Planting Seeds of Ag Development

It was over two years ago, but Lori Lang often thinks about the women farmers she met in the Kamuli district of Uganda.

Iowa women farmers, including Lang (’97 agricultural education) and five other agriculture and life sciences alums, traveled to Uganda in 2011 and 2012 as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development Farmer-to-Farmer project. A total of seven, two-week trips were made during that time. Two to three Iowa farmers and an Iowa State University Extension staff member made the journey each time, armed with plans to continue to work collaboratively with women farmers in the Kamuli district to increase their income and their quality of life.

“When I get nervous about the agricultural outlook for profitability on my farm, I think about those women. They are so inspiring,” says Lang, who went on two of the trips.

Low rainfall and poor soil quality are challenges for the district’s farmers. Farms average two to four acres. Families rely on their crops for food and cash income. Their only farm implements may be a hoe and machete. And, years of civil war in northern Uganda has slowed development throughout the country. “They’ve had a very difficult time – more difficult than I’m going to face. Still they show up and they want to improve their agricultural practices,” says Lang.

In Vincent, Iowa, Lang and her brother farm 2,000 acres. As business partners, they raise corn and soybeans, seed soybeans, rye, oats and alfalfa. They also have some sheep and pasture.

Lasting impacts

Lang says she was nervous when setting out on her second trip to Uganda in August 2012. She didn’t want to be disappointed if the changes the Iowa and Ugandan farmers worked on together had not continued. When Lang left Uganda in August of 2011, the 80 Ugandan farmers were using tarps on which to dry their maize (white, edible corn) in lieu of the previous practice of drying the grain on the ground. They were using their crop record books and teaching others how to use them. They had joined together in groups of 10 to 20 with hopes of increasing their marketing power. They had experimented with a bicycle-powered maize sheller to replace the practice of putting ears of maize in bags and beating the bags with a stick, and they had made plans to purchase a bicycle dedicated to shelling maize – one for each of the 10 groups of women. In addition, each woman had been given 13 pounds of soybean seed.

“Soybean is a good protein crop and we knew that their diet was somewhat protein deficient,” says Margaret Smith, program specialist with Iowa State’s Value Added Agriculture Extension Program. Smith and Linda Naeve, program specialist, co-managed the Ugandan Farmer-to-Farmer project. “There is a soybean breeding program with Makerere University in Uganda we thought, let’s give some improved seed from that program to the women and see how it grows in this district,” Smith shared.

When Lang arrived back in Uganda in August 2012, her concerns were quickly put to rest. “They were doing wonderfully,” says Lang. All 10 cooperative groups had established bank accounts and constitutions enabling them to do collective marketing. With the addition of the bicycle-operated maize shellers the women had been able to provide better quality maize to their families and local buyers, store it longer and sell when the price was higher. Though soybean yields were inconsistent, the women were excited to talk about how much their families were enjoying eating them and benefiting from cash sales, as well.

Lang says, “The innovation they added to soybeans was amazing. They were making baby formula for moms that struggled with nursing. They were grinding it and making cakes with it. They had found uses beyond the traditional U.S. uses. A lot of women said, “I feel full and my cheeks are rosier.””

One woman showed Lang her child and said, “Look how great my child is doing.”

The Ugandan women who sold a portion of their soybean crop found that when soybeans yields were good, they were more profitable per acre than maize. The difference in income had enabled many to keep their children in school and increase household food security.

Innovation leads to progress

During the November 2011 work exchange, the Ugandan women had reported they were getting sick from the soybean cleaning process they used. The women winnowed the soybeans by hand. Placing the soybeans in a flat basket, they toss small batches, into the air and used their breath to blow away the chaff. The method was very effective, but time-consuming and the dust was unhealthy for the women’s respiratory system and inflamed their sinuses. In response, Smith has since collaborated with Tom Brumm, associate professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering, to obtain a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for the development of a portable, mechanical grain aspirator/fanning mill, which could be used as a model and further developed by Ugandan industry, if found to be beneficial. Indeed it was.

In August 2012 Lang and April Hemmes (’82 animal science), a corn-soybean farmer in Hampton, Iowa, returned to Uganda as experienced volunteers with mechanical skills, assembled the ISU-developed prototype and demonstrated it to each farm group. The prototype was able to reduce a previously 4-hour winnowing process to half an hour and reduce farmer exposure to airborne soybean dust and chaff.

Common ground

Both Lang and Hemmes are grateful for the experiences in Uganda. They talk about the many similarities between them and Ugandan farmers. Hemmes, who has traveled extensively, including market tours with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, says, “One of the great things to come out of this experience is it confirms farmers are the same the world over. Farmers want to keep their crop for a better price, but they sell when they need money. They care about their children and families. And most of all, farm women are strong, entrepreneurial and intelligent.”

Other CALS alumni who participated in the exchanges were: Sheila Hebenstreit (’80 horticulture), Jenny Thomas (’77 animal science), Cindy McCollough (’81 animal science) and Connie Tjelmeland (’76 botany, MS ’81 agronomy). ISU Extension and Outreach Value Added Agriculture Program coordinated the program with the Center for Rural Livelihoods and VEDCO, a non-profit organization based in Uganda.