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Congo Farm Project
Congo Farm Project

The goal is to produce a self-sufficient village where villagers can live a peaceful productive life, safe from the strife of war and trouble.

by Alexander Petroff

FROM STARVATION TO SUSTAINABILITY

It was April 2006. After years of imagining and studying and training in every way I could think of about how to start a self-sufficient village, I was about to actually start. I had even set up a non-profit organization, Working Villages International, and raised a little start-up money. Still, up to this point, it was all just a dream. But now, I was finally at the turning point between dream and reality. I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building.

Congo Farm Project

A village chief donated an old burned out Belgian plantation house for WVI’s headquarters.

We could pay the workers only about $2.00 per day, but that was good pay in a region where there annual income was $100 and unemployment was 98 percent. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe. They were ready to work!

Congo Farm Project

WVI’s refurbished headquarters. Villagers were originally surprised at plans to install a grass roof.

Thus began WVI’s Ruzizi Valley Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 10 years of war had left over 4 million people dead, plunged the country into anarchy, and just about completely collapsed the economy. Before the war, the Ruzizi Valley, located in eastern Congo, along the Rwanda border had been known as the “rice bowl of Congo.” It is located practically on the equator, with rich soil, and a relatively cool climate because of its high altitude.

Clouds of moisture evaporating from Lake Tanganyika, 40 miles south, collide with the Mitumba Mountains to the north, delivering ample rain, except during the summer dry season. A farmer’s paradise! Congolese refugees back in Maine had told me they learned of the Ruzizi Valley at their high school in Kinshasa (1000 miles from Ruzizi), “One bean plant can grow 5 pounds of beans!” Before the war, the Ruzizi Valley was covered with farms and dairy cows.

But now, practically all that was gone. When Rwanda solved its problem of genocide by pushing the Hutu fighters into Congo, Congo was severely destabilized, and Ruzizi bore the brunt of the fighting because it was right on the Rwanda border. Its farms were wiped out, and most survivors fled to the cities. Nine different countries became involved in “Africa’s First World War.” Unfortunately, their real goal was not to save Congo, but to exploit its reserves of gold, copper, diamonds and the coltan needed for cell phones.

The violence and collapsed infrastructure left the population starving. Even though many local people had been killed or driven off the land, there was a U.N. camp in the Ruzizi Valley, and that attracted refugees who were driven away from other places. The population was quite mixed ethnically, but they were all starving equally.

Two years before I started the project in Congo, I had spent my junior semester abroad, working at the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center in Uganda, and writing a paper on economic development for college. One constant problem when I was in Uganda was poisonous snakes. Karamoja was a dry province, and when anyone mixed up concrete, half a dozen poison snakes would shoot out of the grass towards you, hoping to get some moisture from the concrete. I worried about having a similar problem in Ruzizi.

I asked Chief Ombeni, “What’s the snake situation here?”

He replied, “There are no snakes.”

“But how can that be? This is exactly the kind of place that snakes like.”

“In the war, the people were hungry, so they ate all the snakes.”

“Yes, but, if you have no snakes, then you must have a rat problem.”

“No, they ate them also.”

The miracle of WVI’s Ruzizi Valley project is that we have been able to take these same starving people, and give them the training and the opportunity to produce their own food using sustainable methods. Now, after 4 years, the 600 villagers who work for us, and their families, have an ample diet and are eating much better quality food than the average American. How did we do that?

Congo Farm Project

Corn is popular in the local diet.

STARTING WITH AGRICULTURE

In my college travels to different non-profit groups in Uganda, I saw innumerable projects where a school or orphanage or hospital had been built. The services were important, but they depended on a constant flow of cash from Western countries. So once the Western overseers pulled out, you could see numerous ramshackle projects where the cash flow had dried up.

Another weakness was to set up a project to be fully dependent on foreigners for the day-to-day leadership of the project. The most effective projects, like the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center where I worked, carefully cultivated leadership personnel by selecting and training the most qualified individuals from the local population. This model was more sustainable because it created better loyalty from the local population, made people more receptive to the training, and encouraged local initiative.

