BUT DOES IT WORK - CAN MICROFARMS FEED THE WORLD?
Well, can they? With ten billion of us here by 2050?
Wrong question. Science will feed the world provided we don't all go to war.
My right-hand-man, Sithandiwe and some produce
Green maize for fodder (silage), hiding my wife, Tineke
|What we should ask is:
Can microfarms first become sufficiently widespread for them to mitigate some of the bad effects of the New Economic Disorder, and then, with even wider adoption, show all of us agriculturalists the way forward?
Other sections of this website will show how microfarms will do this, but first we must check that they can deliver: Kilograms of food per square metre per year using minimal amounts of non-renewables and having a positive ecological impact.
The literature is as strong on data for the Big Hectare Farmers' productivity as it is weak on data for very small farms. Because small farms are usually worked by the poor, it is often assumed that small farmers are also stupid and inefficient. Collecting data from them is difficult - they are usually family or part-time farmers and are often illiterate and innumerate as well as poor - but rarely stupid.
To remedy this, I kept meticulous records of production from my eleven 9m2 plots of vegetables for four years (2003 - 2006). I chose vegetables that I like eating, rather than concentrating on those with high production per square metre to give more impressive results.
They are summarised as follows:
Sithandiwe digging potatoes
US$ conversion rate to SA Rand $1 = R11
*probable figure, based on something a bit below supermarket prices
So how many people could a 100m2 microfarm like this feed?
An easy answer is to take the average production per square metre per month (above) and do this sum:
1.4 (av.prod/m2/month) x 100 (100m2) x 12 (months) = 1,680 kg a year, or 4.6 kg a day. A useful contribution to the food budget of a large family.
In practice, a microfarmer would choose to plant more of the higher-producing crops like spinach, kale (winter), potatoes and onions (store well), tomatoes, cabbage and root crops. This is supported by my 1st June to 31st May totals for the three full years of
records coming to 1,711kg; 1,825kg; and 1,974kg, all above that average.
So my microfarm's productivity was rising to nearly
2,000 kg per 100 m2, or 200 tonnes a hectare.
Now give it a commercial spin with a cropping mix like this:
Run as a business, a 100 m2 microfarm could gross R12,000 ($1,100) a year.
Now Adding Fodder Crops
Scaling up from the 100 m2 model, I added a further 320 m2 for fodder production. Good quality fodder fed to a lactating ruminant that is otherwise kept on a commonage and kept in the kraal overnight can increase milk production. Many microfarmers will have - or desire to keep - a milking cow or goats - to produce milk for home use or possible sale and will enjoy the benefits of these animals' excreta as compost additives, especially if their urine is collected nightly for direct application (diluted) to growing crops.
Silage making using traditional chopper; note scale for weighing green crop and round, plastic-lined silage pit, lower right
Made silage - 6 months later
Here are the production records of my thirty-two 10m2 of fodder plots for two and a half years (2003 to 2006):
1 Assumed cows get full maintenance from elsewhere and that 3kg of fresh material is worth one litre of extra milk
2 Probable figure, based on something a bit below supermarket prices
3 Summer fodder crops have to be preserved as hay or silage; these crops do not make hay easily so the milk production figures assume that they are successfully ensiled with minimal wastage.
Overall crop totals for the 2 summers and three winters, including the lucerne allocated between the two half-years, show total production (fresh material)
1 Incomplete season
For the two complete years, the 320 m2 produced very nearly 13 tonnes of fodder, (equivalent to 405 tonnes per hectare). Converted to milk, that could represent 4,320 litres of milk over 730 days, nearly 6 litres a day, worth R30 or $3. Good food and useful money when some is sold!
A microfarmer planting a fodder crop is likely to be keeping a lactating ruminant in milk through the winter or dry season and so must choose a crop that can respond productively to irrigation during that period. Growing a summer crop - taking advantage of whatever rain there is as well as the higher temperatures - will require a silage-making facility. This can be tricky on a small, microfarm scale because such green material must be preserved under anaerobic conditions. Chopping the crop is advisable to get good compaction (excluding air) and the right fermentation, which means using a power-driven machine. It can be done by hand - as we did - but it requires extra hands and is HARD WORK. A machine usually requires a group of microfarmers co-operating - sharing its cost and use. Then, once the crop is chopped, it can be stored in well-sealed (tricky again) plastic bags with protection from rodents, or in a small round pit, lined with plastic, with sides sloping inwards with depth and which is free-draining.
Otherwise, fodder production like this is less labour intensive than vegetable growing and we found that the 320m2 could easily be managed.