Birth of a New Farming Method
Brian Oldreive is a Zimbabwean, born there in 1943. A star cricket player as a young man, he moved on to become a successful tobacco farmer. In 1978, he became convinced (given the harm that tobacco causes) that he should no longer grow tobacco. When he tried to switch to food crops like corn (called maize in Africa), using standard agricultural practices, he could not make a go of it. He ended up losing his farm and his livelihood due to his moral stand against growing tobacco. He went to work for another large farm, but even there it was a struggle to grow food at a profit. Soil was eroding and crop yields were falling.
He began to think that maybe there was a better way to farm than the usual Western model. One day in 1984 when he was walking in the forest, he noticed that the trees and bushes there grew just fine, with no help from humans, no plowing or irrigation. How was that possible? He observed two things. First, the ground was covered with a thick layer of leaves and other debris, which formed a natural mulch. Beneath this mulch layer (“God’s blanket”), the soil was moist. This was while the region was experiencing drought, and regular farmers’ fields were parched. Secondly, the undisturbed mulch layer naturally decayed to return nutrients to the soil.
Oldreive parlayed those observations into a system of no-till agriculture which mimics the created order. He called this “Farming God’s Way”. The emphasis is on high productivity from a small plot. This involves precision planting at the proper time, crop rotation (corn/beans), and deep mulching to retain moisture and keep weeds down. Nutrients are supplied by both compost and chemical fertilizers.
This method can be practiced by farmers owning no tool other than a hoe. This breaks the cycle of farmers or nations going into debt to purchase expensive Western agricultural machinery, which then may become useless due to inadequate maintenance out in the bush.
This approach contrasts with conventional farming practice which plows up the soil, leaving it to erode away when it rains and to dry out when it doesn’t rain. Plowing also disturbs the natural ordering of the microbial communities within the upper and lower soil layers. (There is aerobic metabolism near the surface, and a whole different anaerobic community in the soil lower down).
Oldreive started by planting one small plot using this approach in the estate he was then managing:
I decided to copy what God does in natural creation and I observed that the leaves fall down on the ground and the grass dies down and there is a protective blanket over the earth, and that is how God preserves soil to infiltrate the water that we receive…
Many people did not believe me and said I was wasting time. But I was not deterred because I was convinced that this method would work. I decided to put the model into practice by starting with just two hectares. I prayed for wisdom and God showed me how to plant maize into wheat straw residue. This is just the same as what God does in nature.
That two-hectare (about 5 acre) plot confounded the skeptics, yielding about ten times more corn per hectare than the local average yields. He then planted more acreage using this approach. Over the next few years, while a number of conventionally-run farms around him went broke, he kept expanding and growing more food with his system.
Oldreive believed these insights were gifts from God which were meant to be shared with others. Therefore, he shifted his effort towards teaching other Africans how to farm with this method.
Things Fall Apart in Zimbabwe
In 1980, the white minority government of what was then called Rhodesia was replaced by black majority rule. Most of the best farmland had historically been owned and run by white farmers, with high productivity. Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was known as the “breadbasket of Africa”, and even the “jewel of Africa”, because of its natural resources and prosperity.
The first ten years after the 1980 regime change were pretty good times in Zimbabwe, with an average 4.5% annual GDP growth. The end of the civil war and the lifting of international sanctions brought tourists and foreign investment to Zimbabwe.
Things started to spiral down in the 1990s. Government spending grew, and opening the economy more to foreign competition probably hurt local manufacturing. In 1997, strikes became common. Former independence fighters demanded, and received, a huge one-time payment and ongoing monthly pensions from the government. The government also incurred great costs by intervening in a civil war in Congo. All this spending completely overstressed the government’s finances, leading to runaway inflation. Protests against leader Robert Mugabe’s policies and authoritarian rule were put down with violence.
Throughout the 1990s, there was a slow, fairly orderly transfer of white-owned land to the government, with paid compensation. Much of this land, however, was awarded to government-party-connected individuals. This still left the vast majority of poor people out of the loop. In an attempt to shore up popular support, the Mugabe government in 2000 sanctioned a “Fast Track Land Reform” program. What this often meant in practice is that armed mobs would show up and force farmers to leave immediately without compensation.
