On a steeply sloping hillside outside the tiny hamlet of Fontanina in the mountainous Wello region of Ethiopia’s northern highlands, 45-year old Regassa Mohammed has a two-hectare farm. I visited his place one morning recently in the course of researching a magazine story about food – where it comes from and the different ways it’s grown in different parts of the world. Ethiopia seemed like an especially poignant place to visit. It is one of the world’s centers of origin for food, where the wild varieties of some of our most basic crops like wheat, barley and oats were first domesticated thousands of years ago. In 1984, Ethiopia was also the site of one of the worst famines in history. Hundreds of thousands died and millions more were left destitute, a catastrophe that came to the world’s attention during the holiday season, through the charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” followed months later by the “Live Aid” concert. Wello, the region in which Regassa’s farm is situated, was hit particularly hard. A quarter of a century later, I was curious to know how “small-holder” subsistence farmers like Regassa were managing to fulfill that most primal of responsibilities: feeding themselves and their families.
My guide, Genene, and I met Regassa at the front gate to his farm – an arched entranceway that he’d fashioned out of dried sorghum stalks. He then led us inside, and it was as though we were tumbling through a time warp, back to the earliest days of agriculture. Regassa led us into his home, a circular, thatched-roof hut with walls of dried mud and straw, the same type of dwelling built in Ethiopia for centuries. A few chickens flapped across the front yard. A pair of oxen lay to the right of the hut. To the left was a field; it’s earth had been tilled with an ox-drawn plough, then planted by hand, and from it now grew a dizzying array of crops.
There were three types of sorghum: one for milling to make grain for bread and cereal; another for “sweet-stalk,” an equivalent of sugar cane; and the third for “green consumption,” in which the seeds are roasted when still immature and then eaten like nuts. “Intercropped” in the same field with the sorghum were sesame, mustard, beans and niger seed, which is used to make oil. Growing along the field’s margins were garlic, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and large squash that are hollowed out for use as storage containers. Bound stalks of cut sesame, which contained seeds that had yet to mature, leaned against the hut. Further up the hill, Regassa explained, was another half hectare that he rents for growing wheat, barley, chickpeas and tef, which produces a fine grain used for making enjera, the large crepe-like cakes that are the main staple of the Ethiopian diet.
The standard conception of the life of farmers like Jemal’s is one of plodding gradualness and simplicity. Yet compared with the regimented, fully mechanized operations of modern “mono-crop” agriculture, Regassa’s day is a complex and ever-shifting orchestration conducted without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides and in the face of constant threats like untimely downpours, sudden droughts or disease. What little insurance he has, he provides himself, through the use of local seed varieties that have evolved their own defenses and resilience over centuries of selection and refining, and through his multi-tiered planting methods. Intercropping not only makes the most use of limited planting space; it also is a natural way of fertilizing, the tall sorghum gaining their nitrogen and other nutrients from the legumes planted at their base.
The devastation of the 1984 famine is still painfully fresh in the minds of Wello’s farmers. Though Regassa’s crops are all performing well this year, he described himself as being “cautiously optimistic.” He motioned us toward the hut’s front door. “You don’t ever really relax,” he said, “until the harvest is over and you see what you have.”
The room inside was bare, with just some plastic tarps and thin padding on the floor; Regassa passed through another door into a rear cooking area. Moments later, he appeared along with his wife, Tayitis, and their daughter, Sophia, all of them bearing clay or hollowed-out gourd containers filled with what looked at first to be gravel of various colors and shapes.
Seeds. He had ten containers in all – everything from sorghum, wheat and chickpeas to barley, oats and haricot beans. As an added measure of security, before storing them, Jemal’s wife had rubbed all the seeds in the ash that they’d saved from their cooking fires. The ash seals and protects the seeds from being eaten by weevils. I stared at those ashen pebbles: gnarled knots of built-in urge, suggesting neither the centuries of selection and nurturing that informed them, nor the full-fleshed, edible foods that they’ll eventually become.
“These are my security, my back up,” Jemal said. “If we have total crop failure from drought or floods, I can at least plant my fields again.”
Regassa set down the containers, then guided us back outside and across the road to another farm. Regassa’s neighbor, Ahimed, met us at the door of his hut, and we all walked over to a large stone slab set into the ground on the far side of a wooden storage shed. Ahimed lifted away the stone to reveal a shallow pit about a foot deep and 4 feet wide and another, smaller stone slab at its center. Jemal hopped in and lifted that slab to expose a hole barely 2 feet wide. He stuck his legs in the hole and held his arms straight in the air. Ahimed took hold of Jemal’s hands and lowered him in, Jemal’s slight shoulders briefly catching against the hole’s sides before the whole of him disappeared.
I knelt down and peaked inside. There was Jemal standing in an earthen chamber roughly 6 feet deep and wide: an emergency underground food store. In a few weeks, Jemal said, when the harvest was complete, they would line the chamber with straw, fill it to the brim with different grains, then pull the stone slabs back over. The earth’s chill would keep fresh what could well be their only source of sustenance should the next planting season’s crops fail.
Jemal’s hands reached up now into the light. Ahimed took hold of them and in one swift motion pulled his friend back out among us. I had Genene ask them how much they’d had to rely on their emergency store during the famine of 1984. They mumbled a response before falling completely silent. Genene gave me a wave of his finger signaling that the conversation was over. It was difficult for them, he explained, to recall those days. They had felt confident enough to sell some of their stored grain that year at market, never anticipating the terrible famine ahead. Things got so bad that year they were eventually driven to do the unthinkable: eat their own seeds, their last hope, their future.
“Until we know what the harvest will bring us,” Regassa said, “we don’t even think of selling our grain now. Our first responsibility is to live.”
Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”