Weather is a challenge that every farmer faces. In Illinois, it rains throughout the year, some months more than others, but usually it rains a few times per month. This is not the case in Ghana where I farm.
We have two rainy seasons: a major season in from April to July and a minor rainy season from mid-August through October. Since we are new to our area and the first to practice mechanized agriculture, understanding our weather patterns is critical to knowing when to plant so rain falls at the right time.
The locals tell you that after the first one or two big rains, it is safe to plant. Rainfall data is not tracked in the developing world, so we rely upon the local farmers’ knowledge. However, understanding exactly what they say is a different story. It would be like an American farmer who grew up farming in the Midwest moving to another region, with no neighbor or National Weather Service to rely upon.
I took the local farmers’ advice and after the first big rain in April, we planted corn on April 22. It did not rain for another six weeks. Consequently, our corn grew knee-high and then experienced severe stress (90-100° F temps) until it began raining the first week of June. We harvested a 30-bu. crop the first rainy season.
Our attempt at the minor-season crop started out very well for us. We planted corn the last week of September. The rains came every three days in October like clockwork. The corn went from germination to shoulder-high in one month. I could not believe how quickly the corn developed. It was the fastest I had ever seen corn grow. But in November, it was like someone flipped a switch and the rains stopped.
When we started the project in Ghana, I knew the only way to manage risk was to have an irrigation system. We erected the system in May but we were unable to get water to the system until December. I thought we would be able to turn the water on and save the crop but it was too late. The corn tasseled but there were no silks on the plant.
I experienced a crop failure, completely. I had never seen anything like it. The worst crop I’d experienced previously was in 1988. When I asked my dad about it, he told me he was at least able to harvest something.
The good news was that our field was only 100 acres. I decided to mow down the crop and plant again under the pivot. It was a hard decision to make, mowing down standing corn. It was like getting rid of a runt in a litter of pigs; no one wants to do it, but at the end of the day it’s the best decision.
We planted our third crop in the middle of December. It’s amazing to see the difference in the crop when you can control the rain. Consequently we’ve moved to a 100% irrigated model for the build out of our farm. The benefit we will have is the potential for a third crop if the timing works out well.
Experience is only gained through time, and lessons can be hard. Being one of the first in a developing industry will always be challenging. However, having the confidence to make a decision, even if it may not be the right one, is what sets people apart.
With the irrigation system running, we will be able to see the true potential of the land and hopefully the saying “rain makes grain” will ring true for us in Ghana, as well.
Editor’s Note: Illinois’ Kristopher Klokkenga was drawn to farming in Ghana, West Africa by its affordable land, enough rain for two crops a year and a tropical climate. He compares the area to Mato Grosso, Brazil, about 40 years ago. He co-founded Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms, a farm-management/farm-development company focused on production agriculture on Ghana’s Afram Plains.