I saw the drawbacks of relying too much on Western cash and Western project leaders. Instead, I wanted to develop my project in such a way that it requires less outside funding – not more; and less outside leadership – not more – as time went by.

Thus, I decided to put my first emphasis on agriculture and to find local leadership to manage day-to-day operations, if at all possible. Looking back over the last few years, I’m convinced that agriculture was the best choice to avoid the pitfall of long-term economic dependence on the West. By providing start-up capital and training, we can get people launched on a path of economic development that can keep going even after we pull out. And, I made it clear from the beginning that we would definitely leave: After ten years, we will move to another village: you will be on your own.

That way, based on their own economic power, people can build social services like schools, health care facilities, and care for orphans. These won’t be as fancy as services funded by Western donors, but instead of collapsing when the donor base leaves, the local services they start can continue because they will be founded on the local economic base.

LOCALIZED ECONOMICS = VILLAGE SELF RELIANCE

Africa is strewn with the wreckage of 60 years of failed development programs. Practically all of them have been based on producing something for export, something for the global economy. Even farming is no better than mining, if it is just going to be to sell overseas. There is no profit for local farmers, especially small farmers, because they have to compete with agribusiness farmers abroad who have an unfair advantage due to government subsidies and economy of scale. Any remaining profits for small African farmers are eaten by the skyrocketing price of shipping.

I was amazed to learn that according to US government statistics, the biggest component of food aid to foreign countries is actually the shipping costs, not the grain or milk. Working Villages is also not interested in selling fair trade coffee or making different craft items to be sold in U.S. boutiques. These simply can’t provide widespread economic benefit in the communities that produce them. The global economy is a failure and it will continue to be more of a failure as oil gets more expensive. So what is the alternative model?

The alternative is to build a local economy focused on providing for local needs. Gandhi called it “Swadeshi.” I call it simply “Village Self Reliance.” The idea is not to make one agribusiness CEO a billionaire while everyone who works for him struggles to scrape by. Instead, the idea is to give a village full of people a chance to make a decent living by using local land and local materials to produce food and goods that their neighbors actually need. This idea is so simple that it’s difficult for many people to understand, because they have been taught all their life that “free market” international trade is the miracle that will solve all economic problems. But, ultimately what we want at Working Villages is many locally owned, small farms and workshops that work together to provide for each other to build a community.

Congo Farm Project

“MUZUNGU NYASI”

When I started my village in 2006, I set up a Congolese friend as project manager. The Ruzizi Valley has vast tracts of scrub land, and we worked hard organizing everyone to clear land and dig up the soil to plant a 60 x 100 foot garden. Villagers were enthusiastic workers. However, they suddenly became skeptical when they found out that I planned to put a grass roof on the dilapidated plantation house the chief had given us. They expected us to simply drive to the city of Bukavu and purchase a tin roof, like all the other foreign non-profit organizations they had seen. They thought I must be crazy.

Behind my back they began to call me “Muzungu Nyasi.” “Muzugu” means “white man” and “Nyasi” means “grass.” “Grass-man.” But really, it meant “Crazy-man.”

But I had learned thatching at Fox Maple school in Maine, and it was important principle to make sure everyone had a chance to earn a little money. We paid villagers 25 cents apiece for bundles of grass, and 50 cents apiece for bundles of matetei bamboo. As they soon realized that they were going to be the benefactors of this policy, they decided that “Muzungu Nyasi” was not so crazy after all.

However, the name stuck. Only now it became an honorable title. (Even a year or two later, if I visited the chief of a neighboring village, my translator would introduce me, “This is Muzungu Nyasi.” “Oh, Muzungu Nyasi! We have heard about your work. When are you coming to do a project in our village also?”) Also, amazingly, our workers had so much determination that they built a half mile road to the project – using only hand tools – in just three days.

The villagers were grateful for work, but we had so many prospective workers we couldn’t afford to keep them all. We set up a policy. For one week, we would hire the first ten men and the first ten women who showed up for work each day.

It was important to hire men, because unemployed men could become lured by various militia groups and cause violence and instability, but it was also important to hire women, because many of them were the head of household since their husbands were killed in the war.

