Qoaling farmer braves the elements



But 82-year-old Tšeliso Mpiti is not too sure if he can survive a disastrous winter cropping season after barely making it this summer 

Pascalinah Kabi

He has never been known to give up easily and veteran Qoaling farmer, Tšeliso Mpiti, is not about to start now.

The 82-year-old is one of Maseru’s prominent agronomists but the prevailing El Niño-induced drought has tested this former policeman to the limit after he recently lost an entire field of cabbages and onions “worth a fortune” to the adverse weather.

Yet when the Lesotho Times crew visited Mr Mpiti last Friday, there was little indication of the devastation this determined farmer suffered this summer cropping season.

The lush vegetables ranging from beans, spinach and pepper, an equally thriving maize crop, and orange fruit trees suggest a farm in full bloom.

And listening to Mr Mpiti talk so affectionately about agriculture, one begins to see the sector in a completely different light of easy pickings—until he mentions losing “a lot of money” when inadequate moisture saw his onions and cabbages wither “right before my eyes”.

To make sure the crop did not completely go to waste, Mr Mpiti ended up feeding some of the vegetables to his livestock, with the loss almost breaking his iron will to succeed no-matter the odds.

But never one to despair, Mr Mpiti continued to nurture his orchard and new crop of vegetables which now appears like the biblical ‘Garden of Eden’ amid the desolation of the neighbourhood.

The ‘Eden’ would have been enough to make any farmer happy but something is certainly eating at Mr Mpiti.

He looks at the thriving vegetables thoughtfully, kneels down to help one of his workers tending the plants and speaks slowly and almost inaudibly.

“When I left the police force in 1974, I joined private security and after I retired, I decided to put my land to good use and became a fulltime farmer in 1980,” he said.

“I was so determined to succeed in farming, so I taught myself about the best agricultural practices as I was interested in both livestock and crop husbandry.

“Before I knew it, I could feed my family with the produce of my own hands. As you can see, we have fruits and different types of vegetables which we sell to the local community and supermarkets,” he said.

Mr Mpiti takes a deep breath as he dusts off his hands and then relates his loss which he says could have ended his enterprise if it was not for his never-die spirit.

“In the just-ended summer-cropping season, I suffered one of my biggest farming losses since 1980. I had planted 3000 heads of cabbage, and was looking forward to a nice profit.

“I first watched my four big dams dry out, and had hoped the crop would survive somehow. I was hoping the rain would rescue my crop but in the end, I lost the battle. I had to feed the vegetables to my livestock because it was either that or they were just going to go to waste. At least, I had livestock to feed them to but it was painful to watch my investment worth a fortune going down the drain like that. I lost a lot of money as a result, and could have easily given up but that is not my nature. I don’t give up that easily,” he said.

Mr Mpiti does not foresee the situation getting any better this coming winter cropping season, but that is not stopping him from his farming activities. Weather experts believe the drought, which has devastated southern Africa since the onset of the 2015/16 summer season, could only relent in 2017.

“We will start planting cabbages at the end of April and the vegetables should be ready for consumption by the end of August. Like I said, it was tough in summer, and I don’t think I can survive an equally hard winter farming season, but like I said, I am just hoping that I will be lucky,” he said.

The devoted farmer then went through the various stages one should undertake to ensure a good harvest.

“You start by tilling the land with a tractor-drawn plough, and soon after, you spread cow-dung and fertilizer on the field to make sure the soil has the much-needed nutrients. Besides the cabbages, I am also going to plant peas, wheat and fodder this winter, and hopefully, I will be lucky this time around.”

Asked why he was going ahead with full farming activities despite the prevailing uncertainty surrounding rainfall, Mr Mpiti said he was simply hoping to be “lucky”.

Mr Mpiti further said there was no point in moaning over the elements when the relevant stakeholders were not coming up with alternative and effective farming methods responsive to the new and shifting weather pattern.

