School farms: opportunities from challenges

Farm 2When we launched a little bit of HOPE toward the end of 2011, school farms, were one of our signature programmes. Our hope was that the farms would quickly become self-sustaining and would enable some of the poorest children to eat lunch – thereby boosting both their nutrition and concentration.

The photos and reports soon followed – crops growing, crops being harvested and children enjoying school dinners. But there have also been challenges. There are lots of pupils, and these farms are only a few acres each – so only a small proportion of children can be fed. Crops are sometimes stolen before they can be harvested. Teachers sometimes discipline children by making them work on the school farm. And climate change is making the seasons very unpredictable; the first harvest of 2013 was pretty bad – for the whole area. (The good news is that the second harvest in 2013 was a very good one.)

Challenges are inevitable, and we were pleased to hear of some of solutions that schools were coming up with. Some schools chose to focus of feeding children who were preparing for exams. The school where theft was a problem paid their security guard a little extra to patrol the farm as well as the school buildings. One school ensured that the school farm was very much connected to the agricultural curriculum – and focused on the importance of agricultural skills rather than seeing farming as a punishment. And to overcome the unpredictable weather, schools are beginning to diversify what they plant and coming up with creative irrigation ideas.

Everyone we spoke to – the a little bit of HOPE (Uganda) team, teachers, community leaders – remained committed to the principle of school farms – both as an educational tool and a means to feed children. Therefore, this year we have decided to employ an agricultural expert – to work with the four schools we are currently supporting, to develop a model of school farms that work.

Yesterday, I (Phil), was involved in the interviews of five potential candidates. When I say I was involved, I really just sat and listened as Noah (our project coordinator), Josephine (now our senior administrator and project manager) and Stephen (a member of the Board) interviewed the candidates. However, it gave me an opportunity to reflect, and learn from the experiences and expertise of the agricultural candidates being interviewed.

It struck me how the challenges facing the school farms are the very same challenges facing nearly every family in rural Uganda – the vast majority of whom survive by subsistence farming. The candidate that we offered the job to (and will hopefully be able to introduce you to next week!) has experience of working on a school farm project in another part of Uganda. These school farms have the same aims as ours, but they also are run as ‘model farms’; a place of education for the entire community.

We hope that we’ll be able to achieve the same with our school farms. We hope not only to educate the next generation, but also the existing generation  ̶  so they can overcome the above-mentioned challenges, as well as learn other essential skills such as top-soil management and how to make organic fertilizers.

Farm 1

We hope that our new agriculture worker will be able to stamp out the culture of ‘agriculture as punishment’ in schools – because it’s a bigger problem than might first meet the eye. Subsistence farming is still essential for most rural families. Uganda is currently an awkward hybrid of an agrarian, industrial and post-industrial society. One of the challenges is that young people are turning their back on farming as a way of life quicker than jobs are being created. This is a problem. Approximately three out of every four young people are unemployed, and people still need to eat. There seems to be a growing tendency among young people to look down on working the land – as something below ‘educated people’. We are hoping that school farms can play a small part in changing this attitude by teaching – both in theory and practice – that agriculture is a skilled activity and essential for the future of Uganda.

So, watch this space!