At the end, we hired the best of the best, and these men and women became our core workers. They learned quickly and were hard workers. (Over time we expanded our work force, as we were able to raise more money. These excellent workers set a strong example, which was a great benefit as we brought new workers on board.)

I had to return to the US to graduate from Hampshire College in May, and to raise more funds. According to my previous plan, I relied heavily on my Congolese project manager. He was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the project, but unfortunately it turned out that he had no real managerial ability. I could only be in Congo for a few weeks at a time and whenever I was away, he was not able to develop the project in a focused manner. After about a year, he left the project for some more exciting endeavor. Building a farm project was not for him.

That left me with no one to manage the project. I needed to get back to Congo, to find new management, but there was a huge outbreak of instability and widespread fighting preceding the national elections (the first in 40 years) so I had to wait. Week by week, I grew more worried, wondering if my project had been destroyed during the fighting.

Congo Farm Project

Fiston Malago, the manager of WVI’s Ruzizi Valley project, is a trained agronomist.

NEW MANAGEMENT

Finally, after several months of anxious waiting, I was able to return to Congo. Some friends in the Congolese community in Maine put me in contact with a Congolese translator named Blaize who would meet me when I flew into neighboring Rwanda. We drove over the border towards the project. As we drove through Luvungi, we had to slow down because of the bad roads. I could hear the people talking. I asked Blaize what they were saying. “They are saying, ‘Is that him?’ ‘No, it can’t be him. After so long, he won’t back. It is some other Muzungu (white man).’”

Finally, the car drove up to the project. We were amazed to find 2 of our security guards still standing guard, even though they had not been paid for several months. When I say “security guards” you might imagine someone dressed in a smart uniform, carrying a gun, standing next to a chain link fence. Such was not the case. Our guards never had any guns. There was no chain link fence. Only a ramshackle 6’ x 6’ guard shed to keep the rain off. A rope across the road was the only physical barrier. The actual security was the good will of the village, which was still hoping that the project would start up again.

When Blaize and I got out of the car, the guards began to shout in disbelief, “Muzungu Nyasi! Muzungu Nyasi!” Soon everyone gathered excitedly and welcomed me to back to the project. When I went into my room in the headquarters, I found that none of my belongings had been touched in the months of my absence. In such a poverty-stricken area, this was a real testament to the commitment of the villagers to the project.

So, I was back, the project was safe, and the villagers were enthusiastic to resume work. But I had no manager. I thought of one of the men who had helped supervise setting up the small garden in the beginning, a very quiet man from a good family nearby. I felt he might be a good choice. “Does anyone know where Fiston Malago is?”

The villagers told me, “Fiston is not here. His family estate is here, but he is in Kinshasa (the capital, some 1000 miles away). He is managing some agricultural project for the U.N. We don’t know how to reach him.” But miraculously, Blaize told me that he had dated Fiston’s younger sister in high school. If he could reach her, she must have a phone number for Fiston. Blaize tried his old phone number and he actually talked to the sister. She gave us a number for Fiston.

When we got through to Fiston in Kinshasa, he was quite surprised to hear from us. Blaize simply told him. “Muzungu Nyasi is here and he wants to talk to you. You need to come.” Fiston replied, “Muzungu Nyasi – he is a very serious man. I will be on the next plane!” We had not even offered him a job.

Two days later, he was there. I had seen Fiston working with the villagers about a year before, and intuitively, I felt like he was a natural leader, carefully showing them different techniques, even though he was fairly quiet. Only when he came back to Luvungi did I find out that he had a University degree in forestry and agronomy (plant and soil science). His job at the U.N. was paying several thousand dollars a month, a high paying job by Congolese standards. I knew he was worth it, but I also knew that we could not possibly pay that much. (I had paid the previous manager $100 per month.) I began the delicate matter of negotiating a salary with him.

“Fiston, I know that you are very qualified for this job. Unfortunately, I just don’t know how much we can afford to pay you. We don’t have much money.”

“And, how much are you making as President of WVI?”

“Well, Fiston, it’s a very new project. Since we don’t have much money, I can’t really take any salary right now…”

“Then I shall take the same amount!”

