Chapter 4: An Experimental Farm
CopyrightÂ© 2014 by Lazlo Zalezac
August 4, 1993
The ‘Dead Lands’ was a desert. The soil was rich, but the land was barren for the simple reason that there was no water. After a rain, the whole area blossomed with plants that grew quickly, flowered, wilted; and then disappeared under a harsh sun. Deep beneath the ground was an aquifer that could be tapped to turn the desert area into productive farm land. Unfortunately, how much water was actually available was still unknown, and Jade Force was made of the kind of people who didn’t like that kind of uncertainty.
Farming on such inhospitable land was a challenge. Just finding crops that would grow when the low temperature never reached below fifty degrees wasn’t an easy problem. Finding crops that could survive triple digit temperatures was even harder. The most formidable challenge revolved around getting water to the crop.
The easiest approach was open field watering using sprinklers that delivered water like it was raining. This is an extremely wasteful approach. In a hot and dry environment, any mist produced evaporated without even touching the ground.
Then there is irrigation in which a channel of water is run alongside the crop. It is nearly as wasteful as open field watering. Long shallow streams of water provided a huge surface area on which evaporation occurred.
Both of those approaches promoted the growth of weeds. The quick growing plants native to the desert could easily overwhelm the crop plants. They were water hungry and had roots that would suck up every drop of water available to them.
Another approach, requiring a bit more work and expense, was to run drip tubes side-by-side with the plants and feed the water directly to the plant limiting the amount of water lost to evaporation. It prevented a lot of weeds from growing, but not all of them. The weeds tried to grow in the same spot as the crop plant because that was where the water was.
Jade Force had gone with drip tubes to deliver water to the plants. It allowed them to control the amount of water fed to each row of plants in the field. The soil would be moist where the plant was growing and dry a few inches away.
Jomo looked out across the neatly cultivated field. It was many times larger than his plot of land back at the refugee camp. In fact, it was larger than the entire camp. He couldn’t only imagine just how much work went into a field of that size.
At the moment, the farm was populated with a variety of Jade Warriors. There were Swords, Shields, Hearths, and Carts out there in the hot sun riding around the field on machines. The sight of the Jade Warriors working in the field kind of offended Jomo. They were supposed to be warriors and not farmers.
“Why are Jade Warriors working in the field?” Jomo asked.
Hearth George, the man giving him the tour, said, “It needs to be done, and there’s no one else to do it.”
“You’re visiting. When you move here, we’ll turn all of the farms over to you. They will belong to the people who work on them. You’ll decide what to grow, and how to grow it, just like back at the camp.”
Even with everyone in the camp working on the field, it wouldn’t be enough. He couldn’t imagine how many hours they’d spend hoeing those long rows.
Jomo said, “There’s no way we can work a field this big.”
Growing a crop in a desert, where every drop of water has to be conserved, is the most difficult and time consuming type of farming to be done. The land can produce a lot, but it takes a lot of work to accomplish it. Almost everything has to be done a little differently from how it is done on a farm in an area that gets lots of rain or where water isn’t an issue.
Every row had a water line running along its length. Plant and water outlet had to line up. There’s no sense planting seeds that will never get a drop of water. The water has to be provided in the right amount at the right time or the plants would die. The hot sun and dry air sucked the moisture out of the plants.
The addition of a waterline made normal cultivation tools almost worthless. One slip and the water line for a whole row can get damaged. Huge tractors that can go through wide swath of the field in a single pass just didn’t work as well as small tractors.
“You’ll need to use tractors.”
Hearth George pointed to the Jade Warriors riding little tractors around the field.
“What are they doing?” Jomo asked never having seen anyone use a tractor before.
He said, “They are clearing some of the weeds out of the field.”
Jomo asked, “How are they doing that?”
“They are using something that’s called a sweep. It is pulled between the rows of crops, where it cuts off the roots of any weeds growing there. You have to be careful because it is just as easy to run it through the crop and destroy it.”
“Can I see one?” Jomo asked.
“Sure,” Hearth George said. “Let’s go out there and look at it.”