Many previously-established farmers fled the country. The new occupants of the farmlands did not grow much food, despite provision of seed and fertilizer from the government. By 2007 the production of the food staples corn (maize) and wheat had fallen to 31% and 23% of their 1998 levels. Production of revenue-generating crops like tobacco and cotton also plunged. Instead of being an exporter of foodstuffs, Zimbabwe had to import food, further devastating national finances:
Between 2000 and December 2007, the national economy contracted by as much as 40%; inflation vaulted to over 66,000%, and there were persistent shortages of hard currency, fuel, medicine, and food. GDP per capita dropped by 40%, agricultural output dropped by 51% and industrial production dropped by 47%.
Some of Zimbabwe’s economic woes were due to Western sanctions (which are still ongoing) on the government for rigged elections and human rights abuses, but all in all, this was a textbook example of authoritarian mismanagement.
Runaway inflation makes ordinary economic transactions very difficult, giving little incentive to invest in productive enterprises. Ordinary Zimbabweans had to spend time illegally changing currencies back and forth (getting scalped along the way) in order to purchase necessities which were only available on the black market using U.S. dollars or euros.
Some measure of stabilization emerged in 2009 with a unity government, and the abandoning of the hopelessly devalued Zimbabwe national currency. National transactions were done with the U.S. dollar, and eventually with a total of eight foreign currencies. The Zimbabwe dollar was reinstated as the national currency in 2019, which promptly set off a new round of hyperinflation.
A government response to inflation has been to impose price controls, which mandates shops to sell goods for less than their actual cost. Unsurprisingly, this has led only to empty shelves. Rates of poverty and unemployment have been spectacular.
Things remained dire on the food front. A 2019 UN report was headlined, “Zimbabwe facing man-made starvation, says UN expert.” The report goes on to note:
Man-made starvation is “slowly making its way into Zimbabwe” and most households in the country are unable to obtain enough food to meet their basic needs… more than 60 per cent of the population is now “food-insecure”, in a country once seen as the breadbasket of Africa: In rural areas, a staggering 5.5 million people are currently facing food insecurity, as poor rains and erratic weather patterns are impacting harvests and livelihoods…due to factors such as poverty and high unemployment, widespread corruption, severe price instabilities, and unilateral economic sanctions, the crisis is getting worse.
Ouch. And this was before the effects of the COVID pandemic hit the nation and its economy.
Foundations for Farming Brings Hope to Zimbabwe and Beyond
Brian Oldreive had his farm taken away as part of the 2000 “land reform”, and so once again he lost everything. He could easily have joined the other dispossessed farmers and emigrated from Zimbabwe, leaving all the chaos behind. But when he and his wife prayed about it, they felt led to stay in their nation. Despite official resistance to their work, Oldreive continued to help local small farmers implement his model of agriculture, which was rebranded “Foundations for Farming”.
A man who later visited Zimbabwe wrote about their decision to stay:
On the surface, it was an illogical decision and even the years afterward seemed to challenge the wisdom of their staying. Despite the clear success of their farming methods, the government continued to resist them due to the racial component. Through the setbacks, they persevered in their efforts alongside partners Craig & Bridget Deall. While at the national level they found nothing but resistance, over time, more and more substance level farmers began to embrace their ideas with great success. I remember in 2010, while out for a walk, I came across two farmsteads next to each other. Once had scrawny knee-high brown maize plants scattered all over the place and the other neat rows of lush green maize that had to have been 8’ tall. One property looked cursed and the other like the Garden of Eden. The contrast was stark. I inquired when I got back about the highly productive farm and sure enough, the guy was using what he had learned at a Foundations for Farming training seminar.
Resistance to Foundations for Farming came from various quarters. The nationalist government may have disliked the fact that it was developed and promoted by a white farmer. It wasn’t traditional native practice, but neither was it the latest/greatest Western agronomy.
Oldreive was by no means the first to promote mulched, untilled fields. This planting style is termed “Conservation Agriculture”. It has been around in various forms in the West for over fifty years. Other efforts have been made to introduce it to sub-Saharan Africa. Sometimes well-meaning Europeans or North Americans fly in, demonstrate techniques, hand out seeds and fertilizer, and leave. When they come back in a year for a follow-up visit, they often find that the natives are back doing what they have always done.
Thus, skepticism from the Western NGO establishment has been directed at the lofty claims made for Foundations for Farming/Farming God’s Way. These criticisms have been rebutted by interviews of Africans who are actually putting Foundations for Farming into practice. A version of Foundations for Farming planting is widely and successfully practiced in Zambia. Zambians often plant the Faidherbia albida “fertilizer tree” in their fields to boost yields further.