Congo Farm Project

Fiston demonstrates raised bed planting techniques.

PHASE 1 – SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE

Fiston’s father had been an exceptionally well-beloved governor of the province in the 1960s, but when the dictator Mobutu took over the country, Fiston’s father resigned in protest of Mobutu’s policies, further endearing him to the local populace. After returning to his estate in Luvungi, he continued to try to help out the people of his local community. He instilled that commitment to community in all his children, especially Fiston.

After completing his studies in agronomy, Fiston longed to use his knowledge to benefit his community. He later told me that when WVI came to Luvungi in 2006, he thought that would be his opportunity. He was deeply disappointed when the project manager proved to be too disorganized to accomplish anything. Fiston left and took the UN position in Kinshasa. So, when he received our call, he felt it was a second chance, and he was determined to make the most of it.

Fiston proved to be an organized and energetic leader, capable of inspiring the villagers in their work. With just a little bit of capital, he could accomplish much. He was quite familiar with tractor agriculture, but gas was $12 per gallon and we had no tractor. That could not stop him. No need to wait for a tractor. Much could be accomplished with hand labor, and villagers desperately needed jobs. Ruzizi’s fertile volcanic soil was a treasure, he told them, but they must learn techniques to keep it that way, and not let it become like the devastated lands in other parts of Africa.

The first thing Fiston stressed to them was the importance of compost. The local practice was to burn land before planting. That had to be stopped. Burning should be used only for diseased or infested plants. Although I had never seen compost piles in my travels in Africa, suddenly I started seeing the villagers hauling big armloads and wheelbarrows of weeds and grass to compost piles all over our project.

As soon as land was cleared, he had villagers build a number of raised beds for vegetables. He had them make little roofs to shelter seedlings from the blistering equatorial noonday sun. And the crops in the fields and raised beds were now covered with mulch. This was another new thing, but the thick grasses which we had used for thatching could also be cut for mulching, to preserve moisture, prevent weeds and boost soil fertility as they decomposed.

Fiston instructed villagers in the importance of crop rotation. Corn was already a popular crop in Ruzizi, corn meal mush being a common item of the local diet, but corn saps nutrients from the soil, so it should be rotated with a bean crop to help replenish nitrogen. He used beans that were popular in the local diet.

Congo Farm Project

Beans, important for restoring soil fertility, are also popular.

Fiston and I had had a number of conversations about the problem of farmers going into debt to plant their crops. He was determined to set up a culture to avoid this as much as possible. Instead of purchasing fertilizer and pesticides, organic methods could be used to fertilize crops and avoid insect damage. And, he felt very strongly about the idea of using open pollinated seeds so that villagers could save seeds instead of buying them.

In succeeding months, I would notice the same varieties of squash and melons that we had introduced, growing in gardens of nearby villagers. The sharing of seeds produced benefits that quickly spread beyond our project.

Congo Farm Project

Within a few months luscious open-pollinated melons like these were growing at households nearby, spreading the benefits to everyone.

FEED THE WORKERS FIRST

Over the next couple years, we continued to expand our project, hiring more villagers and putting more land under cultivation. Working Villages now employs over 600 workers, and we have several hundred acres under cultivation, growing over 90 varieties of crops. One major focus has been rice and corn and beans, staples of the local diet. We rotate our fields and currently are producing about 100,000 pounds of rice per month, as well as substantial amounts of corn and beans.

Due to global warming, the Ruzizi Valley has been experiencing longer and longer dry seasons for the past few years, which cuts into our ability to grow crops. I purchased a simple GPS system from L.L. Bean. Using the GPS, we designed and built a 250 acre irrigation system to bring water from a nearby river to our land. This was all done using only hand tools. Everything is controlled by simple hand methods of trenching and channeling to direct the water to where we need it to go. This has really increased our productivity.

Congo Farm Project

Irrigation project. Designed using a GPS system. Operated through simple hand procedures.

To the casual observer, this might look like an agribusiness, but it’s not. There are substantial differences. To begin with, our primary objective is not to produce food for the market. Our primary objective is to produce food for our workers and their families. Then, if there is anything left over after that, we sell that surplus, using the money to pay the workers. This makes a huge difference in the lives of several thousand people, who, needless to say, are no longer eating snakes.