Jomo followed Hearth George out into the field. They stood by a row waiting a few minutes for one of the tractors to drive past. When one approached, Hearth George held out a hand for the driver to stop. The driver stopped and put the small tractor into idle.
“Hello, Cart Neylon.”
“Hello, Hearth George.”
“Jomo would like to look at what you’re doing. I was explaining what a sweep was, but I see that you’re not using a sweep, today.”
“That’s right, I’m using a tine rake.”
Cart Neylon raised the attachment so that it was easier for Jomo to examine. He stepped off the tractor. It was a small machine, just a little bigger than what one might use in a large home garden. The implement it was pulling was scaled down in size from what would be used on a larger commercial farm.
Going around to the attachment, he said, “This is a tine rake. It’s a lot like a regular rake that you might use in the field. These tines dig into the soil and basically pulls the weed out. It’s best on small weeds, but the biggest advantage of this is that it can be used in rough uneven soil like we have here. The tines are flexible enough to allow them to move around any rocks in the ground.”
Jomo squatted down to examine the device. It was simple, just three bars riding on wheels with tines sticking down like a rake. The tines were spaced along the bars so that there was an empty space to avoid digging in where the desired plants were growing. He pulled on a tine and could see that it was stiff, but not rigid.
Jomo asked, “What about right around the plant? That’s where I get most of my weeds.”
“We actually allowed water to drip for a couple of weeks before planting. The weeds came up and we got rid of them. After a couple of weeks, we got the majority of the weeds out of the garden, at least where we were going to plant the crops. We still have to hoe in a few places and that is a little tricky with the water lines running alongside the plants.”
“I know all about hoeing around the water lines,” Jomo said.
“I know you do.”
Stepping back to look at the tractor and its attachment, Jomo said, “It looks complicated.”
It was definitely more complicated than getting out in a field with a hoe. However, considering the size of the field, he didn’t want to be out there with a simple hoe. He’d have to work from dawn to dusk and still he’d never get through it.
Hearth George said, “I know it looks complicated, but it isn’t that bad. The basic principles of the hand tools you use and the tools pulled by a tractor are the same. We’ll teach you all about the equipment when you first get here. We’ll also train some of the people who aren’t farmers how to maintain the equipment.”
“That would help,” Jomo said.
“We want the farms to provide all of the food we eat here. That means growing a lot of food with staggered planting times so that we have a continuous harvest. We’ll have to feed about forty thousand people.”
“That’s a lot of food,” Jomo said wide-eyed.
Jomo’s little garden back at the camp was very productive. It was one of many, but all of those gardens did little more than provide some fresh food occasionally. They weren’t enough to support the entire camp for the entire year. As a result of an accident with one of his melons, he had discovered that with the continuous growing season that he could stagger his planting to make fresh produce available almost all of the time. Still, he was only able to cover most of his families food needs, sell some to the Jade Warriors, and have a little left over for the restaurant.
Nearly every head of a household would have to farm in order to provide enough food to support forty thousand people. He knew that wasn’t going to happen. He wasn’t even sure if that was enough people.
“How many farmers will there be?” he asked.
“A little over a hundred farmers will be working in the fields,” Hearth George said.
Jomo did the math in his head coming up with the answer that each farmer would have to feed four hundred people. He did the calculation without realizing that he’d never have been able to do so without having attended the classes at the camp.
“You mean one farmer is going to have to support four hundred people?”
“That’s about right,” Hearth George said.
He wasn’t surprised by Jomo’s conclusion. Several farmers had reached the same conclusion the previous day.
“I could support six or seven people with my little garden at the camp,” Jomo said.
“That’s why a farmer is going to have to work a larger field and use tractors to do the work quicker,” Hearth George said.
Jomo squatted down and watched the Jade Warriors driving the tractors around the field. They were moving slowly, but at a constant speed. He tried to imagine himself on a row hoeing the weeds by hand and racing against one of the tractors. It was easy to see how much quicker the tractors were at accomplishing the task than he would have been.
