program confirms the significant transformations that can occur. This is what we discovered.

A Greener Approach to Farming

Traditionally, burning fields has been a common practice among farmers worldwide, serving as a precursor to planting season. However, the detrimental effects on soil health cannot be overstated. In a heartening turn of events, data from Burundi reveal a significant decline in this harmful practice. Over the span of just two years, the proportion of participant farmers burning fields has been reduced by a remarkable 33%. This shift signifies not only a change in farming techniques but also a fundamental shift toward sustainable land management practices.

Yielding Bountiful Harvests

A farmer's livelihood hinges on the success of their harvest, and the numbers speak volumes. Participant farmers, those who have embraced the teachings of Seeds of Change, report a 37% increase in harvest yield compared to their nonparticipant counterparts. With training and support, these farmers have unlocked the potential of their land, reaping the rewards of their labor in abundance. The gap between aspiration and achievement is closing, ushering in a new era of security and hope for rural communities.

Growing Together

The power of community cannot be underestimated, especially in the realm of agriculture. Over the course of the study period, the prevalence of agricultural support among group members has surged. This solidarity fosters an environment where knowledge is shared, resources are pooled, and collective success becomes the norm. Plant With Purpose's emphasis on community empowerment is sowing the seeds of collaboration, nurturing relationships that extend far beyond the boundaries of the farm.

Empowering Minds, Transforming Lives

Beyond the fields and the harvests lies a deeper transformation, one of self-belief and empowerment. As participants engage with Plant With Purpose's programs, a palpable shift occurs in their perception of their own agency. The data speaks volumes: a staggering 36% increase in participants' belief in their ability to improve their lives. This newfound confidence serves as a catalyst for change, propelling individuals toward a future filled with promise and possibility.

Redefining Poverty, One Step at a Time

At the heart of Plant With Purpose's mission lies a commitment to alleviating poverty in all its forms. The impact of the Seeds of Change curriculum is nothing short of transformative, with a 39% difference observed in material poverty outcomes. By equipping farmers with the tools and knowledge they need to thrive, we can rewrite the narrative of poverty, one success story at a time.

How Backyard Gardens Alleviate Rural Poverty and Foster Sustainable Communities

Often rural farmers will focus on growing a single crop or two for income, but still not have enough food for their family. A beneficial innovation that comes from our agricultural training is increased use of backyard gardens. These small plots of land are cultivated near one's home to grow a small but diverse collection of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. These gardens, often called “kitchen gardens” (because they literally become like a pantry for meal preparation) serve as a source of fresh produce, bolstering household food security.

For rural subsistence farmers, backyard gardens can prove pivotal in several ways:

  • Diversification of Food Sources: Subsistence farmers can enrich their diets by cultivating a variety of crops in these gardens, supplementing their nutrition with foods that might otherwise be inaccessible or costly. This diversification promotes a balanced diet and reduces dependence on a single commercial crop.
  • Income Generation: Surplus produce from backyard gardens can be sold at local markets, providing extra income for rural farmers. This additional revenue can cover household expenses, or be saved for future needs.
  • Climate Risk Mitigation: Backyard gardens, being small-scale, are often more resilient to climate fluctuations compared to large monoculture crops. They can be tailored to local conditions and may include drought-resistant or fast-maturing varieties, offering a buffer against crop failures caused by adverse weather as they are often hand watered.
  • Soil Health and Conservation: By employing practices like composting, crop rotation, and mulching in their backyard gardens, farmers can enhance soil quality. This boosts garden productivity and fosters long-term soil health and conservation, crucial for sustainable agriculture.

Backyard gardens offer more than sustenance; they cultivate community well-being. As families thrive, so does the entire community, united by shared prosperity and interconnectedness.

Plant With Purpose encourages participants to create home gardens that are tailored for family consumption. Farmers learn together at farmer field schools, learning new insights, sharing generational practices, and refining traditional techniques. It is a collaborative learning process that benefits all. With this knowledge, farmers transform unused land into thriving gardens, supported by Plant With Purpose staff every step of the way.

Farmers obtain vegetable seeds for their backyard gardens through a combination of seed exchange and the provision of seeds by technicians during farmer training. These seeds are essential in initiating the path toward self-sufficiency. By sharing and exchanging seeds, participants can diversify their crops and ensure a steady supply of nutritious food for their families. This enables them to overcome the uncertainties associated with unpredictable harvests and take control of their food security and livelihoods. Staff members can also conduct home visits to assist in the establishment of gardens and address any challenges that may arise.

The impact of these backyard gardens extends beyond individual households. By reducing the need to purchase vegetables, families can save money for other essentials like education and healthcare. The surplus produce can also be sold or shared within the community, creating an increase in income.