The second thing is that we are not yet halfway into our program. Our ultimate goal, once people are trained is to give each family their own house and land. In the meantime, to get to that stage, we need to develop a more dynamic, complex economy. And, we need to increase our level of productivity from just what we can produce by hand labor.

Congo Farm Project

The calves’ first day in the training ring.

PHASE 2: OX POWER

Our goal since the very beginning of the project has been to introduce animal traction. I worked at the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center in Uganda, and later on as an intern at Tillers International in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I’m profoundly convinced that animal traction, and – specifically in the African context – ox power, is the key to sustainable economic development. That’s why Working Villages International uses an ox yoke as its emblem.

To improve the standard of living, you must increase productivity. Ox power will substantially increase productivity over that of hand agriculture, which is the basic mode for most of Africa. But, unlike the tractor, it will not put people out of work. So it makes a perfect balance. Also, in a place like Congo, where gas is now $12 per gallon and the annual income is only $100, a tractor is simply not a realistic proposition for the poor.

In the context of WVI’s Ruzizi Valley project, the other important feature of ox power is the economic linkages that it can generate. Beginning with its purchase, at practically every step of the way, a tractor increases dependence on imported inputs and imported expertise – the very opposite of what we need to develop Village Self Reliance. On the other hand, ox power actually creates a whole range of needs which in turn can generate a broad range of local jobs.

Ideally, I’d like to see our villagers employed building plows and harrows for farming; carts and wheels for transporting crops and goods; block and tackle set-ups for quarrying and building; slip-scrapes for road-building; and sweep-powered ox power units for grinding grain, sawing wood and other applications. Ox power can push our village to develop a diverse range of skills, creating the stronger, more dynamic economy we need.

Congo Farm Project

Toyee agreed to become WVI’s first woman teamster.

OX TRAINING

In the African context, women traditionally do a large portion of the farming, so it was important for us to use a technique that women could use. When I go to the Topsham Fair, a mile from where I live in Maine, I see women and even girls working the oxen with voice commands, so I knew we wanted to use voice commands and not the nose rings that were introduced by the English during the colonial era. Voice commands would make it much easier for the women to participate. I had experimented with several methods, and I decided to use a technique of voice commands described by Paramananda dasa, so that our teamsters could control the oxen from behind, without having to add a second person to guide the equipment.

On one hand, we had a great advantage, in that we were working in a location where people were familiar with cows. In an area where people had resorted to eating snakes, I was amazed there were any cows at all. But the people love their cows, and a local yogurt drink is very popular. Nevertheless, hard times made it difficult to obtain cattle.

The usual practice is to hold a cattle auction, much like in the U.S. In December 2007, Fiston and I went out to buy some bull calves, since they would be the easiest for our novice teamsters to train, but we could not find any calves, only older cattle. The cattle owners told us to come back in a few months and there would be more calves.

But where had all the calves gone? It turned out that all the local calves had been purchased to by the local U.N. camp to provide Christmas dinners for their troops. We were struck by the irony. A small African calf would provide meals for at very most a dozen soldiers, but if we could have purchased and trained that same calf to be a working ox, over its lifetime it could produce crops enough for hundreds of meals to feed hungry villagers.

Nevertheless, we built a corral, training ring and a shed. When we finally purchased our bull calves in April, it was a big occasion. We recruited several villagers to be trained up as teamsters. Liv was enthusiastic to volunteer. He liked working with cows, and he was confident he could train these calves. So we agreed that he should do it. Normally, in Congo women do the gardening and men work with the cows, but we really wanted to get at least one woman teamster. Finally, our cook, Toyee agreed that she would try to train a team.

Both Toyee and Liv had been around cows. I warned them that this would be a little different. They were surprised how animated the calves became when they were first put into the training ring. I told them the best thing was to develop a relationship of trust with the animals by feeding them and brushing them. Training could start in a couple days, when the young calves were more comfortable with their teamsters and with the ring.