Each row of this field had more area than his little garden. He scratched some numbers on the ground. The little tine rake pulled behind the tractor was clearing the weeds from two rows with each pass. It was taking them about ten minutes a pass. So that was the same as hoeing two gardens in ten minutes. In an hour, they could hoe twelve gardens. In five hours, they could hoe sixty gardens. Sixty gardens would produce more than enough for three hundred people.
At the current time, Jomo worked five hours a day in his garden. Three hours first thing in the morning before it got too hot to work and two hours late in the afternoon once it cooled off a little. It wasn’t that he was unwilling to work longer hours, it was that it was too hazardous to his health to work outdoors like that in the heat of midday. He assumed that it would be the same here.
Of course, he only had to hoe the garden once or twice a week depending on how the fast the weeds were growing. There were other things that had to be done. There was planting and that could be very time consuming with the water lines present. There was harvesting. He couldn’t imagine trying to harvest the produce from sixty or more gardens without having a huge amount of wastage. That would require a whole crew of people, not just one farmer.
Hearth George watched Jomo scratch some figures in the dirt wondering what the man was thinking. He could see by the numbers and the math, that Jomo was working out something about farming. Still, it wasn’t obvious what the numbers meant.
Jomo had no idea of the significance of what he was doing. He had been raised as a subsistence farmer, growing enough to feed his family and have just enough left over to trade for other essential items that he couldn’t produce himself. Squatting there in the dirt, he was making the mental shift from subsistence farmer to production farmer. He was now thinking of farming in terms of yields, acreage, and staffing.
Jomo looked up at Hearth George and said, “I don’t see how it can work.”
“A lot of the work can be done by one man, and the tractor. That’s the easy part, I think. One farmer can plow sufficient land, plant it, and keep the weeds out. One farmer can’t harvest that much land without a lot of help. If his crops are staggered out, he’d need that help every day.”
“We have attachments that can harvest root crops like sweet potatoes and beets.”
“That would help, but what about things like beans, squash, tomatoes, and melons?”
“That does require people,” Hearth George said.
“I don’t know how many people it would take to harvest that much food, but it has to be a lot. Just to make sure everyone has one tomato a day would require picking forty thousand tomatoes every day. Do we have enough people to do that?”
Smiling, Hearth George said, “I don’t know if we do or not.”
Now Jomo was impressing him. None of the other farmers had asked about that. He did know that a possible solution to the problem had been found. If that solution wasn’t acceptable to the Sumar refugees, then it was still a big problem.
“That’s a problem,” Jomo said.
“I know,” Hearth George said still smiling.
“Why are you smiling?”
“It’s just that we had a bunch of farmers here yesterday and not one of them thought about that problem,” Hearth George said.
“So I’m worried about nothing?” Jomo asked with a frown. He didn’t see anything wrong with his calculations.
“No. It means that you are probably qualified to be more than a farmer,” Hearth George said.
“I don’t understand.”
Hearth George said, “We are a meritocracy...”
“What’s that?” Jomo interrupted.
“A meritocracy is where a person’s place, is determined by ability. We base everything on ability, not personality, gender, or any other factor. You have just demonstrated to me an ability to deal with farming on a large scale that none of the other farmers have shown.”
“Is that a good thing?” Jomo asked not sure he understood.
“It means that you are able to do more than just simple farming. You can manage the farming activity,” Hearth George said.
“So I’ll become their boss?”
“No. You’ll have a different role then working out in the field.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“How many rows of tomatoes will we need for forty thousand people?”
“I’m not sure. I’d have to figure it out.”
“How would you figure it out?”
“I’d need to work that out based on how many tomatoes a plant produces a day, how long it takes a tomato plant to become productive, how long a tomato plant is productive, and how many plants there are in a row.”
“So you know how to figure it out,” Hearth George said.
“Which of the other farmers in your camp know that?”
“I’m sure that some of them could. I don’t think any of them have thought about it.”
“I know, but...”
“That’s what we meant by demonstrating ability. Not only are you able to do something, you actually do it. That’s a valuable thing to us.”
“Let’s go to the office and look at the map.”
“Okay,” Jomo said.
