Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Congo Update 24 Feb 2014

Greetings from the Congo

Lots of different things going on now as the two rainy season collide.  The first seasons crops are maturing and we have harvested the dry beans in Lekana and are trying to start harvest of the potatoes.  But its been a little wet so far.  Installed tow 12 volt fans with solar panels into the roof peak of the potato cellar and the internal temperature dropped significantly to avoid a replay of too much harvest heat in the crop and rotting potatoes.

There are red potatoes showing up in the local markets here.  We gave and sold seed after last season to local farmers and their first production from this seed is being harvested now.  The red ones are also getting a better price than the traditional ones.  The bucket of reds goes for 700 CFA and the old variety goes for 500 CFA.  The sellers are quick to tell you how good the red potatoes taste.  

There really isn’t a dry season between these two up north I am finding out.  It’s just the rains slow down a bit in Jan-Feb.  The beans didn’t do very well in Lekana.  On both farms the beans have less pods/plant than the second rainy period.  I think the first season is a lot wetter and beans don’t really like things that wet.  There was also too many beetles and this small spinney bug eating the leaves and flowers.  You have to order everything so far in advance here with all the challenges getting the funds, logistics of moving product across the country.  Beans of every kind are the only things that seem to have pest problems and I guess we just have to plan farther ahead which I already did for the next planting in March.  The corn looks good with the ears filling out nicely It should be ready to harvest by April.  I had to learn how to operate a combine fast.  In the US we had all the grain combining done by custom operators so I just learned how to monitor them.  And of course the manual  disappeared so it was onto the internet to read and John Deere uses descriptive pictures on the control buttons which helped a lot.  I also called a profession combiner in the US for help as well.  Then it was time to train the guys and let them try it out.  When it first started spitting out shelled plants and filling up the bin with clean bins some of the guys were literally jumping up and down excited about the new technology.  Moments like that are fun.
Loading the harvested beans from the combine into a trailer for bagging

Nkoumou workers with their corn crop

We are clearing and working ground for the next planting with those big Russian tractors and the Brazilian tatu disks.  Using the anchor chain to knock down the grass, have people cut with machetes and carry out the small trees and since the grass is knocked down those big disks can chew through it.  We can work around 60 HA (150 A) a week this way. Slow but a lot faster than before.  We have been shipping the fertilizer and seeds these last weeks.  One container of seed is still stuck in customs, hopefully we get it in time. 

Cleared and worked ground on the Nkoumou, Ngo farm.

Me and the farm workers on the Nkoumou farm

After school and weekends you can boys going around with their slingshots trying to hunt birds. In Congo the school attendance rate is pretty high.   Later as men they will spend days with shotguns searching bigger game.  One day a group of people were driving a red Antelope they had spotted and tow old men came through the farm with spears with old hand forged spears.  The slingshots are made from Y shaped branches and rubber from old tire tubes.  The issue here on the Plateaux is there are no rocks at all.  So the boys find the red clay subsoil here, wet it and form it into small balls.  They then bake these clay balls in the fire to make them hard.  Then off to the hunt.

Making the slingshot with a carefully selected Y shaped hardwood branch

After making round balls with the red clay subsoil they put them into the fire to make them nice and hard.

Finally when I was young I was taught this game called Macala and told it was an African game.  Well I’m here and guess what they really do play it here, only its called awale.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Congo Update 27 Jan 2014

Greeting from the Congo

The first season crops are growing well mostly.  At the Nkoumou, Ngo farm which is on virgin ground everything look great with healthy crops and few weeds.  At Lekana it is a mixed picture with weeds in some places and beetles attacking the beans.  The sedge herbicides I tried (Sandea (Halosulfuron) and Dual (Metalachlor) both did an excellent job controlling the yellow nutsedge which was the worst weed issue but did little for the other weeds.  I didn’t expect much effect on what I call the forest weeds - bracken ferns, large weeds from underground bulbs and native bunch grasses.  Guess we will have to mix cultivation for these large weeds with herbicide for the sedges that you can not effectively cultivate.  The guys are driving straighter so they can actually cultivate now.  The new crops to the area like potatoes and corn have few if any pests.  There are a lot of native wild beans and peanuts grown in the area so the dry beans we plant have more trouble with insect pests.  Diseases I am looking for resistant varieties which we have already found some good ones.

We did try growing some angolan Beans as a green manure crop and to see if they could deal with the bracken fern problem and they actually did really well dominating the bracken fern.

