Organic Monks and Farmers in the Ethiopian Highlands

I am spending a week in Ethiopia to do two things: photograph the Ethiopian monasteries on Lake Tana in the north of the country, and get a close-up view of the traditional farming methods that have been employed in this country since before the time of Christ. The week is not yet over, but two very surprising things have already become apparent. First, the monks scattered through the islands of Lake Tana (and there are many hundreds of these monks!) are using the latest and best methods of organic and sustainable farming. Second, the farming practiced by these and countless other farmers across the highlands of Ethiopia, use organic, sustainable methods of farming that would make any organic farmer in America proud. And these people have been doing it this way for some three thousand years. All of which brings to mind Hiram King's classic work on Chinese farming, "Farmers of Forty Centuries," which is highly recommended for reading.

Let's begin with the monks of Lake Tana. This pristine lake in the north or Ethiopia is the largest lake in the country and is the source of the Blue Nile, one of the two rivers that join at Khartoum to form the Nile, which then flows into Egypt. Lake Tana is 3000 to 5000 square kilometers in surface area, depending on the time of year (rainy season vs. dry season) and has some 37 islands on it, again depending on the time of year. Of these islands, nineteen are permanently inhabited with churches and monasteries on them, the communities ranging in size from individual hermits to large communities of 130 or more. I have now visited about ten of these monasteries, but the one where I spent most of my time was Dega Istifanos, which is located on the eastern edge of Dek Island, the largest of Lake Tana's islands.

Fr. Gabriel was my guide during the two days I visited with the monks. A monk for more than twenty years, Fr. Gabriel grew up in the eastern area of Ethiopia as the son of a priest and farmer. Fr. Gabriel obviously learned well from his father as he is now the abbot of this large and famous monastery, as well as a highly knowledgeable farmer deeply immersed in organic and sustainable farming methods.

Not surprisingly, the monastery's main crop is coffee with annual production of organic coffee beans in excess of 176 tons of the raw beans (known as "coffee cherries" as they have a thick red pulp around them), which produce 120 tons of the beans ready to roast, after the pulp is removed. Coffee trees grow in the shade, so they require forest cover to flourish. Dek Island is covered with lush forests that have been growing undisturbed for centuries. The forest floor is rich in organic matter with the dirt a deep black in color. It gives under the bare feet of the monks, testament to its tilth and richness. Coffee trees grow wild here, with stray beans starting new seedlings every year. Although the monks harvest the coffee by hand, many beans fall to the ground and thousands of new seedlings sprout every year. In the fall, monks roam the forests looking for wild coffee tree seedlings that are about a foot high and transplant them to shady gardens where they grow to about three feet high before being transplanted again to make coffee orchards under the high forest cover. By carefully selecting only the wild trees that have proven their viability in the forest, the monks are assured of strong, healthy trees that will bear "coffee cherries" for decades. One forest coffee orchard I saw was only stumps, as the monks had cut down the trees the year before as that group had ceased to bear. In cutting them down, though, the monks cut the roughly four-inch thick trunks at a sharp angle so they would not rot, and a year later they were all full of fresh shoots of coffee trees. In time these will be pruned and cultivated so a new crop of trees will flourish on the old stumps, which he estimated to be about thirty years old.

In addition to the coffee trees, the monks also had numerous small gardens of cabbage and other vegetables, extensive banana orchards, sorghum, sunflowers, small fields of wheat, barley, and teff, and fields of corn that were companion planted with chili peppers. The corn was quite interesting as it was not sown in rows, but rather by broadcasting the seed and the chili pepper crops apparently kept weeds to a minimum. Since the corn was broadcast, it was not densely planted, there by letting plenty of light into the peppers. Both crops looked quite good as Ethiopia has a long rainy season during the summer, followed by a dry season that runs through the harvest times and into the sprint planting.

As I visited the corn fields, harvest was underway. Groups of monks sat in the field shucking corn, chatting with each other, some chanting prayers, but piling the "Indian Corn" ears in one pile and the sweet corn ears in another. The "Indian Corn" would be ground into meal, while the sweet corn would be roasted over a fire as part of the monastery's meals. Coffee harvest is typically in January and February, while the bananas were about to reach their full size, probably to be harvested in December. The variety of crops ensured that harvest time would last over several months, thereby keeping the monks busy with different crops at different times of the fall and winter.

Although the monks were not yet harvesting their other grains, that harvest was well underway in the other areas of Ethiopia I visited around the ancient city of Lalibela. Driving through the country on gravel roads, hundreds of farms were busy with the harvest; some were cutting the grain, others were thrashing, others were winnowing, and dozens of children were leading donkeys along the roads with bags of grain strapped to the backs of the donkeys.

