Valuing Farmers as an Agricultural Development Priority

The challenge we are asked to address here today is the way forward in adding value when meeting future agricultural priorities. This challenge presents several issues that need to be addressed, many of which have already been addressed by our speakers yesterday and today.

There is broad consensus that reducing global poverty and hunger requires accelerating growth in the agriculture sector. Recent studies suggest that every 1 percent increase in agricultural income per capita reduces the number of people living in extreme poverty by between 0.6 and 1.8 percent. There is no question that South Sudan has the potential to become food secure and raise incomes through a government-led program of agricultural development.

That said, there is much space to improve coordination amongst the government, donors and private sector to ensure our efforts have maximum impact. We have heard President Kiir set the goal of food security by 2014. Now is the time for us all to come together and do our best to support the Government of South Sudan in achieving that goal. I hope that through this conference, innovative ideas have been shared, barriers to growth illuminated, and solutions to those barriers identified. I hope all of our collective ideas will enable the Government to develop a clear strategy towards food security and identify gaps where the donors and private sector can provide support.

But now, I would like to take a different tack and talk about the market and the farmers. After all, no agricultural policy can succeed without strong markets and smart farmers.

Both the United States and the EU countries have long experience in agricultural policy setting, as well as in advancing economic development through agriculture. We have many successes of which we can be justifiably proud, but we have also had some notable failures worthy of your study and consideration. In formulating policies for the South Sudanese government, I urge you to look carefully at the farm policies of other countries in an effort to learn from both the successes and the mistakes – and there are plenty of both. In North America and Europe, you should especially look at whether the agricultural policies promote a model of farming that is truly self-sustaining or one that is dependent on large-scale commercial farming and government subsidies to survive.

For example, in the United States right now, some of the most innovative and transformative changes in agriculture are taking place on the low end of the technology scale. Organic agriculture is growing rapidly as not only customers decide they prefer organic food products that are free of artificial fertilizers, growth hormones, and chemical pesticides and herbicides, but also because beginning farmers are learning that the cost barriers to entry are far lower and profit margins are often higher when they adopt a low-tech and low-input approach to farming. Many customers are also choosing to buy meat products that come from animals raised in more humane and natural ways than is often the case with industrial-scale farms. Americans pay a premium for eggs that come from chickens grazing out in the open and eating bugs and grubs, the way most chickens live naturally in Africa. They pay a high price for beef raised only on grass in open pastures, the way all cows are raised in South Sudan. All of these approaches require that farmers be true agricultural professionals, men and women who love farming, who love working with plants and animals, and see themselves as stewards of the earth, working the land to provide for the current generation, while improving that land for the next one.

Across the United States today, we are seeing growing numbers of men and women of all ages, including graduates just out of their university studies to middle-aged people looking for a career change, to older people about to retire, looking to reconnect with the land through farming. Young families are finding that they can make a living off their farms if they make the right choices. They are finding out that farming can be a very pleasant activity that engages their children if they make the right choices. In fact, we are now seeing that farming is in many ways the wave of the future, the new “cool” for many young people who are embracing the choices that promote better food, better health, and a better environment.

Let’s look more closely at what the market is demanding of farmers in the West. Those grocery stores that sell LOCAL and/or organic foods are booming. Farmers’ Markets, where farmers sell directly to consumers without any middlemen, are growing all over America. Demand for organic foods is ahead of production, driving up the prices. Consumers are demanding that the meat, milk, and eggs they consume come from animals humanely raised and slaughtered, after a lifetime of eating natural foods. Young mothers are choosing baby foods that are made from ingredients that are not genetically modified and are grown free of pesticides and herbicides. Actually, what they are demanding can already be supplied by the farmers of South Sudan whose traditional farming methods fit this model of agriculture. I am talking about small-scale local farmers, exactly like many of the farmers here in South Sudan.

So what are we doing in the West to meet this demand? Interestingly, the farmers who are best able to meet this rapidly growing demand for these premium-priced foods are very often the ones who are using the simplest technologies and the oldest farming practices. Much of the so-called "innovation" in American agriculture today is just as often about rediscovering the tried-and-true methods of a century ago as it is about the latest scientific advances. Books that are 50, 75, or even a hundred years old are in high demand and are being reprinted as farmers rediscover the old techniques. As more and more educated young people - especially women - take up farming in America, we are seeing a transformation in American agriculture that relies on the skills and knowledge of the farmer and not a blind faith in technology.

