The world over, farmers are understandably suspicious of change – especially when suggested by outsiders. Even if it worked on your faraway farm, will it work on mine, with different soils, topography, climate, skills, and so on?
Given the wafer-thin margins most farmers operate on in the first world, and the food insecurity experienced by many subsistence farmers in the developing world, the cost of experimentation (and its inevitable failures) can be prohibitively high.
Some 20 years ago, frustrated by assertions that ‘organic farming could never feed the world’, I spent two months visiting small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. I was disappointed by the destructive farming I saw – until I visited a group of farmers who had been trained by the charity Send a Cow.
Their training included composting, water conservation, and mixed cropping, as well as addressing gender inequality (men had the power, but women did most of the work – so empowering the women to make changes was vital).
The best farmers had an extraordinary level of skill, managing pests and soil fertility using complementary planting, integrating livestock with crops, and, as a last resort, making their own plant-based pesticides. Unlike some larger charities, I was impressed by the patient, locally tuned approach to change.
When it comes to influencing farmers, showing works better than telling, especially with a relatable example on local soils; it was possible to see trained farmers’ successful innovations being adopted by neighbours, and spreading through whole communities to improve food security, with surplus crops sold to pay for schooling and healthcare.
Send a Cow’s approach so impressed me that I have given around 10 per cent of my income to them ever since – and Riverford customers and co-owners have together raised a fantastic £694,380 so far.
After much agonising, Send a Cow have recently decided to change their name to Ripple Effect. When the charity was established in the 1980s by a group of dairy farmers from Devon, they did indeed send cows – but they haven’t done that for a long time.
Instead, they focus on training, skills and knowledge, supported with locally sourced tools, seeds, and sometimes livestock (to improve soil fertility and nutrition). The new name far better reflects what they do; for every family Ripple Effect work with, three more families benefit.
You can find out more about the change at riverford.co.uk/ripple-effect.