Lemongrass is not traditionally grown in Nqileni village. As a result, our first group of lemongrass farmers have had to learn “on the job”. Through trial and error, careful record keeping and controlled ‘experiments’ we have learnt an enormous amount about growing this hardy plant in our village. We have also been very fortunate to have had valuable input from technical experts who have visited our project over the past few months – sharing their knowledge, providing hands-on training and linking us to others doing similar work. We felt that an important next step in this learning process would involve taking our lemongrass farmers to visit a successful, established farm where they would be able to ask questions of farmers who have years of practical experience of growing lemongrass.
As noted by our field manager, Phumzile: “The biggest challenge is that our farmers do not have knowledge of these types of plants. Also, as the field manager I need to see and meet other farmers to discuss the problems we have … and to create a good relationship with other essential oil farmers in order to extend our knowledge and share experiences to grow our project”.
After several weeks of planning, 12 of our 14 farmers recently visited a farm near Stanger in Kwazulu-Natal. The 3-day excursion was excellently co-ordinated by our project manager, Phumzile Msaro who accompanied the farmers, along with Rejane Woodroffe (our new LME project co-ordinator) and Vuyani Olo (one of our community facilitators). Phumzile hired a taxi to drive the farmers from Mthatha to Stanger (a 12 hour trip each way!).
After weeks of corresponding via email and telephone, our group received a warm welcome from the farmers we visited.
A big difference between this farm and our project is the fact that these farmers focus on the production of lemongrass for essential oils whereas our focus to date has been on growing lemongrass for sale as dry leaves for flavouring tea. Nevertheless we learnt many valuable lessons about the growing process, harvesting techniques, watering requirements etc. As an example, as part of our “controlled experiments” in Nqileni village we have been selectively watering some plants and not others – to try and determine the minimum amount of water needed for optimal yield. The farm we visited had effectively done a similar thing, having left one field of lemongrass unwatered for a period of five to six months. Our farmers were therefore able to see first hand the way in which the lemongrass plant reacts to these conditions.
Apart from the information and experiences that were shared, the trip was also an excellent opportunity for team building and for celebrating our progress. All in all it was an excellent experience, much enjoyed by all!
This learning exchange visit is just the beginning of what we hope will be a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the farmers we visited, and possibly the beginnings of a valuable network. As noted by Phumzile, “As a result of the trip we will continue to develop a strong relationship with the Stanger farmers through the exchange of ideas and support for one another”.