Plowing Ahead: Or why if I had a lot of money I’d give it all to Tillers International

Speaking (as I did in my last post) of the 19th century and the need to draw on the history of localism in a careful and critical way, I’ve recently learned a lot more about Tillers International, based nearby in Scotts, MI. We’ve gone to Harvest Fest at Tillers for many years, my wife has taken a few of their classes (if you talk to her, tell her to make more cheese!), and we used to buy stuff from their former market gardener Gina. So I’ve been aware of their local footprint for awhile, and I’ve known they do some sort of education of African farmers focusing on using animal power. But recently I learned a lot more, and I was totally blown away by how thoughtful their main mission is. It also provides a great example of how the past can inform the present without any pretense of “going back” to some ideal world that never really was.

At a presentation at K. College and then another in a class I’m taking at KVCC as part of their new culinary/brewing/all-things-delicious-and-awesome programs, folks from Tillers showed how they focus on teaching  farming techniques in places like Mozambique and Uganda. Their focus is on practices and technologies that have the promise of boosting productivity with very little capital investment. Animal power is central, since it’s been part of local farming practices for millenia, and so they teach about the training and use of oxen, as well as how to make the yokes, plows, and other necessary implements that go with animal power. This involves a combination of old carving and blacksmithing techniques but also some relatively basic modern ones like welding. Materials include things that can be easily bought or scavenged (pvc pipe, metal from old bicycles) along with locally available woods. The advantage to the farmers is then that they can improvise with what is available rather than relying on external aid (apart from the initial instruction), and once some learn how to make things, train animals, etc., they can teach others. Tillers aid thus stands in pretty sharp contrast to most of the usual Western agricultural aid, which involves donated or subsidized industrial ag equipment, seed, fertilizer, etc., most of which farmers can’t afford to use if the initial aid dries up–and much of which is designed to get local farmers hooked on products that Western corporations can keep selling them. Tillers is really about helping people help themselves, something a lot of “aid” manages to undermine rather than support.

Still, you might wonder (as I did) why this kind of aid is necessary. People have been farming in Africa for millennia, so why do they need Michiganders to teach them? Well, one of the legacies of the end of colonial rule in Africa and the power vacuums that left has been civil war, and that has led to people displaced not only from their land but from the cultural knowledge of farming that had been passed from generation to generation. Tillers aims to fill this knowledge gap, and to share good ideas to those interested in them even where cultural knowledge remains intact. But in neither case are they just imposing an ideal of Western agriculture or trying to create markets for Western products; they’re helping people relearn and when possible improve fairly traditional farming practices in ways that strengthen local self-sufficiency.

So what about that connection to the 19th century I alluded to? It’s not just that they’re teaching techniques whose heyday was back then. It’s much more forward-looking than that. Tillers has a huge collection of 19th century mechanical farm implements given to them by a donor, stuff that comes from the period before major consolidation in the agricultural machinery industry, when every city and state had its tinkerers and inventors and everything that could be dreamed of was being tried out. (Some of these  you can see in the museum they have on their farm in Scotts.) When they are working with farmers to design plows or whatever else, Tillers uses these old implements for inspiration to see what might be possible given available resources and needs in the areas of Africa they are working. So the old isn’t just slavishly imitated, it’s taken as the springboard for creating something new. (There is also, incidentally, a not insignificant amount of technology exchange with the Amish — a phrase that doesn’t get used very often! — for they, of course, still use animal power extensively.)

Farming with animal power may seem like “going back” to the past, but Tillers sees it as part of future progress, not as something static and done, but something that, because of its low-capital nature, has much still to offer. So if you can support Tillers, do so! Donate or take some of their awesome classes. (And just to be clear: they are in no way compensating me for saying any of this, and any errors in the description of their mission are due to me.)

1 thought on “Plowing Ahead: Or why if I had a lot of money I’d give it all to Tillers International”

  1. Writing from Tillers. Lori just showed me the post. We appreciate the thoughtful reflections. It seems you understand what we’re trying to do.

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