The two men got into a cart and rode off to building complex that was near the field. There were several buildings for storing the tractors and farm equipment. There were a couple of long buildings that Jomo had no clue what they were for. There was a small building that looked like an office.
Hearth George drove straight to the office building. While driving there, Hearth George asked, “Do you know how to read a map?”
“I don’t think so,” Jomo said.
“That’s okay,” Hearth George said. “I’ll teach you.”
“Thank you,” Jomo said.
When they went into the office, Hearth George stopped at a desk and picked up a sheet of paper and a pencil. He gestured Jomo over to the desk and invited him to have a seat. He handed the sheet of paper and pencil to Jomo.
“I have a friend who is going to visit your camp. He’s curious what it is like there. I thought you could draw him a picture of the camp showing where everything is. You know, where the tents are, where the road is, where your wife’s restaurant is in the camp, and where the gardens are. You might want to mark a spot showing where your garden is. Can you do that?”
“Sure,” Jomo said feeling good about being able to help out.
He worked over the drawing for a bit. It wasn’t a very good drawing of the camp, but he was working from memory. The scale in places was a little wrong, but all of the general relationships among the places was more or less accurate.
He handed the piece of paper back to Hearth George while saying, “This is close to how the camp is laid out. I’m not sure where every tent is located.”
“That’s fine. Let me see if I got it,” Hearth George said while looking over the drawing.
He traced a finger along the road and to the camp while saying, “I come down this road until I reach the front of the camp.”
“There’s a building right at the front of the camp that is the main office. Is that right?”
“Next to the office is the school.”
“Walk down this stretch and there’s a restaurant there.”
“My wife’s restaurant,” Jomo said.
“You could cut through here and reach the fields.”
Hearth George said, “This drawing is a good example of a map. You just drew me a map of the camp.”
“I did?” Jomo said surprised.
“That’s right. I figure if you can draw a map, then you can read a map.”
“I guess so,” Jomo said.
Hearth George led Jomo over to a map tacked onto one of the office walls. He said, “This is a map of the agricultural area of the compound and some of the surrounding areas.”
Jomo looked at the map. There were a lot of things shown on it. He listened while Hearth George pointed out various places on the map starting with where they were currently located, the locations of the various fields, where the communities were going to be built, and where the schools would be located. By the time Hearth George finished, Jomo had a pretty good idea where everything was or was going to be.
Heath George said, “Any questions?”
“These are the schools?” Jomo said pointing to the map.
“They are pretty close to the fields.”
“Yes, they are.”
“How many students will be in the schools?”
“I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but let’s assume that one out ten people are of the right age to be in school. That would mean there are about four to five thousand students in all of the schools.”
“Four to five thousand?”
Jomo studied the map. The drawing showed each field and what was being grown in it. He thought about how many students there would be at each of the nearby schools. He thought about how much food had to be harvested each day.
Jomo said, “The students could harvest the crops before school started every morning.”
“That’s a good idea,” Hearth George said.
That was the solution they had come up with. It was nice to hear Jomo suggest it as well.
He asked, “Do you think people would object to having this children do that?”
“Why? Everyone works. Besides, it’s not even that much work for so many people. Four hundred kids could pick a hundred tomatoes each in an hour. That would be forty thousand tomatoes every day. The same number of kids could pick a hundred servings of beans every day. You could have forty crews of a hundred kids each. That’s more than enough. You don’t have that many fields.”
“We have some other areas where we grow things.”
“Let me show you,” Hearth George said.
Jomo followed Hearth George to one of the long buildings. They went inside. Jomo was shocked at the sudden blast of cool air. The interior of the building had a strong rich earthy smell.
“It’s cold in here,” Jomo said.
“This is where we grow crops that don’t do well in hot weather. We have lettuce, spinach, and other leafy vegetables growing in here.”
Jomo looked around the building. It was very long and wide with a glass ceiling to let in the light. There were a large number of A-frame racks with five rows of plastic half-tubes on each side of the frame. The half-tubes ran the length of the building. Growing in the half-tubes were lettuce plants spaced evenly along the length.
“What do you think?” Hearth George asked smiling at the look of wonder on Jomo’s face.