Cows, bees and chickens in a bag

Mark’s got a bee in his bonnet. He’ll tell you it’s tinnitus, but I know it’s not. I know it’s that little bee buzzing around inside his head. Sit with him long enough, and trust me I do, and he’ll get onto his favourite hobby horse ummmm I mean subject.

You see since he’s been here, he’s become increasingly interested in nutrition, and in particular the reasons why a country with plenty of water, a reasonably temperate climate, decent growing conditions and a fairly fertile soil still doesn’t seem to be able to feed its inhabitants.

Now I know he’s not expecting Timor-Leste to turn into the breadbasket of South East Asia, or the next big dairy producer. There’s a story about the Aussies bringing in dairy cows…no real research, some hints of misspending, a bit of “she’ll be right mate ” with the resulting outcome, no milk and heaps of dead cows. Australia’s past failures withstanding, he has become mighty interested in who’s growing what, where and how.

For Mark I think it’s the maths and stats he loves. His background on the farm has given him a passionate dispassion about the growing of food. Like some giant complex excel spreadsheet the workings appear something like this: take this much land, prepare pasture thus, add this many beasts, send in this type of male, get these sorts of babies, grow them for this amount of time, add in this amount of additional food, water, nutrients, wait again for this amount of time and like sorting the formula in excel, click this button and get this back in the bank…and repeat. All things going to plan. Which obviously with farming isn’t often the case. 

Same goes for crops, vegetables, fruits and other plants. 

He’s become amazingly aware, thanks in part to some of the very small girls who have hung out at his office (eating a meagre 500 calories a day) but mainly from the huge amount of reading he’s done, that malnutrition is a HUGE deal when you want a population to thrive. It impacts on everything from education outcomes to maternal mortality. We were out in a village a couple of weeks ago, and the girls had a real gingery tinge to their hair. I thought, here’re some of “my people”. It turns out that hint of red is caused mainly by protein deficiency.

There’s been a lot of reading and thinking and poking around, a lot of conversations (a lot…I spend pretty much 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with him, so I know, sigh) but last weekend Mark got the chance to really see what was going on courtesy of a kind invitation from a Timorese colleague to join him at his family property.

It’s a 5 and a half hour motorbike ride East along the coast and then inland to the district of Manufahi and the area of Alas. Mark’s keen to have a conversation with the farmers about the opportunity to use Gallagher’s solar electric fencing to, at the very least, keep the stock in place. Once you know where they are you can manage supplemental feeding, and breeding programmes. 

It’s a matriachial village of around 200 people. Mark’s colleague is one of 9 siblings. Their mother passed away last year. Land is owned both collectively and individually with the village collective most concerned with growing enough rice and vegetables to feed everyone with individuals keeping cattle, pigs, chicken and goats.

There are about 300 wild horses up in the hills. 

There’s plenty of water, a main river runs through the village and lots of underground springs, the land is fertile and produces coconuts, bananas and coffee.

He visits Granddad who has left the family home and lives out in the fields so he can keep an eye on the cattle. Not just protecting them, but protecting the valuable plants that are being grown to feed the villagers…a hungry cow can do a lot of damage, and make for some pretty unhappy neighbours.

Grandads hut

Granddad sleeps on a platform on a grass mat. He reaches the platform, barefoot and up a ladder. The closest estimation is that he’s around about 95. 

Later in the night while they sit and talk someone mentions they’re thirsty and the nearest kid clambers up the tree and drops down coconuts to be briskly cut open and drunk. Mark asks for a glass (you’ve got to love him).

Several of the villagers gather to discuss the fencing, the opportunities to give it a try and see how it goes. Mark answers questions where he can.

They’re interested in making changes, there’s no sense of reluctance but rather a real desire and interest in giving things a crack. As dusk approaches he’s fascinated to see one of the women call the chickens in. They arrive, chicks in toe, eat a bit of scattered rice then all individually climb into baskets on the ground which are then hung up on hooks. Hens and chicks safely tucked up for the night, making that noise contented chooks make, like a sort of poulty purring. He goes to sleep on a mat, it’s surprising cold, about 17 degrees and he’s left all his clothes on. 

It’s 6am in the morning and breakfast is boiled bananas and a doughy bun. And very very sweet, very very strong coffee. Everything is still cooked on a wooden fire, although power to the main house also offers a rice cooker and a camp oven for the bread. Nourished, clean from a bucket shower and off for a walk across the land. He loves this kind of thing. Many of the cattle have recently calved so they’re hard to find, they’re red like the dust and disguised in the scrub. Completely organic, fed only salt as a supplement, the ones he does see are sleek, shiney, lush. They’re not used to being handled, you’d not be able to lead one into a pen for a vet inspection. Well you could, except there’re no real pens and no rural vets.

His colleague tells him he’s the first malae (white visitor) to have been in the village for 20 years. He should have quessed as much by the kids’ reactions. Big eyes, mostly staring. Loud whispers. A few giggles and the odd prod to the bravest one to approach him. He brought a block of Whittakers’ chocolate from my stash from my last trip to NZ and had to explain, twice, what it was. 

He comes home and says to me ‘I was almost completely wrong”. Every preconceived idea he had, all the maths and stats just won’t work here. The solar powered fence is still a go, but it’s just one small solution in a vastly bigger issue. Fix one thing and then see how to fix the 200 others.

But even more significant, perhaps there’s no need to “fix” that original list he thought he had. Well not straight away. Taking what’s essentially a free-range herd to a domesticated herd (think the NZ deer industry in the 70’s) while not losing the advantages of being truly organic, and sustainable and without adopting any of the negative BIG farming issues prevalent in a whole lot of factory farming worldwide. Keeping the ethos of collective land use, land rights, water safety, support for families and authentic honest discussions that benefit everyone while delivering a growth strategy will be a delicate balancing act. 

Finding a way to grow more “protein” on the same amount of land could vastly change the outcomes for those 60% of subsistence farmers living outside Dili, making less than 1 dollar a day.

Mark’s talking to Gallagher’s. There’s a chance for some funding to get some fencing kits to trial. He’ll be back out to Alas before we leave to see how it goes. There’s a lot to be said for having a bee in your bonnet.

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