Saturday, January 28, 2012


My 2-year-old boy loves tractors right now.  The capital letters and exclamation point in the title of this post are for him.  A couple weeks ago I attended a field day put on by another NGO.  A good friend of mine who manages agriculture work in the whole northern region asked me if I would go and give him some feedback about the event, because he was unable to make it there.  So, one of the local staff and I went to tractor day, just outside town.  There was a small group of farmers there, some of them interested in tractors, and some were just there because it was more interesting than sitting at home.  

The prospect of the 2012 crop here seems good.  2011 was a drought because there was no precipitation from April 2010 until late December 2010.  Some snow came in January in February, but too little and too late for rainfed fields.  This year, however, will be good because rains and heavy snows started in November, and although there was a break in December, we are getting more precipitation in January.  Farmers here wait to see if there will be enough moisture, before they plant winter wheat.  In December much of the hillside winter wheat was planted by hand.  This tractor field day took place on January 2, on a 5 acre field.  The field was nice and flat, and was described to me as something between irrigated and rainfed, meaning that it was not flood irrigated, but they would try to direct irrigation water to it at 1 or 2 strategic times in the growing season.

The first demo was a relatively new 2-wheel tractor (2WT).  These have come in through China in the last couple years, and are slowly but surely grabbing interest.  The benefits for small farmers include: cheaper to operate and maintain than a team of cows (they run on 1 liter of diesel/hour and hay is expensive here), very versatile, can get into small fields, and a growing number of people in the country are learning how to tinker with them, so servicing them will only get easier.  On the downside, with a belt drive and power-take-off, they're quite dangerous for a farmer that has never had anything mechanized.  Above is a picture of the 2WT being used with a cultivator (read garden tiller).  The tractor clipped along at a good pace, the only criticism from the farmers was that it did not cultivate deeply enough for melons.  It is deep enough for wheat, but a lot of farmers like to plant a crop of melons after the winter wheat is harvested.

After the small portion of the field was cultivated, another 2WT with a direct seeder was put to work.  This seeder is quite new so it drew the attention of the farmers.  This also seemed to work simply enough, although I'm not sure it really had a good control for seed population.  Still it offered improved control on planting, because the standard practice is scattering seed by hand over chunky plowed soil, and then dragging a log sled over it to put some cover on the seeds.  The 2WT can also be used to harvest (a cutter-bar can be put on the front), pull trailers, and pump water.  Quite a useful technology, and available for right at $1,000.

 On to the big tractors!  These are not as new as the 2WT, but here farm tractors have been used more for hauling trailers than actually in fields.  On this demo day this NGO wanted to specifically start a comparison between direct seeding with prior field cultivation, and direct seeding without prior field cultivation.  So above you see the farmer field cultivating half of the field with a Belarus tractor.

And here they are getting the direct seeding drill set.  I thought at first that the point of the comparison was to show how well the direct seeding did in uncultivated soil.  To that extent, I thought the comparison was weak, because the uncultivated topsoil was still quite soft.  The real point of the comparison, however, was to see if weeds could be controlled without prior field cultivation.  Though it was January 2, there were small green weeds already peeking through the topsoil, so they had broadcasted a generic Roundup on the whole field.  If the wheat can bring a good crop without the prior field cultivation, farmers will be more interested in this direct seeder, because it's a one-pass planting.  

Who uses big tractors?  Not very many people in our province.  It seems to be just a few wealthy men that buy tractors so that they can do custom work at a rate of $20-40 an hour.  At that rate, it's a pretty big deal if planting can happen in 1 pass rather than 2!  

Here's a closer look at the drill.  The front hopper dispenses fertilizer, and the back drops the wheat seed.


I have mixed feelings about bringing mechanization to farms here.  Right now the unemployment rate is miserable, and I do not see how mechanization can improve that, because manual field labor is one of the few things that men can do seasonally.  However, there have been and probably will continue to be some surprises.  For example, the 2WT turned out to be cheaper than keeping a family cow.  Also if the mining industry takes off here like so many hope, it may be profitable for women to manage the ag while men work the mines.  In this case I could see women getting smart, pooling some money, and getting a big tractor to share.

I guess the bottom line is that it is interesting to see farmers gather to consider new ideas, and though I don't know how the future will go here, it is fun to spend time in the fields!

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