Starting a new 15-acre orchard is big job anywhere. Starting an orchard this size the traditional way– reclaiming overgrown tropical bush with only manual labor — is huge.
The first priority for the Rotary grant is planting a new 15-acre “Baby Orchard.” This forward-thinking project will ensure Bumpeh Chiefdom children go to secondary school for years to come, with orchard income funding newborn baby education savings accounts. Hence the name, Baby Orchard.
Work is underway and on a tight schedule, as the annual rains started in May. Here’s the step by step process.
First, suitable land was acquired in February. You can’t purchase and own land outright in Sierra Leone. It belongs collectively to the people of a chiefdom. You get rights to rent land from the family who has traditional rights to using it.
Paramount Chief Caulker, left blue shirt, negotiated the land for the new orchard shown here from a family in the tiny village of Roponga, just outside Rotifunk.
It will be easily accessible and serve as a demonstration orchard for visitors. Chief said this extended family did a lot of work for his father fifty years ago. They’ll now be rewarded with rental income for the land and jobs working in the orchard for years to come.
The Roponga orchard land has been part of shifting agriculture, where land is farmed for two or three years, then left fallow when fertility drops. This land hasn’t been used for some years, and is considered “strong bush.” To not waste its fertility and to produce short-term income, annual crops of rice and peanuts were inter-planted with fruit trees seedlings. With fruit trees spaced 25-30 feet apart for their eventual mature size, there’s plenty of room to raise other crops between them.
The land was first manually “brushed” in March, the dry season. Dozens of men spent two weeks cutting back all the small trees, bushes and weeds they could with machetes. A guy with a chain saw followed, cutting down medium-sized trees. All was left to dry for 4 weeks.
With no mechanized equipment to clear the land, it must be burned. This land dried well for a “good burn” in April. If farmers brush too late, or rain comes too early, they are not so lucky.
Chief sighed on the phone when I said people here will object to burning. “We’d be here for the rest of the year with a small army trying to remove all the trees and brush from 15 acres if we couldn’t burn,” he said. At least, for an orchard, it will only be burned once. Fruit trees once planted will be maintained for the next 25 years or more.
A well was dug in April to reach the lowest dry season water level. If you dig after the rains start, you won’t get deep enough, and will run out of water come next dry season. This well was dug by hand 7 or 8 meters deep — over 20 feet. A guy is down in the hole filling buckets with dirt and stones hoisted up with a chain over the strong bamboo frame. The well will be lined with concrete so it won’t collapse, and a hand pump installed to keep young tree seedlings watered during coming dry seasons.
Men cleared the orchard land again, using a chain saw to cut remaining small trees and tree limbs that didn’t burn.
Little goes to waste in Bumpeh Chiefdom. To make extra income for the orchard, these cut trees were collected to make charcoal. It’s an in-demand product in a country where the great majority of people still cook outside on wood or charcoal, even in cities. They produced 1,000 bags of charcoal that will offset costs to start the orchard.
By mid-May, the orchard was finally ready to plant. Five acres of peanuts and five acres of rice were planted. This is back- breaking work, where the now bare soil is broken with small hand hoes. Peanut seed held in makeshift waist pouches is dropped in the soil and covered again as they go.
Upland rice followed, planted the same way. The yield is less than rice planted in swamp water, but grows nonetheless in the area’s heavy monsoon rains peaking in July – August.
Within ten days, the peanuts and rice were germinating. In five months, they’ll be ready to harvest.
June is tree planting time and coconut and fruit tree seedlings went in. 450 coconuts and 700 citrus and guava raised by the project from seed were planted.
The land is “pegged” with posts driven into the ground every 25 – 30 feet to space trees for their future mature canopies.
This is lowland tropical rainforest, where coconuts grow at their best. Within 5 years, they’ll be producing a bounty of coconuts.
L-R, Chief Caulker, CCET Managing Director Rosaline Kaimbay, Stalin Caulker and Kalilu Sannoh admire one of 450 coconuts just planted.
Trees raised from seed in the nearby project tree nursery. Chief Caulker, above, stands among 5,000 orange seedlings planted for next year. Other trees like cashew and avocado will be added to the orchard, as well as banana and plantain.
Guava is like a large bush and fast growing. It will be producing fruit within 18 months of planting, and fruits twice a year. Banana and plantain will produce a year after planting, and keep sending out offshoots for year-round fruit. More short term income for the project.
Chief Caulker plans to use the program for demonstration, showing visitors how they, too, can start low-cost community-led projects. And grow their own way to a new future.