Rain!!

There will be no watering today! The rains have finally come to this little corner of the Gambia. During the last week we had two false starts with a few small raindrops, but not even enough to settle the dust, but I was woken around 2am by the sound of steady rainfall on the mango trees around my house. After a while the wind increased and we had short spells of heavier rain with lightning, but it has now settled back to a steady persistent downpour which has cooled everything down. The change is a welcome relief after the last couple of weeks as the heat had become quite oppressive and the vegetation looks clean and green as the plants soak up the welcome moisture. Meanwhile I am told that in some communities up country cattle are dying from drought as they have to walk miles to the nearest water source.

So far not all our staff have arrived for work. The rain makes access more difficult as the dusty red roads leading to the highway quickly turn to a sticky mud. Fortunately the farm vehicle, an old Toyota jeep, has just been serviced ready for the rainy season, and the drive shaft to the front axle (which for some reason had previously been removed) has now been refitted so we should have 4WD to get in and out. If not it will be a case for rolling up your trouser legs and pushing!

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Colours of decay

The regular task of picking fallen mangos continues. Each morning the first job for everyone is to gather the fruit which have dropped during the night. Usually there are about three wheelbarrow loads – too many to be used and in any case some are overripe, damaged by the impact as they hit the grounds, or half eaten by the fruit bats which flap about between the trees at dusk and chatter noisily over the fruits hanging in the mango trees above my house as I lie in bed. These fruit are just dumped to rot either on a large heap in the orchard, or in a plastic water tank from which the juice is collected for recycling through the biogas plant, and then back onto the garden.

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Earlier in the season the surplus were fed to the pigs, but now even they are sick of mangos! The female is pregnant and due to farrow shortly so perhaps I will see a litter of piglets before I leave next week. The male meanwhile, having been castrated after he had done his duty is being fattened up ready for sale. What a life!

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Bath time for the boar pig

Fruit and moringa processing continues although we need the sun to operate the solar driers and at present there is no sign of that today. The sky is a dull grey sheet of unbroken cloud and it is still raining steadily but it will hopefully clear out before midday and if the sun comes out the garden will soon dry.

The current crops in the garden are nearly finished – most of the tomatoes and pumpkins have been pulled up and about half the cabbages have now been sold although the smaller ones still remain. The garden eggs (aubergines) cropped badly and were heavily infested by mealy bugs so have been cut back but should regenerate during the rainy season. There are still a few lettuces and some “cucha” (local greens). A new crop of pumpkins has been sown but germination was poor, and the garden egg seedlings sown in pots about the same time have been attacked by insects and look sickly. The next main crops will be ground nuts, beans and wonjo (sorrel) and the advent of rain has made the soil soft so it can be easily turned ready for sowing. Babucarr has been sent to market to buy seeds and three of the boys are now busy with spades digging the empty beds. Once these crops have been established the main tasks for rainy season will be regular weeding to keep the crops clean and the daily African ritual of raking and sweeping to keep the farm tidy.

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Sowing groundnuts

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Two methods of planting – on the right dropping into holes made by the previous man with a stick. On the left digging and covering with a hand hoe.

Advanced method! Horse drawn seeder following a 2-cow plough

Advanced method! Horse drawn seeder following a 2-cow plough

……… the rains ceased mid morning but without any sign of the sun so mango drying was postponed until another day. I spent most of the day sorting onions into three heaps – those that are rotten and unusable, those that can be re-bagged and will keep a while longer, and those are beginning to go bad but can still be used in the farm kitchen provided we do so without delay. These onions were lifted before I arrived and left to dry on mesh screens, and I had assumed that in Gambia they would dry easily and keep well but it appears this isn’t so.

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Back home onions would be left in the ground without watering for a while to dry before being lifted, but here it seems they are vulnerable to attack by termites once watering ceases. After lifting and drying for several weeks they were bagged for storage in expectation of a market price increase but already quite a lot are showing signs of rotting, some from the centre, some from the outside. Sorting is a slow job as each onion bulb has to be inspected and then many of them then have the outer layers carefully removed until clean dry tissue is reached. It is also a smelly job and hands and fingernails need scrubbing well afterwards to get rid of the black slime and smell of rotten onions!

We had an interesting visitor last week when Kelly opened the back door of the duck house and found herself facing a spitting cobra in the nest box. He had presumably come looking for a meal of duck eggs and was not very pleased to be interrupted.

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It was the first time I had seen a snake on the farm although I had been told a cobra had been seen near the pig pens one evening, and at first we didn’t know what to do. Should we chase it out of the duck house, or keep it closed in where we knew its location? Fortunately there is a reptile farm in the Gambia, run by a Frenchman and we were able to track him down by phone, finding he was in fact at Sukuta, only a couple of miles away though without transport or snake catching equipment. A vehicle was sent to collect him and he duly caught and bagged the snake using a lasso made from electrical cable and some plastic water pipe. When Kelly offered to return him to a nearby junction on the route for catching a van back to his farm at Kartong he declined saying he was at Sukuta for three days and was apparently quite happy to keep his captive with him for the duration!