Moving the combine up for the two north farms was a big job and it got damaged on the trip north.  Logistics and moving things is a big issue here.  There are few trucking companies and they charge a lot.  We had to adapt a trailer for the combine, but they attached it wrong and broke things.  We sometimes drive things up north by another route that bypasses the capital Brazzaville as taking large Ag equipment though the busy crowded chaotic streets of the capital would be a challenge.  Driving here you have to be aggressive if you want to get anywhere.  The issue is part of the back way involves a patch where there really isn’t a road.  People just drive across the open rolling plains and the soils are sandy so you can get stuck.  This is Ok for a tractor, but we worried about a combine.

The soils here seam to be three types.  In the south it is red loamy clays that are very acid and weathered.  Up north it is mostly these white sands.  On the Plateaux there is this rich black 6 % organic matter layer on top of a yellow clay that can support those 8 ft grasses and patches of thick forest, but as soon as you go off the flat top of the plateaux it is miles and miles of these rolling hills of sand where the grass and trees are shorter as the low water holding capacity of the sands limits growth.  I have not visited the swampy jungle areas of the North part of Congo yet where the big Central African rainforest is located along with parts of the DRC and CAR.
They are making a new road in this area putting gravely sand over the white sand.  You can see the old ruts on the hill where other vehicles went before

There are just miles and miles of these sandy hills in Central Congo

Starting to prepare for the second season new ground and it will be time for harvest of the first rainy season so things will get busy soon.  The rains have slowed down between the rainy season, but you still get these afternoon rains where everyone finds somewhere to wait out the rains including the goats.  This one day these boys did this informal dance and singing session using an old palm oil drum for the beat.

Waiting out the rain.

These boys started up a informal dance and singing session using a palm oil container as a drum.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Congo Update 30 Dec 2013

Greeting from the Congo

This is a little late but here we go in any case.  The first rainy season crops have been planted.  Here there temperatures are pretty constant throughout the year and since we are just about on the equator the days are 12 hours long year round.  The main difference is between wet and dry seasons.  The first and usually longer rainy season starts late-ish Sept through Dec and the second starts Late-ish Feb through June.  There is some rain between the two season, but last year there was no rain from July to September.

Got new equipment so we had to unload it and put it together first.  The equipment here comes from mainly tow sources - this Turkish company, Agromaster, that makes basic Ag equipment and a Brazilian company, Tatu, that makes these heavy duty tillage equipment.  No electronic, oil bath bearings instead of greasible and simple design - just what we need.  The planters are pneumatic which is nice, but not set up for no-till.  I do not want a to till planter to not do any tillage, but to reduce the amount of tillage and still be able to get the planter though all the surface trash left over from the huge amount of grass and vegetation you start with here so we don not have to overwork the ground and can preserve more of the organic matter which is important as a buffer to the soil acidity.

Unloading the equipment by hand.  Here it is nice to have extra hands.

Assembling a Tatu disk

 Assemblying the pneumatic planter

 Planting beans

Got the second season crops in.  Some replanted potato seed, some corn and a lot of dry beans - navy, pinto and reds.  The dry beans are a big push as they will go directly to the other program IPHD runs a school lunch.  This was one of the reasons to start the agriculture program - to produce locally food for this program.  The planting went a lot smoother and the rows a lot straighter as the tractor drivers have more experience now.  I am also trying out some new herbicides for here that ate more matched to the weed problems here.  The first indications are pretty good for sedge control with Halosulfuron.

Corn and dry beans in Nkoumou, Ngo

We only planted a few onions and carrots as the pneumatic vegetable planter has not arrived yet, but I bought two Earthway planters and put them in a seed container to use for trials, but they worked just fine to plant a couple of acres.  These planters are actually pretty adapted to conditions here and everyone wanted to have a go at them.

The insect pest pressure has not been that bad here with the beans mostly being affected the most.  The second season though there were these giant crickets that cut the new plants off at the ground.  Was a good time to explain economic threshold in pest control where you only treat for a pest when the damage done by this pest is grater than the cost of the treatment.  In this case it was not true as well as in the case of some beetles eating some of the bean leaves, but not many.  The thing is that they also catch these big crickets and eat them.    I didn’t try any of these but did try a palm grub - it was not terrible.

Some ladies with kids in tow that stopped by the farm to see what we were doing.