In “Methodology to make Conservation Agriculture a Practical Reality for the Small-Scale Farmer” (Edwards, et al. 2020), Foundations for Farming explains why their method can succeed where other attempts at conservation agriculture have failed. They have calculated that, given sufficient rainfall and fertilizer input, their method should allow a farmer to raise enough food to feed his family for a year from a plot of 1/16 hectare (about 0.15 acre or about 6700 ft2). They call this a “Pfumvudza” (“New Season”) plot. This brochure and this ten-minute training video show how it is done.
By focusing all the effort of weed control, hoeing, sowing, fertilizing, and mulching into a relatively small area, the burden for all this hand labor becomes more feasible than with conventional conservation agriculture, where several acres may be cultivated by an individual. The required amount of mulch is reduced because of the small area; obtaining sufficient mulch is often a constraint, since dead organic matter is in demand as animal feed. Staying ahead of weeds is easier with a small, deeply mulched surface. The effect of fertilizer is maximized by placing it in small, measured amounts in each planting hole. By planting the corn plants precisely and densely in the plot, the plants end up shading the ground, which further reduces the burden of weeding. The dead cornstalks at the end of the season are cut to serve as on-going mulch. Sowing is done at precise times of the year, in order to reap maximum benefit from the seasonal rainfall patterns.
Agronomy experts tend to focus on quantitative relationships between measurable, physical inputs and outputs. However, farmers are real human beings, and so there are also psychological factors which play a crucial role in the actual implementation of any technique.
Having “joy” in your work, to motivate ongoing effort, is an explicit value for Foundations for Farming. Pfumvudza helps to achieve that by starting with a small plot where the farmer can experience success and feel the satisfaction of managing that well. Oldreive put it:
When you do something well, joy comes into your heart. The Bible says our joy is our strength, and when people become joyfully motivated, the work ethic improves greatly. God showed me that you should only grow that which you can manage at a very high standard….At times, people grow more than what they can manage. You can always start small and build.
For religious-minded farmers, there is probably additional motivation in practicing this Foundations for Farming approach, which is billed as “farming God’s way”, in conformity with the created order.
Does this concept actually work? A study by the U. N. FAO’s Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP) confirmed that the maize (corn) yield from Pfumvudza plots they sponsored was dramatically higher than with conventional agriculture. The following chart shows that the yields during the 2019/2020 season from Pfumvudza plots where the protocols were fully implemented were 7.8 times higher than the national average of 1 tonnes/hectare. Even a mixture of partial and full implementation across all the plots gave high yields of 6.1 tonnes/hectare:
Among the Pfumvudza plots, there was a big effect due to the amount and type of mulch that was used, with some plots achieving 12 tonnes/hectare, which is a full twelve times higher than the average yields in Zimbabwe:
These results highlight the importance of providing sufficient mulch, which may require stockpiling plant material and (for large fields) growing cover crops. For farming larger fields, mechanized roller crimpers can convert cover crops into mulch, and no-till seed drills can quickly plant seeds though a mulch layer without disturbing it.
The FAO report went on to say:
Preliminary calculations based on the yield performance of the pilot Pfumvudza plots under the [FAO pilot] programme revealed that for every British Pound that the programme invested in extension and advisory services towards the Pfumvudza model, the incremental value of the grain produced is £9.2. In other words an investment of £1 produced outputs worth £9.2. The incremental production alone can provide enough grain for almost four months for a family of six. Thus Pfumvudza is not only very effective in addressing food insecurity but also provides the most efficient way of utilizing resources in the fight against hunger and indeed poverty.
That is high praise from an official publication. The report included recommendations such as expanding the crop selection to include more legumes for soil conditioning and for human protein. The Pfumvudza trainers are now working to add these recommendations into the program.
A stretch goal is to have the farmers start to pay for the fertilizer/seed input packages (about $50 USD per plot). Besides reducing costs to the government, this would reduce the temptation for farmers to cheat and simply sell the fertilizer which the government gave them. If the program can come to that self-sustaining stage, it would be (according to the business weekly Zimbabwe Independent) an “incredible” step forward in national development:
What is incredible is that all this will be achieved without the rural farmer getting any assistance from anyone, be it government, non-governmental organisations or the private sector. This is a whole new level of economic development; rural farmers supplying capital from their own internal resources…disruptive innovation has just opened our eyes to this hitherto unseen and untapped source of capital to power national economic development.
For longer-term national development, it is a big plus that the Foundations for Farming planting approach can be scaled up, using ox-drawn narrow plows and mechanical seeders. To have 70% of the population working little Pfumvudza plots with hoes and feeding their families is of course much better than having 70% of the population working conventional plots and starving. That said, for national productivity to keep rising, the fraction of people doing subsistence farming must decrease (by using mechanization, etc., on larger-scale farms) so the fraction of the workforce in more industrial or computerized sectors can increase.