The rains have brought a flush of insects and another small visitor seen in the garden this morning was this praying mantis.MyFarm_397

We have also seen the sudden appearance of several monitor lizards, again presumably brought out by the prospect of food.

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This little chap was resting on top of a fence and seemed quite undisturbed by my presence. Two larger ones (about 60cm) foraging in the next field were very wary and kept well away from the camera. I managed to take one picture before my battery went flat, and of course when I returned five minutes later with a new battery the lizards were nowhere to be seen.

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Alternative Energy

When I was last in the Gambia I used a small solar powered cell on occasions when our area had power cuts. It was about the size of a small paperback and provided just enough power to charge my tablet or mobile phone a couple of times. Here at MyFarm however we rely on the sun for most of our energy needs and on cloudy overcast days some activities are curtailed as a result. All the electricity on site is provided from solar panels which charge a battery bank and provide all our lighting, power to run a number of computers and a printer, a fridge, and most importantly the water pump. The water used here comes from our own borehole and is pumped to a network of standpipes and storage tanks strategically placed round the gardens. This provides the water necessary for regular (usually twice daily) watering of the food crops and some of the ornamental borders, a fishpond, and of course all washing up, laundry, and personal bathing. The last item usually includes a most welcome cold shower each evening although sometimes when the tanks are fairly empty, I have to supplement it with a bucket which I keep filled ready for use on days when the water pressure is low. Last night however I was pleasantly surprised by a decent flow in my bathroom rather than the expected trickle. Either the sun had been shining for longer than the previous day and pumped more into the holding tanks, or we had used less water in the garden.

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These four panels power the water pump but had to be removed for a new building, so we are on a temporary setup with only two at present

The panels which power the pump were moved to make way for the new food processing building just after I arrived here and at present only half of them are connected so it will be interesting to see what a difference to the water supply it makes when all of them are functioning again.

I mentioned using the solar oven last week to bake cakes and sterilise jars for filling with jams or beauty products and we also use parabolic reflectors to heat water. We have several in the kitchen area which are used daily but as with the solar ovens they have to be correctly aligned to the sun and regularly repositioned to be effective.

2 parabolic solar cookers

2 parabolic solar cookers

The other main use of solar power here is to dry products such as moringa, lemon grass, and fruit. We recently took delivery of a new solar drier from the local joiner, and I have spent some time this week treating it to preserve the wood, and fitting a solar powered fan and the iron hoops over which is stretched a transparent PVC cover. The frame is mahogany which glows a rich dark colour as I rub on a coat of shea butter and my hands now feel soft and smooth – shea butter is a fat derived from the nut of an African tree and is widely used in the cosmetics industry, as well as some chocolate. Yesterday morning we began a trial run drying a few sliced mangoes, but it seems the solar cell (recycled from an old lamp) is not providing enough power as the fan is slow to start in the morning and not turning fast enough to keep an adequate air flow through the drier, so we’ll have to see if we can find another solar panel.

New solar drier – trial run

The finished product

The finished product

These mango chips have dried too slowly and are starting to turn black

These mango chips have dried too slowly and are starting to turn black

We also produce biogas from animal manure and other organic waste which is mixed with water to form a slurry and fed down a pipe into an underground digestion chamber. The gas produced (mainly methane) pushes up a 300 litre plastic barrel “gasometer” and the digestate then passes on into another tank from which it is extracted and either diluted to use as fertiliser, or fed back into the start of the system and put through again. It is a very small scale operation for demonstration purposes, but can produce enough gas to boil the water for our breakfast tea.

The biogas plant

The biogas plant

What goes in at one end

What goes in at one end

What comes out the other end

What comes out the other end

A group of students from Bwiam learning about biogas. The

A group of students from Bwiam learning about biogas. The “gasometer” is the blue barrel with blocks on top to push it down.

This week the gas ring would not light so I have been trying to find out why. The delivery pipe from the tank was partly blocked, but after cleaning it out the pressure still seems low although the gasometer is raised and the stove will still not stay alight. I will have to investigate further.

The training courses continue – we have had two more groups here this week making soap and body butter, and it seems they enjoyed themselves as there was much singing, clapping, and dancing from both groups when they were due to leave. Their trips to market to sell soap went well and both groups made enough money to take a set of soap moulds back to their villages so they can start production at home.

Meanwhile the joiners have arrived to fit doors and windows to the new building (and also some fly screens in my windows), and a gang arrived on Thursday with a lorry load of grass from “up country” to re-thatch the schoolroom. They worked hard all day but hadn’t brought quite enough material with them to complete it so had to go home although they have promised to return on Sunday and finish the job off.

