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New Agriculturist: Book reviews - An elusive harvest - Working with smallholders in South Africa
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An elusive harvest - Working with smallholders in South Africa

an elusive harvest

By David Catling
Published by Fanele - imprint of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd
Website: www.jacana.co.za
2008, 323pp, ISBN 978 1 92019 610 3(Pb), £17.95

The promise of economic liberation following political freedom has not been realised by most black and coloured South Africans. Still impoverished and living in conditions no better than in the days of apartheid, many continue to be denied employment, income and opportunity for self-improvement. An elusive harvest examines how a small NGO worked for 12 years to help the mainly coloured food-insecure farmers and home gardeners in the rural areas and townships of the Western and Northern Cape Provinces to better themselves.

The NGO was the Land Development Unit (LDU) founded in 1992 by David Catling, who recognised that little was known about these subsistence communities, whose output was so utterly eclipsed by commercial agriculture but which had so much unexploited human potential to achieve so much more. Catling brought to the LDU experience of working with poor subsistence farmers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, South Korea and Thailand; his book tells of the LDU's approaches and methods, achievements and effectiveness, and what it learned that may be useful to others working in similar circumstances.

This is a dense book, with detail on many aspects of planning, execution and analysis, and few may read every chapter with equal interest; while academics and administrators will focus on chapters titled The People, The Agriculture, Advocacy and Dissemination, practical agronomists will be inspired by examples of low-tech methods of cultivation, cropping, irrigation and livestock production that were used successfully with vegetables and fruit in community and school gardens, Honeybush tea production, ostriches, and woodlots. Under largely arid conditions, which are inevitably going to become more widespread with the erratic and reduced rainfall predicted with climate change, it is remarkable to read of a one hectare smallholding where rows of mixed apple, peach and plum were interplanted with vegetables, potatoes and lucerne. To use scarce water sparingly, the simple 'wagon wheel' irrigation system was developed for growing a small but intensive area of vegetables plus fruit trees or vines.

The LDU ceased operations in 2004 due to lack of continued funding from donors but its lessons and inspiration survive in this book.

Date published: September 2009


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