Although Zimbabwe is the epicenter, Foundations for Farming methods are practiced in some 40 African nations. Stations have been established on five continents. I had the privilege of touring Rora Valley Farms near Birmingham, Alabama, where Noah Sanders is the U.S. contact for Foundations for Farming. He raises chickens and other animals, but most of his effort goes into his quarter-acre market garden, shown below. Sanders was trained at a Foundations for Farming workshop in Zimbabwe in 2013. He implements their practices in his successful small farm operation, and trains other farmers and gardeners through his Redeeming the Dirt Academy.
Rora Valley Farms (Alabama, USA) market garden, farmed using Foundations for Farming principles.
Pfumvudza Endorsed and Promoted by Zimbabwe Government
In 2018-2019 the tide finally turned from official neglect to official recognition of Foundations for Farming technology in Zimbabwe. That was a drought year, and enough high-level officials observed enough green Pfumvudza plots flourishing alongside brown dead conventional fields that the government moved to formally endorse this method and to support rolling it out nationwide. The plan was to train two million households, and give them each two Pfumvudza plots, one to feed themselves and one for selling food to feed the rest of the nation. A third plot was added, for growing oilseed crops such as soybean or sunflower seeds. Besides training, the government program is supplying “input” packages of seed and fertilizer.
The news on this program continues to be excellent. A January 2022 article (Zimbabwe Agri News) reported a “staggering” five tonne/hectare corn yield for the nationwide 2020-2021 Pfumvudza harvest. Another January 2022 article (All-Africa Herald) reports that the initial target of 2.3 million household participation has been surpassed as more Zimbabweans want in after observing “last season’s roaring success.” The program now offers up to five plots, to encourage more commercial cropping. (We hope that all five of these plots can continue to be managed “to high standard”.)
Somewhat lost in all this national celebration has been the recognition of where the Pfumvudza program came from. Understandably, the government wants to take maximum credit for this initiative which is bringing hope to much of the nation. In nearly all the reportage, there is no mention of the long efforts of Zimbabwean native Brian Oldreive and his colleagues which brought the country to this point.
The Masvingo Mirror has redressed this neglect with Rashid Saidi’s April, 2021 article “Brian Oldreive, the Pioneer of Pfumvudza”:
A lot is being said about Pfumvudza. Not a single day passes without mention of it in the media… Numerous field days are being held across the country as farmers show off their Pfumvudza crops… Now, thanks to pfumvudza, for the first time in many years we are going to have enough to eat without having to import maize grown by farmers we chased away during the haphazard land reform programme.
On the backdrop of this success the government is naturally patting itself on the back for introducing Pfumvudza and supporting farmers with training and much needed inputs. The way it is depicted gives the impression that Pfumvudza is a baby of the government when in actual fact it is not. Pfumvudza was originally conceptualised and pioneered by a white Zimbabwean man by the name of Brian Oldreive working with Foundation for Farming, an organisation he founded based in Harare. Through prayer as a born again Christian he was gradually led through the development of the Pfumvudza concept from as far back as 1984. For him everything in life is founded on unselfishness, humility and faithfulness to Christ, hence his development of the Pfumvudza concept through what he calls Farming God’s Way.
… We have just been celebrating our independence acknowledging and thanking the heroes who freed us from colonialism. Oldreive is a man who dedicated his life to freeing us from hunger. Here is a man who therefore, on our own national level deserves to be a national hero, while on the international level he could be running towards a Nobel Peace Prize as Pfumbvudza is now being practiced in 40 African countries with stations emerging in the 5 continents of the world.
Whether Oldreive’s agricultural insights were divinely inspired or simply brilliant thinking, there is no doubt that it was his deep faith that sustained him through some thirty years of unrecognized toil in order to help his fellow Africans. I’ll give Oldreive himself (who is now about 78 years old) the last word here. He concluded an interview with the Zimbabwe Sunday Mail with this summary of the outlook that brought us Pfumvudza:
Finally I have to say that the true foundation of everything in life must be founded on the humility, unselfishness and faithfulness of Christ Jesus. (I Corinthians 3:11). That is the main miraculous reason why we are influencing other nations in the world, all achieved with very little money and no ambitions and plans of our own. The likeness and character of Jesus in all of us applied in all our lives is the true hope for Zimbabwe and the world. That is why we call ourselves Foundations for Farming.
Brian Oldreive and his wife Cath Source