Local harvest helps farmers, families overseas

Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
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It's time for wheat harvesting around central Minnesota. At least two wheat fields here were planted and harvested for a special purpose: to help families overseas to grow their own food and be self-sufficient. Those fields were part of the Foods Resource Bank (FRB) program, a non-denominational food aid program that started 10 years ago.

What's unique about FRB program is that it does not send the wheat grown here to programs overseas. That would be very costly, and would not address the true needs of the recipients. Instead, the wheat is sold and the proceeds invested in agricultural programs in Africa and Thailand, for instance.

About a week before the wheat was gathered, Angela Boss visited Kimball on her way to the FRB annual meeting in Illinois. She has spent two and a half years living and working with the FRB-sponsored program in Gamboula in the southwest corner of Central African Republic (C.A.R.).

The C.A.R. is a land-locked country about the size of Texas, with about 4 million inhabitants. It is the second-least developed country in the world.

Traditionally, families there survive by farming about two acres, raising food for themselves with perhaps a little extra to sell. All the farm work is done by hand, mostly by women, and only four percent of the country's arable land is in use.

Boss, an agricultural specialist, is working to help these families maximize the use of their land in order to stop chronic malnutrition. Malnutrition there, she explained, is caused by lack of variety in the diet, not by draught. And malnutrition causes innumerable problems for people of all ages. (For instance, Boss said, children as young as 6 or 7 are commonly afflicted by blinding cataracts caused by malnutrition.)

The primary food crop in the C.A.R. and much of the world is cassava, a root crop that produces what we know as tapioca. It takes two years to mature, and contains cyanide in its raw form. The process of making cassava edible includes peeling and grating the roots, soaking in water until it's fermented, squeezing, and then drying. It can then be milled into a flour and used to cook into a starchy paste. This process takes time, and it also strips any trace of nutrients (other than pure starch) in the cassava.

There is a serious shortage of meat protein in the C.A.R. because of war and bandits in the area. Peanuts are the primary source of protein.

"Gamboula is like the Garden of Eden," explained Boss. "Anything will grow there."

Boss is part of an agricultural station begun in 1998 by Roy Danforth. They have planted 500 varieties of trees to see which grows best and fastest, has best nutrition, etc. Jackfruit is one of their favorite tree crops: each fruit weighs around 60 pounds, it can be harvested year-round, and it takes only two to three years from seed to fruiting.

The Gamboula program includes 114 farmer co-ops now growing 36,000 fruit trees. To begin with, each farmer is given 25 trees. An added advantage of growing fruit trees is that bandits in the area usually leave them alone.

The Gamboula station serves as an agricultural experimentation and training center, as there is no equivalent to our county extension programs there. They are working hard to find cassava mosaic virus-resistant varieties, as this disease threatens the primary food source in the region. And farmers there welcome the help and are eager to try new things.

Beans are not a traditional crop in the area, but it is encouraged as a protein replacement.

"It's a ripe time to be there," said Boss, adding that people want and need new varieties. Boss and her husband are continuing their education in Canada currently, but plan to return to Gamboula in about a year and a half.

Beyond agricultural projects, the FRB contributes to healthcare and education, housing, and orphanage programs. Sustainability is an important criterion to project selection.

In 2008, more than 490,000 people were involved in 57 growing projects in 38 countries. Nearly $3 million was invested by FRB in its sponsored programs in 32 countries.

One of the reasons the FRB program is well received is that it's more person-to-person help.

"Locals are impressed that funding comes from farmers, not government or NGOs (non-governmental organizations)," Boss explained. Farmers know the struggles and risks associated with raising food, and C.A.R. farmers welcome the help from American and Canadian farmers in the program.

The old model of shipping food and clothing to third-world countries doesn't really help, Boss explained. She cited an example of a Canadian church that each year visits Haiti. For months, the women in the church buy and collect dresses and flip-flops to bring with them on the mission trip. What they don't realize, though, is that there are a number of Haitian business people who would love to make the dresses and flip-flops, and who desperately need the business. By simply providing "better," Western products, these women inadvertently contribute to a declining local market in Haiti, and create inequities and jealousies among the very people they hope to help.

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In the light of full disclosure, my seven acres of well-developed weeds were replaced this spring with a beautiful field of wheat (see photo on page 1). The labor was volunteer, and machinery, seed and fuel were donated or purchased with donated funds. The money from the wheat and straw goes directly into Foods Resource Bank for use in one of their sponsored programs around the world, such as the Gamboula program in C.A.R.

I got involved after doing a story on Barb Vigoren's ten acres of weeds that were converted to wheat for Foods Resource Bank last year. (She participated in the program again this year.)

We got rid of our weeds. Unused fields were used. Fuel and seed is purchased locally, helping our economy. Volunteers here have small, do-able projects that make a visible difference. Wheat was grown and used here in the U.S. Trees were purchased, for example, for farmers in Gamboula. And farmers there are growing more nutritious crops for their families, and have excess for sale. Everybody wins.

For more information on the FRB, check them out on the Web at foodsresourcebank.org.

If you would like to help, call Lloyd Melvie at (320) 894-1084.