“Our agricultural supervisors are sitting in their offices with no care at all about the future of this country’s farming. They only come to us to get our best produce when there are big agricultural shows,” he said.

“They need to get out of their comfort zones and come up with new climate change-responsive methods or else we will continue dying of hunger because some people are not doing their work properly.”

According to the United Nations (UN)’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), there is urgent need to reverse the dire impact of food insecurity and climate change on many households in Lesotho.

In its latest Lesotho Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) report, FAO noted these impacts could be reversed by “transforming agriculture and adopting practices that are climate-smart and sustainable”.

FAO also says farmers and rural communities are under the greatest threat from climate change but could also play a major role in addressing this hazard.

“Climate-smart farming techniques such as conservation agriculture and improved home-gardening and nutrition would increase food-production, incomes and food-security while making agriculture more resilient to climate change.

“Besides, sustainable land management practices are essential to protect Lesotho’s natural resources and rural livelihoods,” the UN agency notes.

“Conservation agriculture holds tremendous potential for all sizes of farms and agro-ecological systems, but its adoption is perhaps most urgently required by smallholder farmers, especially those facing acute labour shortages. It is a way to combine profitable agricultural production with environmental concerns and sustainability. It is being perceived by practitioners as a valid tool for Sustainable Land Management,” FAO also adds on its website.

Conservation agriculture is a set of soil-management practices that minimise the disruption of the soil’s structure, composition and natural biodiversity. This method of agriculture has the potential to increase crop yields, while improving the long-term environmental and financial sustainability of farming.

In her speech aired on national television last week, Agriculture and Food Security Minister ‘Mapalesa Mothokho urged Basotho to take advantage of the current rain and prepare for winter cropping.

“Fellow farmers, it is that time of the year when we are preparing to enter the winter-cropping season. We therefore, need to take advantage of the moisture in our soil which came as a result of the showers that we are currently experiencing,” Ms Mothokho said.

“Taking advantage of this moisture would mean that we need to start cultivating our soil to ensure it is ready for ploughing when the winter cropping season starts. We know the planting season runs from April 15 – June 15 every year and we must be ready for this, especially for planting wheat.”

Ms Mothokho said winter-farming seed would be sold at discounted prices from her ministry.

“Like summer cropping, winter cropping farmers will be given a 50 percent discount when buying products like manure, seed, and pesticides. All farmers ready for the winter cropping season will be given equipment by the ministry,” she said.

However, the minister warned that farmers were expected to produce proof of land ownership issued by their respective district agricultural offices.

“The ministry is doing this because most local farmers do not engage in winter cropping,” she said.

She further said the government would continue to engage in Block Farming in select districts. Individual farmers, she added, would be expected to be fully involved in the initiative and protect the produce against vandalism.

“Landowners will get 40 percent of the harvest while the rest goes to government. Independent Block Farmers will also receive implements from the Ministry of Agriculture,” the minister added.

The minister reiterated the purpose of Block Farming which is to improve Lesotho’s agricultural practices and maximise harvests while also ensuring machinery benefits the entire country.

“Fellow farmers, you will remember that we are entering the winter cropping season with sore hearts as we experienced severe drought in the just-ended summer cropping season,” she said.

“Although at the moment we don’t have numbers concerning the summer harvest, the situation suggests it will be at its lowest if ever we do harvest.

“Experts show the current severe drought is a result of climate change and this means we must be very careful with our farming methods. We must engage in conservation agriculture as it keeps water and moisture.”

The Lesotho Livelihood Scenario Impact 2015 showed that approximately 460 000 Basotho were in need of food aid and this number was likely to increase given the poor agricultural harvest, she added.

“This means as farmers, we need to go into winter cropping in full force to ensure that our harvest is bigger. You will agree with me that this current drought hasn’t only affected crops but livestock as well.”

She therefore encouraged farmers to plant fodder this winter and also build small dams for their animals.

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