Not once the entire day did I see a single machine. No combines, no tractors, no electrical or internal combustion engines were to be seen. Everything was animal-powered or done manually by the farmers. But it was all a community affair and a joyous spirit was in the air. Groups of farmers - men and women - sat on the ground in rows about three feet apart slowly going across the fields of barley, wheat, and teff, cutting the stalks with sickles, and binding the sheaves in piles on the field. As they worked together, you could hear them talking and laughing and sometimes singing, working together in community as they shared the labor. The group will start at the first field ready to harvest and then move to each farmer's field in turn, as the grain is ready, helping each other without charge, sharing the hardships, the toil, and the reward of working together in community. It is truly heartwarming to behold such scenes as they are played out countless times across the land.

As each field is finished, donkeys would carry stacks of sheaves to the thrashing ground, usually a hard-packed dirt area bordered with stones, where the sheaves were spread out and a group of oxen walked in circles over the grain thrashing it. Once thrashed, the farmer would pile the straw up to use later and then use the wind to blow away the chaff as he tossed scoops of grain in the air. The finished grain was then put into bags and the straw saved for later use. No waste, no chemicals, everything organic and sustainable, using methods that have served these mountainous farmlands for millennia.

Looking across the mountains and valleys that give Ethiopia its phenomenal landscape of unparalleled beauty, it is easy to see why these methods work so well. Terraces have been painstakingly built into these mountainsides over the centuries. They are usually big enough to work the land with donkeys or oxen, but not always. Many of these fields are tended completely by hand. But none of them are amenable to mechanized agriculture. The terraces tend to be long and slender; easy enough to turn a yoke of oxen, but in no way big enough to turn even a small tractor. And the weight of the tractor would surely collapse many of these narrow terraces. But these small farms support millions of small farmers who not only provide for their own families, but produce enough of a surplus to feed Ethiopia's teeming cities. Yes, there are parts of Ethiopia where hunger is an ongoing issue, but that is due more to infrastructure and the inability of the market to move surpluses from the highlands to the lowlands.

Grains are often companion planted with sunflowers or other nitrogen-fixing plants. Such planting does not permit mechanized harvesting, but rather is perfectly suited to the hand-harvesting that allows the farmer to cut the grain around the companion plant and leave that plant to be harvested when it is ready. This companion planting ensures that the soil is not depleted of nitrogen and negates the need for crop rotations, which many smallholders would not be able to afford.

Bees are another common feature of the Ethiopian agricultural landscape. Apiaries are commonly seen and the government has promoted them in rural areas as an income-generating activity for farmers and women. The bright yellow hives, mostly of the Langstroth variety and not the African top-bar hive, can be spotted against the brown and green landscape from quite far away. With all the sunflowers and other open-pollinated crops growing, their use will surely be encouraged even more as more and more farmers discover the pleasures of beekeeping and the value of raising honey to sell. Interestingly, two of the ancient rock-cut churches I visited in the area have had bees in the upper reaches of the church for as long as anyone can remember. The honey is wild and rarely harvested, and is only given out by the priests for its curative powers. The people in this area believe this honey is miraculous and I am certainly going to argue with them. Walking into the cool, dark recesses of one 600 year-old church, the silence was broken only by the buzzing of thousands of bees in the upper reaches of the ceiling areas.

These traditional methods of agriculture are both organic and sustainable and have served the people of this great land for more than three thousand years. However, this is not to say that Ethiopian monks and farmers are hide-bound traditionalists who are averse to new technologies or unwilling to consider new approaches. Case in point is the monastery of Dega Istifanos, where Fr. Gabriel last year designed, built, and installed a bio-gas system that uses human waste to produce gas for cooking and lighting, as well as compost for the fields. This very simple system collects all the human waste on a daily basis, slurries it into the bio-gas generation system, collects the gas from the septic tank, and then uses the septic runoff to make compost in two large pits that hold straw, food waste, crop waste, and other organic materials as compost production proceeds year round. As Fr. Gabriel explained, they resorted to bio-gas because the monks believed they were using too much firewood and it was not sustainable. The gas does not replace firewood, but it has cut down their use of firewood to a fair degree and has the added value of producing compost. Win-win for the island ecosystem!

This visit to Ethiopia, where I lived for two years from 2007-2009, has been an eye-opener for me as I was not focused at all on farming techniques during my earlier stay. This time, though, I came to realize how much we in the West can learn from these organic, sustainable methods that have sustained this land since before the time of Christ. Long after America's farmlands are depleted, long after our rich midwestern soils and other agricultural areas of the United States have been despoiled through mechanized, chemical-based, high-input "modern" methods, Ethiopia's farmers will still be planting and harvesting a wide variety of healthy, organic foods as they have been doing for centuries. At least they will still be doing so if they can resist the temptation to "modernize" using Western practices. When that happens, surely large areas of Ethiopia's highlands will no longer be farmed as they are not "profitable," and machines will displace large numbers of peasants who will leave the clean air and pure land of their communities for crowded cities where they will be mostly unemployed, desperately poor, their culture largely lost within a generation or two, and their children yearning only to emigrate to a better life in another land.

Popular posts from this blog

Oxen and the Future of Farming

Our Honey is Better and We Have the Data to Prove It!

Cattle Culture in South Sudan