Changing maize agri/cultures – time in the field

I recently spent 3 weeks doing some final fieldwork in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where I continued to interview scientists working on maize research, small-scale farmers as well as government officials involved in maize agriculture. During this period the focus of these interviews was to understand changing systems of maize research in South Africa and agri/cultures in the areas I was working on. The lens I approached this through was through looking at changing social-ecological relationships within systems of agri/culture and how these have been affected by the introduction of new maize seed technologies. In order to this I have tried to explore relationships between participants involved in maize agri/culture and the ecological landscapes in which they work – for example for farmers this would be the land on which they farm in relation to social, ecological and political influences, for scientists sometimes it is a mixture of laboratories, farms and other spaces.

During the first week I travelled to Pietermartitzberg where I had some meetings set up with professors and PhD students at the University of KZN where they are doing a lot of research on maize. Here I explored what kinds of research are being done and what the focus of this research in and how its fits into the bigger research agenda on maize and agri/culture in South Africa. I was also able to meet with a team of researchers who are currently working with small scale farmers to develop varieties that are suitable for small scale farmers. This project is exciting because it takes into account the knowledge small scale farmers have. This has not been the case in research to date which has generally seen scientists as the experts and farmers as the recipients of technologies. While in KZN I also made some further contacts at CEDARA which I hope to be able to follow up over next few months. This Government run Agricultural college was established in 1905 and over the past century and through the political changes happening in South Africa, it has been the site of much maize R&D. While today it focuses mainly on training, there are a number of researchers affiliated with the institution who have a great deal of experience in maize related research. The test plots and greenhouses located here are also used for trial research.

While in KZN I also took some time to go the the Provincial archives where i searched for clues on maize agri/culture in the area I am working on. Here I found a collection of government records that mentioned maize agri/culture in relation to  social, political and ecological processes underway during the colonial and early apartheid period. While this is not an archival study and so I was not able to spend a great deal of time in the archives it provided some context to the area I am working and the pre hybrid maize period (See map found in the archives above showing the area I have been working in near the Pongola River – drawn by colonial officials  in 1870 as part of the process of dividing up land under their rule ). The is very little written on the history of agri/culture in the area  and so these pieces of archival evidence are useful in this way. During my research I met someone who is currently working on a project to write the history of this area specifically focusing on the precolonial history of the area and the time of the early colonial era. This work which began in 2013 is currently situated within a project called The Five Hundred Year Archive which is a collaborative project between institutions.

Over the following weeks I spent time in the research site I am working in in Northern KZN. In this area this year I have conducted 30 in depth semi-structured interviews with small-scale farmers. I did this with the help of a translator who came with me from Swaziland (very nearby and who spoke the Zulu and Siswati which are both spoken in the area which borders Swaziland and was once part of Swaziland) and a research assistant who lived in the area.  We also spent time with farmers on their land exploring methods of agri/culture and taking pictures related to the narratives in the interviews. Once again I have approached this fieldwork through using a social-ecological lens aided by an interest in the other-than-human or multispecies perspective in which I have tried to explore how farmers relate to the ecological systems (seeds, soils, climates, insects, weeds, etc) in which they are farming and ask about how this has changed as farmers have adopted new seed varieties and associated methods of farming.

At the start of the project I set out to interview farmers to who are growing OPV’s which are refereed to in the area as Mdala (old) or Zulu Maize, farmers growing Hybrid maize and farmers growing GM maize. I was able to find 11 farmers to talk to who are growing Zulu only maize and the same number growing hybrids (often in addition to Zulu Maize) and then about 4 framers who were growing GM maize as part of projects linked to the Department of Agriculture in the area. Many of the farmers were growing a combination of  or had tried different varieties at different points during their farming experience ranging from Zulu Maize, to Seed.Co Hybrids, to Pannar, Pioneer and Monsanto. Most farmers were elderly and so had been involved in planting maize for over 60 years. Many did not remember what seeds they have used, having tried a number of seeds over the years.  Often it was challenging to really know what varieties of seed farmers had planted this year and in previous years as what became apparent after much time in the area is that farmers are changing their seed often, sometimes annually and sometimes they are quite unsure about what exact seed they have planted. We tried asking if we could see the packaging that the seeds had come in but few farmers till had kept the packaging after they had planted the seed. However we were able to take photographs of the maize produced and also enquire about the color of the seed that they had planted. Different types of maize seed is covered in different chemical dyes – some darker which people described as “sweet pink” and some lighter pink, while some is green (with a monkey on the packaging – see image below) – this helped us know which kind of seed farmers were referring to.