One final pic of another tractor including a plow that the local boys have made as our activities are changing the toys made.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Congo Update 11 Oct 2013

Greetings from the Congo

We are in between seasons now and mostly just working ground.  Both farms up north are going to be a lot bigger this season.  They were going to be really big but all the seed isn’t going to arrive in time for this next season.  It’s a really battle to get everything ordered, the containers filled, put on the ocean ships and then released form the port here in time.  Then there is the in country transport over bad roads slow and costly.  Lots of logistics.  Right now its corn, soybeans, dry beans and potatoes again for Oct/Nov planting.  Got 130 Ha(320 acres) cleared and worked at the new farm in Nkoumou, Ngo and 180 HA(445 acres) at the Lekana farm.   We are also  working ground for the local farmers for 40,000 CFA a HA (about $35/acre which is a subsidized rate).  They are planting manioc mostly on this worked ground but some other crops as well.  The tractor can do in an hour what it takes a month by and with a hoe.

Clearing the land is a battle with the small trees.  The Plateaux area of Congo is a mix of small forests mixed with savanna area.  The forest areas have many different species of tall trees.  In the lower areas there are more forest areas and up north pure tropical jungle and swampy areas where there is much less people and wildlife.  The savanna areas have small trees, but not the same species as the forest trees.  I guess the burning keeps the forest areas from growing.  Clearing these trees we used two big Russian tractors and pulled a big ocean ship chain between them to knock over the small trees and termite mounds.  After that people collected the trees to carry out of the fields with the trailers.  Pretty good expense all these day laborers.  Corn and bean planters can take some branches, but potato and onion equipment cannot take all these stumps and branches - broke a lot of equipment that is hard to find parts.  

Tractors and anchor chain knocking down small trees and termite hills

The potato seed isn’t holding all that well in the mud brick storage.  Didn’t get my solar powered fans to vent out the field heat so it’s a little warm inside.  Some varieties are doing better than others.  I guess its something we had to learn in any case.  The cold chain is non existent here in Congo so we need to select varieties that can take some abuse.  I’ve seen many promising varieties that fall apart during storage so they get dropped.  The Red Pontiac looked promising in the field, but just rotted fast in storage.  Of the 16 varieties we started we are down to 4 - Cheiftain, Red LaSoda, Granola and Calwhite.  Most of these were developed in southern area.  I think potatoes have more day length sensitivity tan we thought earlier and the northern varieties cycled out too fast like the Ranger Russet.  We are 2 degrees south of the equator so the days are 12 hours sun a day every day all year and crops waiting for long days will never get it.  

Went on a trip to a private wildlife area where they are rehabilitating some rescued lowland Gorillas.  Its in a valley with a river and scenic lake.  It’s a little set up, but the gorillas are still wild.  The US ambassador asked for a special close up visit and one of his party got attacked and almost killed the week before we visited.  Didn’t see any Hippos in the river though.  The Gorillas are separated from us by the river.  Didn’t know gorillas can not swim so we were safe.  

In past posts I talked about these hand made truck the boys make and take out for a drive.  Well now some tractors have started to show up in the village complete with trailers.  

Had one farm accident and had to take him to the clinic for some stitches. it could have been worse. |Its always a worry with people learning to use big machinery that people can get hurt bad.  Farming and ranching is still a dangerous work.  He got his stitches outside on the porch of the clinic with minimal disinfection, but did OK in the end.

Otherwise still building things here.  Another storage building at Lekana for grain seeds and equipment parts.  Also another water cistern to stare water from these new roofs of the potato cellar.  At he new farm there is nothing so we are fixing up a old school building and building a new farm building.  A lot of work as all the sand, gravel, rocks and water needs to be brought in.  Gravel and rocks need to be brought from Brazzaville as there just isn’t any rocks on the plateau region.  The boards they cut right near the farm from big trees in those patches of forest.  They cut the boards all with chainsaws using this frame to hold the saw straight and the same thickness of cuts.  The cut these big wide trees into sections 2 inches by over 3 feet wide and then into 4 x 4's, 4 x 4's, 2 x 8's and even 1 x 12 boards for building.

water cistern
Another storage building for dry seed and supplies

Cutting up a big tree into boards

This time of year the termites swarm where the males and new potential queens leave to mate and start new colonies.  The people here cover the termite hills with plastic to capture these swarms and boil them to eat.  They taste like burning grass.  There are also other odd things in the market at times like palm grubs.  The diet in the countryside is mostly manioc with peanuts, local greens, bracken fern fiddlenecks, dried fish and beans and occasionally some bushmeat.  The fruits are starting again.  There is avocado, pineapple and mango now and the safu trees are getting full.  A lot of things are blooming now during the dry season.  The rains are just staring now.  It time to plant soon.

