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Big Farms In Africa’s Breadbasket

Africa, for most of us, instills thoughts of hungry children and AIDS. Expansive fields of wheat and soybeans, and new combines chewing their way through bountiful crops grown under irrigation are not images of Africa that spring to mind. But the second is as true of Africa as the first. Although far outnumbered by small-scale farmers, the large commercial farms are the ones that bring food stability to many African countries.

As regular short-term agriculture volunteers to Zambia, Africa, we spend most of our time with small-scale farmers. But sometimes we have the opportunity to visit a commercial farm. Driving into one of their yards we often feel we’re coming “home.” With Westeel bins equipped with a Sukup stirring machine, with newer models of John Deere combines, air seeders, and tractors, and with semi trailers hauling grain, they look much like the yards of a Canadian grain farmer. Many farms in Zambia can rival anything we have in the Canadian Prairies.

Flying into Lusaka International Airport, one sees the irrigated crop circles from the air. Alan Miller is one of the farmers working these irrigated fields. He crops 1,500 acres, half of which is under irrigation and double cropped. He plants corn and soybeans in October or November, at the start of the rainy season. The rains last from November to April, with the main precipitation coming from December to February. In May, at the beginning of the cold season (their “winter”), he will plant wheat, all under irrigation. There is no rain at all from April to October.

Besides the field crops, Alan grows about 150 acres of cabbage. He calls this his cash crop. Daily he takes 8,000 to 10,000 cabbage heads to markets in nearby Lusaka, a thriving city of 1.2 million people. The cabbages are all weeded and harvested by hand.

Alan employs 160 people full time and in peak periods up to 600 people will work for him. Most large farms supply housing for their employees. That’s usually quite a large village! Alan provides a small clinic for his employees and their families, and employs a schoolteacher for the children. This is not unusual in Zambia. Wages are very minimal and are often supplemented in this way.

BIG FARMERS MOVING IN

When Robert Mugabe chased the white farmers out of Zimbabwe, many of them fled to neighbouring Zambia and began to farm there. These Zimbabweans were instrumental in helping Zambia become a self-sufficient food nation. Brian and Angela Berkhout and their three young children are one of the Zimbabwean families that now call Zambia their home.

Brian and Angela began farming in the Chisamba valley four years ago, beginning with almost nothing. They farm 2,470 acres. They had 600 acres each of corn and soybeans were under irrigation when we visited them in April 2008. The irrigated land is seeded to wheat in the winter. When we were there, they were in the process of expanding their chicken layer business to 10,000 birds.

We admired their courage to begin from scratch again with a looming debt. But they had nothing to lose. We also admired their heart for the African people around them — their employees and those living nearby.

About a four-hour drive to the north and somewhat east of Lusaka is the Mkushi area, the oldest farming block in Zambia. We visited there in March 2009. We turned right off the highway about 30 kilometers before Mkushi, just after the Forest Inn, and felt we’d left Africa for North America. Soon to the left we saw some large grain bins. Rassy du Tuoit is building a new grain handling facility there, with a dryer system. Rassy came from South Africa about 10 years ago.

On the other side of the grain handling system, a group of Africans was building a new school. It will house a private primary school for the children of the farmers and their workers. Good education is always an issue. Most of the more wealthy

Zambians, both white and black, send their children to boarding schools, often abroad.

A few miles further down the dusty dirt road we were surprised to see the large Agri-Options cooperative grain-handling terminal. There were a few steel bins, but mostly we saw long plastic grain storage bags — rows and rows of them covered with red dust. I first learned about grain bags in the fall of 2008 while harvesting for a Canadian grain farmer, and thought they were something quite new. And here they were in Africa!

The bags, while providing easy short-term storage, are high maintenance for the cooperative. Someone has to walk around those bags every morning to monitor for small holes from rats and birds. They are building steel bins to replace the bags as fast as they can.

Besides grain storage for the farmers, Agri-Options operates an oil press. They do a first press with soybeans, selling the cake and the unrefined oil.

The grain bags contained 40,000 tonnes of wheat from last year’s harvest that wasn’t sold yet. The new crop needed to be seeded, inputs were expensive and banks were reluctant to lend money with the current economic crisis. The Zambian Farmer’s Union was lobbying the government to intervene and take steps to ensure that the wheat can get on the market.

LOTS OF FRESH WATER

Zambia offers farmers some wonderful opportunities. Forty per cent of the fresh water supply of southern Africa flows through Zambia. With money to irrigate, a farmer can grow some impressive crops year round. There are still many acres of undeveloped fertile land. Labour is cheap and plentiful.

There are difficulties too of course. Most farmers classify fungal diseases as their biggest crop problem, a product of the moist warm rainy season. They also deal with soybean rust and viruses, termites, leaf rollers and cabbage loopers.

Long distances to unpredictable markets, on roads that can be almost impassable during the rainy season, complicate things. Many farmers find dealing with the numerous employees difficult and time consuming. Theft too is a big problem on almost every farm.

When we see how much land is lying unproductive in Zambia, we realize the potential this country has to produce so much more. We remember that Zimbabwe next door was the breadbasket of southern Africa. As agriculture continues to grow and expand in this continent, Africa will become a force to be reckoned with. That’s not something we think about much!

Marianne Stamm lives on a farm near Westlock, Alta.

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