We are also learning from the African experience as more and more farmers adopt rotational grazing practices that were first developed in South Africa and Namibia. These practices are proving that over-grazed, worn out land can be renewed and rejuvenated by cattle and other grazing animals, as long as the grazing is intelligently managed. The African top bar bee hive – and I saw several vendors selling these out here in the fairgrounds yesterday – is growing in popularity as American beekeepers learn that this is a more natural way for bees to make honey. We are turning to Africa and Latin America to rediscover heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables and even grasses that are no longer found in North America. The key here is the adoption of smart thinking, turning to farmers and nature for answers rather than merely to science. What we are seeing is a revolution in smart thinking by farmers who know the market, who see farming as an intellectual challenge and face that challenge using their education and the willingness to adopt good techniques, no matter where they come from.

At the same time, however, we have seen the harmful side effects of an industrial agriculture that is unleashed on a country without constraints and careful planning. In America, we have seen the depopulation of rural areas as farm profit margins declined and farms were consolidated into fewer, but larger farms, with decreasingly low profit margins. Fortunately for American farmers, most of them could be absorbed into the manufacturing sector, but this is seldom the case in developing countries where unemployed poor people, fresh from the farms, crowd urban areas, which are not prepared to tackle the challenges of such migration.

Furthermore, we have sadly seen the number of suicides among American farmers increase over the years, while in such developing countries as India, Pakistan, Iraq, and many others, the number of farmer suicides have increased considerably as farmers fell into unmanageable debt due to expensive agricultural inputs they could neither afford nor even needed prior to adopting certain technologies. What this demonstrates most of all is that farmers and government planners must choose wisely in making changes and not blindly accept everything that is offered to them.

Pollution of waterways by the runoff of insecticides and pesticides is also well-documented, not only in the United States but in many other countries where DDT and other dangerous chemicals are still used. Improper application, waste, excessive use, and other human errors have exacerbated this problem, thus highlighting the importance of managing any such applications correctly. Honeybees, vital to the pollination of so many plants and crops, have been massively killed off in many areas, almost certainly due to pollution of their environment.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is the effect on land of such modern agricultural practices as mono-cropping and excessive chemical applications. Flooding in many of these areas is rampant because the soil can no longer absorb the water it once easily absorbed and topsoil erodes away more quickly than nature can rebuild it. As profit margins continue to decline, farmers who survive in the market must have larger and larger farms to the point that some farmers with thousands of acres of land are barely able to break even in today’s commodity markets.

But this is not the way it has to be. Even large-scale commercial farms in the U.S. are discovering that a three or four-year crop rotation combined with high quality seed can greatly reduce the need for chemical inputs. Diversified farms are finding that problems with weeds and insects can often be greatly reduced when mono cropping is avoided and various crops are raised together. Mixing animals with crops can hold down insect and weed populations while supplying nutrient-rich manure at no cost to the farmer.

However, one of the most interesting and exciting developments in small farms is that more and more farmers are turning to draft animals - namely horses, mules, and oxen - to provide all the power they need for operating mechanical implements. Earlier this year, I participated in two workshops in the United States where I learned to plow and use other implements first with horses and then with oxen. Besides enjoying learning how to work with draft animals, I was most impressed with the other students – men and women of all ages who were actually farming with draft animals and making a living at it! Every one of them was university-educated, too, and one was even a concert violinist. These were not people pursuing a hobby - they were intelligent, well-educated FARMERS and they were using the most traditional methods available in their work.

I was especially pleased yesterday as I walked around the fairgrounds to see plows, planters, and other implements specifically made for oxen and horse power being promoted. Such technology is highly appropriate for small scale farmers and holds great potential for increasing South Sudan’s agricultural productivity.

What all of this points to is this. There are many ways to farm and there is no one way that is right for everyone. In fact, a carefully-chosen mix of agricultural technologies and techniques is usually the right choice and it does not always involve the latest, most innovative methods. For example, one of the most productive and profitable groups of farmers in America, at least on a per-acre basis, is the Amish, a Christian religious group that carefully evaluates all technologies before adopting them, rejecting many of them in the process if they believe they are not good for their people or their land, the stewardship of which is a religious duty commanded by God.