Capturing termites

Palm grubs about 3 inches long and live catfish at the market

Some flowers in bloom now

Congo Update 28 Aug 2013

Greeting from the Congo

Harvest is over mostly which is nice.  Yields were low and a lot of varieties we tried didn’t work very well at all, but we learned a lot and more importantly the new tractoristes have learned a lot about working with and maintaining the farm machinery and growing a crop in a large mechanized modern setting.  In development you can build a lot of things but if people are not trained things fall apart fast when the expat leaves.  Too often not enough effort is budgeted in projects in the local people and more in things you can make a show of.  The yield varied a lot but it was obvious were the weed control was poor the potato yield suffered, especially where there was a lot of bracken fern.  Bracken fern has a known allelopathic effect on other plants thus it can dominate its environment by suppressing the competition.

We also grew a little watermelon for a trial and it did really well and was good eating.  Most of the fruits here a sour as many of the local vegetable.  I’m not sure if the acid soils leads to sour plants, but the watermelon was nice an sweet.  Grew a little carrots, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes.  Got a pneumatic small vegetable seeder ordered as well as some seed to plant big acres of onions, carrots and watermelon in the future.

We have three big challenges next season to increase the yields as I see it: better ground preparation, better weed control and more timely planting.  With the big Russian tractors and big Brazilian disks ground preparation will be better.  Since the tractor drivers are better trained I hope they can plant straighter so we can cultivate the potatoes twice.  Last season we had to give up the second one as we were taking out too many potatoes in the process.  The guys picked up on the cultivator blight name pretty fast. Those driving practice courses those staked paths should help.  Since yellow nutsedge is the big challenge and can not be effectively cultivated |I did some research and found very few herbicides that control sedges, but there are some.  I get some Sandea (halosufuron) for rice, beans and corn and Dual (Metolachor) for the potatoes, vegetables, onions, soybeans and peanuts).  Finally we should be more prepared to plant in time the next time.  Last season I arrived here and the potato seed arrived at the same time without a good place to store it and the ground was not worked and new workers and lack of appropriate machinery it was a wonder we got anything.

One last thing to improve is the fertilizer.  Tropical soil with high rainfall usually have very poor soils which is counterintuitive as things look so lush but the nutrients are stored in the plants as the high rainfall washes out the nutrients from the soil.  The soil tests show lower levels than I’ve even seen in most nutrients except potassium that is ok.  Soil acidity up north is not good, but not in the 4 range like down south where aluminum toxicity is a serious issue.  Applying lime is the usual solution to acid soils, but its expensive here and internal transport is also very expensive and unreliable so in the long run you need to find a solution to the soils that doesn’t involve apply large amounts of unsustainable inputs.  IN the past they have applied NPK 15-15-15 which is what most people do as a default - throw a little of everything at it and hope for the best.  I got some DAP ordered which is 18-46-0 so more of the needed phosphorus, no unneeded potassium and this fertilizer is not going to add to the acidity problem like other types.  Crops that need more nitrogen like Corn we can just add some Urea.

I’m getting a little technical now, enough for now.

Traditionally people grow a few potatoes in this area by first clearing the land and oiling all the roots and stems and grass in a pile and burning it.  This burning releases all the stored potassium and phosphorus in the roots and grass which the potatoes need.  The soil turns red after the burning because the heat also burns off the organic matter and nitrogen in the soil as well.  This process works for this season, but is very destructive in the long run.  If you have a lot of free ground it works, but large farms can not be started in a new location every year so they need new processes.  Then squash in planted on the edge and potatoes on theses small hills.

At the end of harvest was the 15th of August - Independence day here.  Every year the President picks one village to pour a lot of money to turn into a City.  Puts in roads, new government buildings, street lights, drainage and showy things like the over the top full size sports stadium complete with night lights.  The odd thing is with water being such a problem up north drinking water wasn’t on the list of projects.  This year it was in Djambala which is 40 minutes from the potato farm and 2013 was the year of the potato so we had a part at the celebrations.  There is a parade for the president.  The farm guys marched in the parade along with one of the big tractors and a trailer with1 ton of potatoes (literally) on the new wide boulevard.  They didn’t want a white guy in the parade, but I did meet the presidents wife earlier and gave her potatoes.  There was many groups marching along with some traditional Teke groups and these clowns.

Farm guys in the parade

Teke chefs du village

These teke giants and woment with gourds and baskets

Teke dancer that do this very low spinning dance

Me and the mud ladys
The farms display at the ag expo part of the celebration

Congo clowns joking around with some soldiers

And finally some ladys that came by to watch the farm work with babies on board