Could you farm... if you had never been trained in agriculture?

Christopher D'Aiuto is a soil scientist that was on staff at ECHO from 2011-2013, as part of the research team in South Africa. He and ECHO’s East Africa Director Erwin Kinsey traveled to Tzaneen, Limpopo, South Africa in March to conduct a five-day sustainable agriculture training.

The training was for 25 leader farmers from multiple churches within Limpopo Church Network (LCN) and other government officers from the area, supported by the Willow Creek Church.  These leader farmers will be able to pass on what they have learned to many others through their churches and communities. An unexpected outcome has been the willingness of government officers who attended to support follow-up work through visits to the trainees over the next few months. This was especially encouraging to the entire group. 

by Christopher D'Aiuto

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After Apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa started a voluntary land reform program where the government would pay farmers for their property and redistribute it for free to peoples disadvantaged by Apartheid. Largely, I've only heard the sad stories of how this land's crop production is diminished, the land is sold for cash, or just used to build a house.

I was very intrigued to learn that many of the farmers at this training had been given their farms through this land reform program. They said that the government never offered training on how to farm once they took over. This week-long training was the first in-depth agricultural workshop they'd ever had. Despite a lack of farming education, they had learned most of what they needed to start up from their experienced neighbors. Impressively, some of our trainees were selling to large South African regional markets and even exporting fruits and vegetables to Europe. These achievements were the best success stories I'd ever heard from land reform, and have given me so much hope that South Africa will move forward to be a country with more equality and fairness without losing food security. There is great need to keep teaching these emerging farmers!

On the first day Erwin and I demonstrated soil principles about the effects of tillage and mulching on water infiltration and erosion. The trainees were astounded to see how much soil is eroded during a simple rain after being tilled and left with a bare surface. When they saw how little water went into the soil and how much soil was washed away, many of them vowed to till their soil less and to try minimal tillage implements. 

After teaching a session on Integrated Pest Management, one farmer, who was a very quiet student, came up to me and commented that he had never been told that there are things he can do to prevent pest and diseases from attacking his crops! He said his agricultural suppliers only ever wanted to sell him more and more chemical sprays to treat problems after they happened. He said he would start using control methods to prevent infestations, reducing or eliminating the need for chemical treatments. 

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The facilitators and hosts of the workshop, Linda and Johnson, were an inspiring and incredible example of how much faithful farmers can accomplish. In only a few years living on this farm they are exporting dried sweet potatoes, and sending zucchini and green beans to regional markets. On the farm they use worm compost and tea, have demonstration kitchen garden options, and use legumes, that they received from ECHO, as a green manure. They prayerfully hosted this exceptional training workshop, and showed their deep interest in teaching farming from a biblical perspective. Their example and hard work was a blessing to all the farmers who attended, and especially to Erwin and me. They are the most inspiring farmers I've ever met.