These farmers live in communities where the dominant power on the farm is horse power, animal manure and green manure usually supply most of the fertilizer, and chemical inputs are used sparingly, if at all. The entire family works together, providing all the labor needed on the farm. The women are active participants in the farm economy, often managing beehives, vegetable gardens, and selling produce in farmers' markets, while the men do the heavier work required on any farm. These farmers do not have Internet or television, they normally have only an eighth grade education, and yet their farms have a much higher profit margin and earn more per acre than the so-called modern farms with tractors, expensive chemical inputs, and large mono crops sold on the commodities market. They also do not accept farm subsidies as they do not want or need them. In short, they are quite possibly the most successful farmers in America.

So to get back to our original question, how do we add value while meeting the South Sudanese government's agricultural development priorities? What is the way forward to Fourth Sudan’s agricultural sector?

First of all, I would urge you to think about the farmers themselves. The most important innovation in agriculture is smart thinking by farmers. Good farmers must be good husbandmen, know and appreciate their livestock, understand plants and plant physiology, and accept nature as the ideal model for the diversified farm. This requires education and sound leadership in the field. It is why the U.S. government is contributing to improving the John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology and working with Juba University and the Catholic University to set up a demonstration farm, teacher training, and other programs to advance agricultural education.

We are also working with our South Sudanese counterparts in the three equatorial states to set up extension offices with knowledgeable extension workers at the state and payam levels to work directly with farmers to help them in evaluating and adopting new methods, new technologies and new products. Farmers and the extension agents who guide them should think progressively about adoption of the new, but not accept the new blindly, just because it is new. Avoidance of excessive debt and thinking in the long-term about what will be truly sustainable for both the environment and the farm itself will go a long way to ensure the success of South Sudan’s farmers.

These farmers must also be able to know their markets – where are they? How do they connect with them? Which crops are demanded in which areas? Farmers need better access to knowledge, not merely in production, but also in the market. Farmers need to have access to information, to know the fair market value of their crops, when to take them to market and how to get there. They need to know how to add value to those crops – better harvesting, storage and handling techniques, and small scale minimal processing such as drying, packaging and milling. Farming is a business and it can be quite a profitable one. When farmers have access to information, the transformation will begin.

Second, look to your own farming traditions and the African experience in general at the same time you look abroad to learn from the experiences of others. Farming with oxen, for example, while not as sexy as using expensive new tractors, might be a better choice for many small holders as it will allow them to farm more land than they can now by hand, thereby generating a surplus for the market. Rotational grazing of cattle, goats, sheep, and even chickens and other poultry can increase the size of herds and flocks AND improve the land if done properly and may very well be a better fit with South Sudanese cultural traditions.

Third, when you send your students abroad to study and when you acquire materials for use in universities here at home, consider the full range of options available. The new technologies and chemical products certainly have their place in certain applications, but there is no “one size fits all” approach that will solve every problem. Look to the sustainable farming movement, look at organic agriculture, look at draft animals and mechanization, and look to your own traditions. Also look at the many seed options that are available, both open pollinated and genetically modified, as well as chemical applications that may be more suitable for spot treatments than mass applications. Look at equipment that may be suitable for some large-scale applications, but not small ones. Look at simple technologies that may be more appropriate to small scale farmers. Look at the transition – think big, but remember we are starting small. Consider all the options and choose what is best for South Sudan and its farmers – not necessarily what is best for the donors, vendors, and those pushing new products.

Finally, I would say that the BEST way to add value is to make farmers valuable. As a society, honor farmers and the work they do. Celebrate the successful herdsman and the successful plowman who can increase yields without harming the environment. Make farming an attractive profession that will draw the interest of young people, even those living in the cities. The smart thinking needed in farming today can be done by women as well as men, so give them the space and the means to contribute more than just simple field labor. Demonstrate in word and deed that smart farming is the way of the future and it is the future of South Sudan. By valuing your farmers and the vital work they do, and investing in their education, you will see great value added as these men and women adopt technologies and techniques in a smart manner and build a sustainable base for agriculture that will generate wealth and food security for the people of South Sudan for many generations to come.

Thank you.

NOTE: This speech was prepared for delivery at the Second Annual Agriculture Fair and Conference in Juba, South Sudan, sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries of the Republic of South Sudan.



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