Within a week all the calves knew “Get-up” and “Whoa” and were learning “Gee” and “Haw.” Liv and Toyee were very proud of their students. It was difficult for me not to be present as much as I wanted to during the subsequent training, but over the course of a year, I could see that both teamsters were handling their teams quite well. It goes without saying that ox power is a key component of our program and one that Fiston and I really want to expand. Actually, Fiston himself carved our first ox yoke. He said he found it to be a therapeutic relief from his management duties.

One side effect of the ox training that we noted was that as our teamsters increased their expertise in working the oxen, it also increased their confidence in dealing with other people. Thus, when they are not with their animals, they are taking on more managerial responsibilities. The patience, encouragement and firmness they developed in working with oxen seemed to bring out their natural leadership qualities. I thought of the old timers’ saying, “Train the boy by having him train an ox.” It works for grown-ups, too.

Congo Farm Project

Rice crop. Before the war, Ruzizi was a major exporter of rice.

HOUSES AND RICE HULL STOVES

We’ve made agriculture the core of our project, but since we’re trying to create an eco-village, we have other needs as well. We’re interested in alternative sources of fuel that can be used to replace wood and petroleum products like kerosene. We also need to build good quality houses that use the minimum of materials purchased from outside.

Congo Farm Project

Threshing rice. WVI’s policy is to feed the workers and their families first. The remainder is sold in the province.

Our rice program may help us with both things. Due to our large production of rice, we purchased a rice huller to remove the inedible outer hull. Formerly, all the hulling in the Valley was done by one company who cheated farmers out of much of their money. So now, not only do we hull our own rice, but we also hull rice for several hundred small farmers in the valley. Many of them grow very small plots of rice, as small as 600 feet square. This produces tons of rice hulls, which are hard like acorn shells, and cannot be composted or burned – at least not by the normal process.

Congo Farm Project

WVI produces 100,000 pounds of rice per month, making it the largest producer in the area.

Fortunately, we found a design for a small stove fueled by rice hulls. We took the plan to our blacksmith and he was able to build the stove with a sufficiently powerful updraft to burn the rice hulls. Everyone cheered as Fiston and I burned the previously unusable rice hulls to boil a pot of water. Now Toyee and the other women in the kitchen are using it to cook with. We hope to build more stoves and save more trees.

Congo Farm Project

Housing construction. Stones in base are from a local quarry.

Considering how poor the local living conditions are, it is not surprising that our workers are very interested in getting new houses. This last summer we built several brick houses, large whitewashed round buildings with screened windows (to prevent malaria) thatched roofs and beautiful tile floors. The buildings are quite handsome, but unfortunately the cost of the bricks and tiles is quite expensive, mostly due to transportation expense in hauling them from miles away where we purchase the materials.

However, we have seen in Rwanda a place where they use a kiln powered by rice hulls to fire bricks and tiles. We have plenty of rice hulls as well as a good source of clay on our land, so we want to build such a kiln at our project. Not only would this provide good quality, inexpensive housing for the villagers, it will create many jobs in construction and producing bricks.

Congo Farm Project

Finished house, painted with local lime.

Building a village with a complete local economy is not easy. It can sometimes be extremely challenging to deal with the surrounding problems of war and instability. What we are doing in Congo is by no means part of a general trend. Quite the opposite, in general, the country is in a state of collapse and anarchy. However, some way or other our little project continues to grow. Apart from the military, we are now the largest employer in our area. And, as our project grows, it continues to become a stronger refuge for the many people who want simply to earn a living and raise their families in a stable, productive and peaceful environment.

After several years of hard work on everyone’s part, we have finally reached the point where all the agricultural labor costs are covered by selling our surpluses. That means that all the funds we raise can be channeled to expanding other aspects of the project. We’re very excited about the coming year. In addition to developing our housing program, we have also worked up a plan for a large tree planting project to help recover from deforestation in the area.

Fiston has designed it to be an agro-forestry project. He’s selected trees like moringa, neem, avocado and mango, which will be valuable a valuable source of food, forage and medicine to the villagers as they continue to grow. He has laid out the plan so they can continue to grow shade-tolerant food crops between the trees, as well. We plan to introduce wheat for the first time. We’re also excited about our plans to expand our working ox program and bringing in some cows, now that we’ve got a solid base to maintain them.