Trying to cut costs - the roofers didn't bring quite enough thatch and will now have to buy some more locally at their own expense.!

Trying to cut costs – the roofers didn’t bring quite enough thatch and will now have to buy some more locally at their own expense. Meanwhile we hope it doesn’t rain as the apex is open to the sky!

At this time of year, as the rainy season approaches the roof needs to be closed as soon as possible. We were expecting the roofing gang ten days ago but apparently they had a “programme” (party!) of some kind to attend up country and have only just re-appeared.

Baking Day

Last week I said I was going to experiment by making a cake I often make at home to go in my lunchbox, the experimental part being that I would be using only the heat of the sun to bake it. In the event I’m pleased to say that it was a success although the day was not as sunny as it might have been so the solar oven only reached about 110° instead of the 150° I had hoped for. As a result I had to guess the timing – if I had opened the solar box to test the cake I would have lost the oven heat, so instead of about 1hr 15minutes as in my electric oven, I left the cake in for over 3 hours and the result was perfectly acceptable although slightly “heavier” than at home.

Salim ready to put the mixture in the oven

Salim the baker about to put the mixture in the solar oven

In it goes

….with big brother posing for the camera. (The sideways “V” sign is very common with the young boys here to show they are cool!)

Oumar about to cut the first piece

Oumar about to make the first cut

The recipe is as follows if you wish to try it yourself – very simple and makes a cake which keeps well, freezes well too, and is delicious with butter!

Weetabix Loaf
Mix together 4 Weetabix, 1pint milk, 1lb sugar and 1lb mixed dried fruit and leave to soak overnight. Then mix in 2 beaten eggs and 1lb flour and divide between 2 loaf tins. Bake at 150° for about 1hr 15 minutes.

You could try substituting cherries or apricots for the mixed fruit – as the mangoes are nearly ready I will be trying them in the next mix.

One of the regular jobs at MyFarm is the production of biochar – charcoal used as a soil conditioner and fertiliser. Production is based on a process which has been recorded as having been carried out thousands of years ago in the Amazon Basin, where islands of rich, fertile soils called terra preta (“dark earth”) were created by indigenous people. Anthropologists speculate that cooking fires and kitchen middens along with deliberate placing of charcoal in soil resulted in soils with high fertility and carbon content, often containing shards of broken pottery. These soils continue to “hold” carbon today and remain so nutrient rich that in parts of Brazil they have been dug up and sold as potting soil. This carbon resists degradation in soils for thousands of years and is found in soils around the world where it helps depleted soils retain water and nutrients. By making farm land more fertile for longer it helps discourage deforestation and can improve soil fertility, stimulating plant growth, which then consumes more CO2 in a positive feedback effect.

Biochar is fine grained and extremely porous with a large surface area which is very effective at retaining water and water soluble nutrients and is produced by heating agricultural waste in a low oxygen environment to prevent combustion. At MyFarm the process is a fairly low tech and time consuming operation using a simple kiln made from an oil drum. Dry twigs and other garden waste is broken or cut into small lengths and packed tightly inside a metal drum until the drum is full, at which point it is turned upside down inside a slightly larger drum.

Baboucarr cutting twigs for biochar

Baboucarr cutting twigs for biochar

The inner drum packed full

The inner drum packed full

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Inner and outer drums showing the difference in size

Ready to fill the fuel gap

The small drum inverted inside the larger ready to fill the gap with fuel

Ready for topping with mango leaves

Ready for topping with mango leaves

The space in between the two drums is now packed with more twigs for fuel topped off by a layer of mango leaves which are lit and the kiln is closed with a chimney funnel. The smoke from the chimney normally soon disappears to be replaced by flame and hot exhaust gas which in a more sophisticated system might be used to generate electricity. From experience it seems we get best results if all the contents are of a similar size and our small kiln takes 20 – 30 minutes before pyrolisis is complete.

.........and the lid goes on

The lid goes on and we are soon cooking!

After 30 minutes, this is the result

30 minutes later this is the resulting biochar

At this stage the chimney is removed from the kiln and water is poured on to douse any remaining fire before the contents are tipped out and pounded to a powder to be incorporated in the seedbed. This soil conditioner will not only help to retain water but will also add potash and help increase the pH of the soil.

Other benefits of biochar appear to include

Reduced fertilizer inputs: Biochar can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, resulting in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases from fertilizer manufacture.

Reduced N2O and CH4 emissions: Biochar can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4)—two potent greenhouse gases—from agricultural soils.

Enhanced soil microbial life: Biochar can increase soil microbial life, resulting in more carbon storage in soil.

Reduced emissions from feedstocks: Converting agricultural and forestry waste into biochar can avoid CO2 and CH4 emissions otherwise generated by the natural decomposition or burning of the waste.

Energy generation: The heat energy—and also the bio-oils and synthesis gases—generated during biochar production can be used to displace carbon positive energy from fossil fuels.