Scientific American
September, 2005

BIG POTENTIAL FOR SMALL FARMS

With the help of affordable irrigation and access to markets, farmers
in the developing world can grow more food and climb out of poverty

By Paul Polak

Peter Mwete, an angular Zimbabwean man in his 20s, was weeding his
tiny vegetable plot in the settlement of Marimari when I met him in
2002. The 100- square-meter plot--about the size of a typical suburban
backyard--was enclosed by a two-meter-high fence of stout poles cut
from the bush and wired together to keep wild and domestic animals
out. Peter lived with his father and a 19-year-old brother; his mother
had died from AIDS, and his brother was also dying. To feed his family
and earn a living with fewer hands to do the work, Peter had installed
a low-cost, gravity-fed drip-irrigation kit provided by International
Development Enterprises (IDE), the organization I started in 1981.

Peterís plot consisted of eight raised beds neatly planted with rape
leaves, cabbage and corn. In the middle of each bed, a movable drip
line delivered water from a 40-liter plastic tank placed atop a wooden
stand. Because the drip system brought water directly to the roots, it
was far more effi cient than watering the plants by bucket. As a
result, the small plot produced enough corn and vegetables to meet
most of the familyís needs, and Peter expected to earn at least $90--a
substantial income for a farmer in Zimbabwe-- from selling the
surplus. He told me that in the following year he planned to double
the size of his plot and triple his income by replacing some of the
leafy vegetables with more valuable crops, such as tomatoes and Irish
potatoes. He also planned to raise his plotís productivity by
fertilizing it. Because he could not afford chemical fertilizers, he
intended to dunk a burlap bag fi lled with cow manure into a water
drum and apply this "manure tea" to the roots of his vegetables
through the drip system.

Over the past three decades, I have spoken with thousands of small
farmers in the developing world, and their stories are strikingly
similar to Peterís. They can increase their earnings by as much as
$500 a year by intensively farming 1,000-square-meter (quarter-acre)
plots of fruits and vegetables, but they need better cultivation
methods, affordable irrigation and access to markets for their crops.
Their struggle is part of a global challenge: by 2050 the worldís
farmers must feed nine billion people--three billion more than the
current population--without much expansion in the amount of land and
water devoted to agriculture. Water, in particular, has emerged as the
key to boosting farm production and easing poverty, because nearly
1,000 liters of water are needed to grow one kilogram of grain. We
must store more water for irrigation and manage the supply we have
more effectively.

[Peter, If you want this article in text I'll spend more time
grabbing/formatting it...PDF is in the 060126 folder]