Congo Farm Project

Mulch helps this tomato crop retain moisture.

AN AMAZING VIEW

One Sunday afternoon Fiston and I were eating lunch and looking out across the valley at a tall hill on the other side. We were talking about climbing it to get a view of our land and to plan out new fields. He said it would only take an hour and a half to hike there and back, and he was up for the climb if I was. I agreed and we were ready. For a short hike like that I figured I only needed about a liter of water. We started walking, and kept walking, and then kept walking some more. I noticed Fiston had brought about 6 liters of water with him, and he kept drinking from his water bottles as we hiked along.

Three hours after we set out, we were climbing towards the top of the hill. My canteen was just about empty, and we still had to walk three more hours to get back. I knew I couldn’t take any of Fiston’s water, because it had not been treated. He was immune to the local bacteria, but it could make me dangerously ill, especially in my current weakened state. It was a hot day, and by the time we got to the top of the hill, my body was pouring sweat and my throat was dry as a bone.

Suddenly, I was at the top of the hill. When I looked across the valley, I was amazed at how beautiful it was. My thirst dropped to the background. For the first time, I could see the whole valley and all our land, and got a real sense of what we could do. I could clearly envision how the whole project would come to life. I was thrilled and excited to think what we could do.

However, we still had to walk all the way back. During that time, my mind was trying to come up with different ways of getting water, but the fact was, there was no alternative. I couldn’t sit down and give up. I would collapse completely in the 6 hours it would take for someone to bring me back some clean water. There was no other course. I could not give up. I would have to walk back.

Somehow or other, by sheer determination and the grace of God, I made it back to the village. I saved that one last sip until we were only a couple hundred yards from the WVI headquarters at twilight. Then, once in the door, I drank lots of water and crashed onto my bed. A couple hours later, I was revived.

I remarked to Fiston, “That was an amazing view you showed me, but I have to say that you are a pretty bad judge of time. You said it would only take us an hour and a half!”

Sheepishly, Fiston leveled with me, “In fact, I knew how far it was, but I also knew that if I asked you to go on a six hour hike in the hot sun, you never would have gone. You would not have seen that amazing sight!”

I told him that if I had known, I still would still have gone. I just would have brought more water. But nevertheless, I could understand his point.

Naturally, I have to chuckle every time I think back to that hike. But I also see how it still applies to both Fiston and me in our trying to build this village. Neither of us would have tried to do this project if we had known how very difficult it was going to be every step of the way. We didn’t have sufficient resources when we started out, and, due to the war, we have struggled constantly to make it survive and grow.

But every once in awhile, I see the villagers working on a field or training oxen or building houses, and I catch a glimpse of the amazing future of this project. I’m glad we didn’t know how hard it was going to be.

Just like on the hike, now that we’ve started this project, and there are so many families that depend on it for their livelihood, and their hope, and their future – regardless of the situation – the only thing to do is to keep pushing forward.

For more information on Working Villages International see www.workingvillages.org

Congo Farm Project

Surprisingly, cabbages are also hugely popular.

Spotlight On: People

Loose Hay with Ryan Foxley

Loose Hay with Ryan Foxley A Farmrun Production by Andrew Plotsky

Rainshadow Organics Saralee and the Interns

Rainshadow Organics: Saralee & the Interns

Rainshadow Organics in Central Oregon is a really big small farm. As part of their mission to produce and promote good food, they participate in the Rogue Farm Corps internship program. This season they have 7 interns who made time during their lunch break to speak to us about the program.

Field Weeds and Street Boys

Field Weeds and Street Boys

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So, our farming system to feed hungry street boys is to have them farm “weeds”. As we have all experienced, weeds are perfectly adapted to their climate, are robust and need no fertilizer nor any of the insecticides to enhance a good crop. Because we are aiming for long term diversified permaculture (this is a Shea native tree area), we needed some very quick marketable crops while we wait for the trees to mature. These field weeds intentionally farmed have a ready market in the big city 5 km north.

