MUMINA ALI, her leathery face encircled by a blue scarf, gestures at her sparse sorghum crop near this Somali village. There are big spaces between the stalks.
"It's not a good crop," she says.
Yet to Somali and Western agricultural experts, such a crop is part of an encouraging trend: The country where 300,000 have starved to death in the past two years is growing a small, but steadily increasing portion of its own food again.
"Last year farmers said: `Give us seeds,' " says Paul Oberson, head of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) team in nearby Baidoa. "This year they say: `Buy our seeds.' That's the restart of agriculture."
Many relief agencies plan to buy some seeds from more successful farmers to distribute to those who have little or no harvest. This allows a larger number of farmers to save enough seed to plant for the main season in April.
But as a visit to this village and nearby fields shows, farmers are unable to farm where looting and fighting between militias continue. Displaced farmers who have fled to Kur Kurow, for example, complain of continued looting in their area to the south.
And farmers need a temporary supply of tools, seeds, and food relief to support themselves until they can produce normal-sized crops, Somali and Western agricultural experts say.
"We'll need at least eight more months of food relief" in this region, until the next harvest is ready, says Awe Sheikh Muheidin, a Somali employee of the United Nations in Baidoa.
In December, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said Somalia as a whole will need "substantial" food aid "over the next two to three years."
The current short-rain harvest, which will be completed by mid-February, ranges from "one-third nothing, to one-third poor, to one-third good," says Kevin Tobin, of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Baidoa, who took part in a UN-sponsored crop survey of the region. Late planting, lack of seeds, and uneven rains were among the problems.
Like many other farmers in central Somalia, Mrs. Mumina, a widow, fled her home in l990, returning only in mid-1992 when things had calmed down. She arrived too late for the normal April planting, but went ahead anyway.
Usually she saves about 50 kilos (110 pounds) of seeds from the previous harvest to sew in the next one. This time she had no stock and could afford to buy only about 9 kilos (20 pounds) worth.
Many farmers are still in urban feeding centers such as Baidoa, uncertain about food aid if they return to their villages. A number of villages in this area are still entirely or nearly empty.
"Our goal is to get people back by April," the main planting season, says Todd Stoltzfus, an agricultural expert working in the Baidoa office of World Vision, a US-based relief and development organization. "We're trying to make as frequent deliveries as possible. Word will get out that they really are getting food."
Word does seem to be getting out, as relief agencies such as CARE, CRS, World Vision, and the ICRC have increased their rural distributions since US-led forces began escorting food convoys to villages in December.
THE ICRC recently closed 14 feeding kitchens in Bai-doa. Not enough people came to justify their continuance. Those still showing up are referred to other kitchens in town.
In Kur Kurow, women lined up to receive a two-week, 55-pound supply of sorghum from World Vision. Relief workers say women are more dependable in getting such aid to their families than are men, who are tempted to sell food for khat, a mild stimulant.
"We haven't got any seed," says Khadija Mohamed Ibrahim, a woman who has arrived for the sorghum and who walks with the help of a slender wooden pole.
Ali Osman Ali, an elderly man, says residents of Kur Kurow suffered greatly when they ran away from the fighting in the area. "There were sometimes three days when we wouldn't have any food," he says. "We ate leaves and skins of animals."
A walk through the village found few signs of food stocks, and only scattered indications of cattle. Before the forces loyal to former Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre came here, "We were okay" Mr. Ali says. "We had livestock, sorghum. He stole everything."