Farming with faith
Academic research, protecting biodiversity, and a chance to travel to Africa proved the perfect blend of unmissable opportunities for two King’s students this summer.
Kendra Hutchison and Erin Greidanus, both in their final year of the environmental studies program, applied for an internship under Dr. Harry Spaling to travel to Kenya as research assistants. The project? Determining how sustainable conservation agriculture, otherwise known as Farming God’s Way, is in Kenya. The goal of this method of farming is to produce healthier soil, yielding more crops that are resistant to climate change at a lower cost: all ideal elements for small rural subsistence farmers. These results are what Kendra and Erin were tasked to research.
The students travelled to Tigania West, Kenya, and met with their local contacts and farmers. Rather than go straight to the research, they decided to do something a little more person-centered instead. “Dr. Spaling places a lot of value on getting to know the people before you come and take information. So many times researchers come and the people never hear back,” Kendra said. “We usually had tea with them for an hour, then moved into the interview.” It was important to Spaling as well as the students that they not only gather information, but give something back to the people hosting them as well.
This approach built relationships with the Kenyan farmers as Kendra and Erin led open-ended interviews to understand the farmers’ perspectives on how Farming God’s Way was working for them. Both students were excited to report that their findings were extremely encouraging. “They have enough harvest to feed their families, then sell the surplus for school fees and other things. Everyone was saying things like that,” Erin said.
Farming God’s Way emphasizes using natural mulch, crop rotation, and no tillage. As a result, the land grows more fertile, produces more crops each year, and protects the naturally occurring biodiversity that contributes to the overall health of the land. This also benefits the family as small farms can produce enough to feed their family and sell the excess.
Though the farmers might not understand the exact science of the changes taking place in their farmland, they could see the difference and measure the change in their own terms. They eagerly pointed how their soil is darker, wetter, and that the earth worms had come back. “A few of the farmers would take a handful of soil—usually the soil is mostly dust—and would form a ball of it in their hand. They know it’s getting better; they can look at it,” said Kendra.
One of the most important things both Kendra and Erin drove home was that faith is a key part of the program. “It was really a lot of the faith influence that helped these people to adopt the practice,” Kendra said. “It’s a totally new way of farming, and it’s hard to change cultural perspective. Having the faith link, and saying it was God’s way, was really important to adopting the practice.” Kendra explained that many of the farmers told her they would not have stuck with the program if it had not been rooted in faith in God.
Erin and Kendra ended their time in Kenya by creating a newsletter with their preliminary findings. The newsletter was given to the farmers who were excited to have something on paper documenting their work. Now that they’re back at King’s, the students are writing a report from their findings for Spaling’s analysis. Next year, Spaling aims to publish a paper on Farming God’s Way to create more robust literature on the incredible potential of this way of sustainable and climate-smart agriculture.