Another Barn Falls In

Another Barn Falls In

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The barn was built around a century ago. A pair of double doors on the front flapped when the wind blew, and a short service door was on the side. It wasn’t a big barn, about 30 feet wide by 40 feet long with a small hay mow above. It had a couple of windows for light, and of course a window in the peak. There was a hitching rail outside that gave it a certain welcoming charm. A charm that seemed to say, “tie up to the rail, and c’mon in.”

Bonjour de France

Bonjour de France

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A little sign of life from France. Everything is going rather well at the tiniest of farms. Besides the veggies I have been plowing in the vineyards of the Bordeaux area to add some extra income. The drafthorses are back over there, so they need horsemen.

Farmrun George's Boots

George’s Boots

George Ziermann has been making custom measured, hand made shoes for 40 years. He’s looking to get out, but can’t find anyone to get in.

The Shallow Insistence

…a life of melody, poetry and farming?

Mayfield Farm

Mayfield Farm, New South Wales, Australia

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Mayfield Farm is a small family owned and operated mixed farm situated at 1150 m above sea level on the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range in northern New South Wales, Australia. Siblings, Sandra and Ian Bannerman, purchased the 350 acre property in October, 2013, and have converted it from a conventionally operated farm to one that is run on organic principles. Additional workers on the farm include Janette, Ian’s wife, and Jessica, Ian’s daughter.

Today I Prepare

Today I Prepare by Lynn Miller Summering towards seated moments found without splinter found with or without care. No audience save the critical unbecoming self. Were it a long race to now, surprised to be amongst the last running with a chance to go to the target beyond end, tanks full with cupped felt. So […]

Jacko

Jacko

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By the time he was 3 years old, Jacko had grown into a big size jack, 13 hands tall and 900 pounds, and was still growing. That summer he ran the singlerow corn planter and raked the hay, proved himself handier with a single row cultivator than a single ox, getting closer to the plants without stepping on them. Gradually he had paced himself to his three educated gaits to fill whatever job Lafe required of him: fast walk for the planter and rake, slow walk for the cultivator and plant-setter, and brisk trot for the buggy.

The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

Harnessing the Future

Harnessing the Future

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En route to a remote pasture where the Belgian draft horses, Prince and Tom, are grazing, we survey the vast green landscape, a fine mist hovering in distant low lying areas. We are enveloped in a profusion of sweet, earthy balance. Interns and other workers start their chores; one pauses to check his smart phone. Scattered about are many animal-powered rustic implements. This rich and agriculturally diverse, peaceful place is steeped in contrasts: modern and ancient.

Farmrun A Reverence for Excellence

A Reverence for Excellence

A portrait of Maple Rock Farm and Hogstone’s Wood Oven, a unique farm and restaurant on Orcas Island where the farmers are the chefs, A Reverence for Excellence strives to be an honest portrayal of the patience, toil, conviction and faith required of an agrarian livelihood.

Farmrun John Erskine

John Erskine

John Erskine farms with horses in Sequim, WA.

Cuban Agriculture

Cuban Agriculture

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In December of 1979, Mary Jo and I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba on a “Farmer’s Tour of Cuba”. The tour was a first of its kind. It was organized in the U.S. by farmers, was made up of U.S. farmers and agriculturally oriented folks, and was sponsored in Cuba by A.N.A.P., the National Association of Independent Farmers. As we learned about farming we also learned how the individuals, farms, and communities we visited fit into the greater social and economic structure of Cuba.

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

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I’ve got two teams of Belgians that power all the things on the farm. I don’t have a tractor, I don’t have a truck or anything like that. Everything must be done by them. I have two buggy horses that I use for transportation. I have a one-seater buggy for when I’m going into work or into town by myself and then I have a two-seater one for when I’m with the kids.

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

Honoring Our Teachers

Honoring Our Teachers

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I believe that there exist many great practicing teachers, some of who deliberately set out to become one and others who may have never graduated from college but are none-the-less excellent and capable teachers. I would hazard a guess that many readers of Small Farmer’s Journal know more than one teacher who falls within this latter category. My grandfather, and artist and author Eric Sloane, were two such teachers.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
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