All the farmers we interviewed reside along one mountain range within a geographical area of approximately 20km. While they live close to each other there are significant variations in rainfall, soil types and other factors which influence farming in the different parts of the area. What became apparent over these weeks is just how much agri/cultures are constantly changing – these changes come from multiple interactions and challenges that farmers are faced with and have been faced with since the introduction of maize in the 1600s via present day Mozambique. While there are similarities between the choices of small scale farmers even in one valley each farmer’s way of farming is mediated buy social, economic, political and ecological factors. These decision of what seed to plant is made annually in relation to all of these considerations, for example one year a farmer may plant Zulu maize instead of Hybrid maize because they were unable to afford seed that year, while the next year the farmer may have been given a GM seed sample as part of a trial project in the area. Farmers choice of input such a using kraal (cattle) manure over fertiliser would also depend on access to resources such a physical resources but also this may include information on what is the best seed to plant which may come from an NGO supporting agro-ecological methods or the government or seed companies reaching farmers in various ways.

These fieldwork over the past few weeks has given much insight into the theme of agri/cultural deskilling (or changing skills) in relation to social-ecological knowledge and agriculture. While once farmers (and researchers) may have relied on a cumulative development of knowledge in relation to the landscapes that they are working, today there is an overwhelming set of information and rapid development of technologies to understand and negotiate in relation to rapidly changing climates and social economic factors – what seems to be the case is much dislocation and many unknowns and fragmented relationships with ecological systems and knowledge rather than distinctive cultures of agriculture or agri/cultures.

In the next post I will discussion ore detail the mirror of this post in the area of research and development in maize agri/culture in South Africa which I have been exploring along side the experience of smalls scale farmers.


Butterflies during the day, moths at night: Multi-species narratives unfolding

Image of brown veined white butterfly - they mirgrate form South Africa's West Coast to Madagascar. Image from :

Image of brown veined white butterfly – they mirgrate form South Africa’s West Coast to Madagascar. Image from :

For this post I wanted to reflect on how a multi-species lens became a powerful tool for collecting narratives about socio-ecological relationships in different maize agri/cultures on our past group trip to KwaZulu Natal. We found that asking different people questions about insects opened up the space for interesting narratives to unfold about the different systems of agriculture we are looking at. One of the insects I am particularly interested in gathering information about is the corn borer  (also known as stalk borer) as these insects, which can severely affect the success of maize crops, have been protagonists in the development of maize crop science and a focus of much research and technological development. However there are of course many more species that are important to look at throughout the system.

On arriving in KwaZulu Natal we noticed strings of white butterflies flying overhead.  When we asked some of the farmers on one of the agro-ecological farms we visited about these, they told us that these butterflies signaled a “bad crop to come”. This is because for the farmers, they indicated the possible onset of a stem borer infestation.

On returning from KZN, we talked about the white butterflies with an entomologist who has worked for decades in maize agriculture research in KwaZulu Natal. We told him about how farmers we had spoken to had told us that these butterflies signaled the possible onset of a stalk borer infestation. He thought about it and then suggested that the white butterflies signaling the corn borer was perhaps a “half-truth”. He said that it was not the butterflies that laid the eggs of the corn borer but rather a small brown moth. However, these two species, the butterfly and the moth hatched at the same time of year and that while the moth laid the eggs that became the stem borer, the butterfly in a sense signaled the time of year and conditions that sustained the borer. He suggested that while the butterflies fly by day and the moths by night, farmers often see the butterflies while less frequently encountering the moths who come under the cover of darkness.

Over the period of the trip we asked a number of farmers we met about how they have dealt with stem borer in the past and how they deal with it now.  This opened up the space for dialogue and created narrative material for thinking about some of the contrasts between an agri-science approach (using pesticides or Bt maize which some of the farmers have now adopted) and an approach embedded in the landscapes and traditions of the places we visited. Traditional approaches included techniques such as using ash or soil to fill the holes in between the leaves of newly emerged corn to stop insects getting into the stem, as well as hand picking the caterpillars off the plants. However, these practices often also included an important social element. For example, one group of women farmers told us about how when they were younger, if there were corn borers in their maize fields, then younger (maiden) women would be sent into the field to pick off the caterpillars and would then throw them in the river. There the young men would meet them and they would act out a staged battle between men and women. In another account, we were told that young women would run into the fields and shout insults and then gather the caterpillars. While at this point in the research I have not yet spent enough time in the field to ask and understand more about the origins and meanings of these traditions, what they point to is the complex socio-ecological relationships that exist in agricultural practice. Furthermore, it points to what is at risk of being lost when new types of seed and technologies replace older ones. It will be interesting to further explore such multi-species perspectives and relationships during my fieldwork to come.

stem borer at night

Image: Stem borer at night Source: