Farming in Africa and Holland still worlds apart
This week twelve African researchers are visiting several farms in the Netherlands. The tour is funded by the European Union and is aimed at exchanging knowledge on improving soil fertility in Africa. Last Monday the researchers visited pig and dairy farms near Wageningen where they discovered that there is still a world of difference between African and Dutch agriculture. Exporting manure out of the farm, automatic feeding systems, milking robots: just a few of the amazing things to be seen on modern Dutch farms
Monday morning, Wageningen. The twelve African researchers are welcomed in the building of DLO Research Institute for Agrobiology and Soil fertility (AB-DLO) where several Dutch researchers on soil fertility hold speeches. The Africans are glad to be in Wageningen, the Dutch centre of agricultural expertise. But they are also tired, having just returned from Scotland, where they toured the countryside to see what is possible in agriculture, especially soil management. All come from countries where farming is hindered by low soil fertility: Mali, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. In their eyes, Scotland and The Netherlands practice a high level of agriculture, so they are hoping to find ways of tackling the problem of poor soil fertility in their home countries
Moussa Bonzi from the Institute of Environmental and Agricultural Research in Burkina Faso: In the North of Scotland I already learned something useful. Farmers there have a really smart way of enhancing soil fertility. Each evening they bring their cows, which roam the highland areas during the day, into a small enclosed area. The manure accumulates there relatively quickly and is used to fertilize the poor low-lying lands where the farmers grow crops. A simple but very smart idea. Maybe it will also work in my country where all soils are extremely poor because of too little rain and no money for fertilizer.
On the way to dairy farmer Jan Rauw in the village Achterberg, Feyera Abdi from the humanitarian organization Save our Soil in Ethiopia, explains why he thinks Dutch agriculture provides an example for African countries. Holland is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, after the US. And this is one of the smallest countries in the world! I admire the Dutch for beating the bigger countries.
We arrive at the farm of Jan Rauw. A first glance reveals nothing spectacular: an ordinary, small farm with some stables and farmland. But then we enter a hangar where several huge, ultra-modern John Deere tractors, mowers and other farm vehicles are standing. The Africans look with awe at the apparently brand new machines and take a closer look. They are shorter than the giant rubber wheels of these vehicles. The fertilizer-injection vehicle is a favourite. It is worth more than half a million guilders. The seven metre long three-wheeler has a series of razor-sharp blades at the back, which cut the soil open. Between the blades there are large tubes to inject fertilizer evenly in the loosened soil. One of the Africans remarks jokingly: There's more machinery on this farm than in the whole of some African countries.
Farmer Jan Rauw started in the 1960s with a small pig farm. Now he has a large dairy farm with seventy cows and five hundred hectares of maize. Besides his family, eighteen people work for him full-time. As it is such an intensive form of agriculture - cows are cramped in a minimal space - a big problem is the rapid accumulation of manure. In order to meet environmental regulations he regularly has to get rid of a large amount of manure. If it all stayed on the farm, nutrient levels, especially of nitrogen and phosphates, would be dangerously high. Like most dairy and pig farmers in this country, Rauw exports manure from his farm to farms in other regions, especially in the north, where nutrient levels in the ground are relatively low. Here the excess manure is dumped on arable land. The African researchers are surprised to hear this. One of them points at the idiocy of the situation: In Africa we have too few nutrients, here you have too many. Why not send all the excess manure to the developing countries?
Rauw demonstrates some attributes that contribute to the high efficiency of his farm. In the cow stall twenty cows are moving around. There are narrow openings in the floor through which the manure falls down and ends up in a storage basin. Cows feed at a device where food rolls out when they approach. The trick is that the amount of feed is tailored to the specific needs of every cow so as to get the highest milk production as possible. A computer knows which cow is feeding as a sensor picks up a signal from the belt hanging around each cow's neck. When farmer Rauw describes this wonder of technology, the African researchers burst out in laughter, in disbelief. The same reaction follows when Rauw tells about his plans to install a milking robot. Moussa Bonzi remarks: This must be the top farm of the Netherlands.
Having almost cooled off from the excitement at Rauw's farm, we make a next stop at dairy and pig farmer Theunis Scheer in Rhenen. Here more innovative farming methods are encountered, but also some limitations of Dutch farming. Scheer uses sprinklers to irrigate his grassland. Although rain is abundant in this country, irrigation in some periods makes the grass grow even faster. Although Scheer manages to run a good business, he is tied to some strict regulations. Like farmer Rauw, he has to export manure from his farm. Milk quotas put a ceiling on his milk production. To make more profit he has to find ways to cut costs. Scheer: I visit other farmers to gather ideas for improving efficiency. This is just what the African researchers are trying to do. Comparing their own farming systems with those in Western countries. Have they learnt something here that may be useful in Africa? Moussa Bonzi frowns: We can try to go for the modern, Dutch farming system. But at the moment farming in Holland and in Africa are two different worlds.