How do we know what we know? Learning from Farmers & the Land

Farmers from Meru, to the east of Mt. Kenya, learn about greenhouses from from farmer in Nyari, to the west



In my Ecology class this week, we discussed the question, “How do we know what we know?”  We happened to be talking about this question after a discussion on climate change and climate change denial.  However, I find this question extremely valuable for food systems today. 

A roadside farm and agroforestry in action
The art of farming, cooking and general food skills and knowledge have in large part been lost in the United States.  Many of our farmers know much more about large farm machinery than about the plants and Earth they cultivate.  As a new wave of interest in ‘real food’ grows, ‘real food’ knowledge and skills will also grow.  But, how do we learn these?   
A young farmer takes notes at an IFAD farmer training

As I prepare to run an educational garden this summer at my camp in Oconomowoc, WI, many people have recommended various books, but somewhere along the way, books just don’t hold up to real people.
Shading some plants from the hot equatorial sun

I had the privilege of working with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Embu, Kenya last semester.  Most of my days were spent in the field with farmers and their communities.  My favorite part of these excursions was the simple conversations I shared with farmers who had more knowledge than they knew. 
Our backyard garden in Embu, Kenya

I admire them; these farmers (and their children) know their land like they know their own heartbeat.  They don’t need fancy lingo like biointensive or permaculture, but to practice these techniques.  They couldn’t explain global warming and climate change, but they knew that their main water table, Mt. Kenya, is changing and that deforestation isn’t helping.  They know these things because they live and breathe their land, animals and crops, just as they parents and their grandparents did. 

A farm near Sagana, Kenya
Of course, things are changing, and new methods are useful and they look to IFAD for new techniques, tips and training.  IFAD works with community groups to build strong, sustainable farming communities through trainings and projects such as installing small irrigation systems and conducting pesticide trainings on a community member’s farm.   They connect with people and ensure that the communities own their projects, rather than installing the system themselves or handing out pamphlets on proper pesticide use.
A bountiful garden in Nyari, Kenya, no monoculture here!
After four months back in the United States and nearing the end of courses like Organic Farming and Soil Science, I have more fancy lingo and a few extra books to help me produce my own fresh food this summer.  But I’ve found that the most valuable tips come from real conversations.  I have learned a lot from Kenyan farmers, students in my classes, professors, friends and even strangers along the way. 

The other greenhouse on a Nyari farm, tomatoes galore!
This will be my first (and certainly not last) season growing a large amount of food, and though my land may be not be the same plot every year for awhile, I can only hope to someday internalize the rhythm of my land like my Kenyan friends have internalized theirs.

A farmer near Embu, Kenya shows us his pest management technique on a coffee tree
Article and Photos by Liza Mole

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