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Growing Solutions to Hunger

By Kim Bradley

After days of heavy downpours, Wayne McMannus remains nestled inside, hopeful that the rains will subside so he can go back out onto his fields. On 750 acres, the 57-year-old farmer from Fort Dodge, Iowa, grows corn and soybeans. But the recent wet weather has left the fields soggy and his combines idle at the height of harvest season. The harvest and fall tillage have come to a complete halt.

Wayne McMannus in Ethiopia.

Iowa farmer Wayne McMannus, left, learns about navy bean cultivation from farmers in Dugda Woreda, Ethiopia. Photo by Bev Abma/Foods Resource Bank for CRS

Wayne is one of hundreds of farmers who are worried about the delay in harvesting and the damage to their crops caused by high winds and heavy rainfall this season. But Wayne takes the news of the bad weather with the composure only a farmer could.

A former teacher of business and accounting, the tall man with silvery hair prepares farm income taxes during the off-season. But from mid-September through November, he spends 16 hours a day seven days per week harvesting the crops he planted in the spring, weather permitting. His mainstay crops are corn and soybeans, but in recent months Wayne has been following a farming trend in the United States and — like many others — is now predominantly growing corn due to the recent ethanol boom.

Eight thousand miles to the east, in the Rift Valley region of Ethiopia, farmers are facing similar worries brought on by weather conditions. With a recurring lack of rainfall and the occasional but severe flood, entire communities are tipped into food insecurity and require assistance to survive. This summer, Wayne visited the Ethiopian community of Meki, a town about 70 miles outside of Addis Ababa, to see firsthand how donating his own land is helping farmers like him around the world.

Real, Grass-Roots Development

Back in Webster County, Iowa, near the city of Fort Dodge, Wayne and other like-minded farmers are growing solutions to hunger problems worldwide and contributing to international food aid on a grass-roots level. Together with members of their community, the farmers donate a portion of their land, plant and harvest a crop, and allow the proceeds to be used to fund critical food-security programs in countries like Ethiopia, where agriculture is the mainstay of rural communities.

Sara and Wayne McMannus in Ethiopia.

From left to right, Wayne and Sara McMannus, visiting from Iowa, meet with an Ethiopian farmer and his son. Photo by Bev Abma/Foods Resource Bank for CRS

The F.O.O.D. (Fields of Opportunity and Dreams) project in Webster County is only one of over 250 "growing projects" currently contributing funds to Foods Resource Bank (FRB), a national, multidenominational program that engages U.S. farmers from Maryland to Oregon in an effort to support agricultural programs in the developing world.

Last year, Wayne donated eight acres and hopes to be able to donate at least the same amount this year. The crop cultivated on his fields yielded about $2,000 for FRB, an amount that was matched by General Electric, the company Wayne's wife works for. Wayne has also been soliciting other large companies to offset some of the expenses and so far, two farming cooperatives have agreed to contribute. The entire growing project of Webster County consists of 70 acres and raised more than $30,000 last year.

Money generated through growing projects is disbursed by FRB to 15 implementing member organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, who work with their in-country partners worldwide to aid local communities in becoming self-sufficient and food-secure. In this way, U.S. farmers are directly helping their fellow farmers overseas in a very practical way.

Creating Sustainability Farmer to Farmer

During his visit in the Rift Valley, where food insecurity is both chronic and acute, Wayne learned a great deal about the production of navy beans and their importance for the local economy. The navy bean is a relatively new crop for Ethiopian farmers, and it serves as a source of food as well as a commercial product. But despite its importance, productivity of navy bean crops has remained very low.

Because of extreme poverty in many rural areas, farmers are often unable to purchase seed or the fertilizer needed to grow a large harvest. To address this problem, CRS is using FRB funds to implement the Navy Bean Seed System program in Ethiopia. The program is helping to increase seed production by giving poor farmers access to new technologies, including new navy bean varieties. Following the FRB philosophy of helping a farming community to build capacity and continue on their own after a few years, the program's ultimate aim is for Rift Valley farmers to multiply, use and sell seed of improved varieties to enhance crop production well into the future.

Young navy bean plants.

Ethiopian farmers are growing navy bean plants to increase production and incomes. Photo by Bev Abma/Foods Resource Bank for CRS

"In the U.S., farmers buy the most advanced hybrid seeds available to obtain the best crop. These modern hybrids are very expensive," Wayne explains. "Raising their own seed is the next best thing for Ethiopian farmers."

CRS, in partnership with the Alem Tena Catholic Church, has helped form four seed-growing groups that are now producing improved navy bean seeds. These farmers are selling these seeds at higher prices while retaining some seeds to grow additional beans the following season. Through its local church partner, CRS is also using FRB funds to train the farmers in advanced agricultural techniques to further increase crop production.

"I was really impressed with how FRB funds are implemented through Catholic Relief Services. We help them achieve the ability to succeed, and that's what they want," Wayne notes. "Here in the U.S., we create so much welfare. You start helping someone, and you don't stop."

"This project advised us on when to plant, the amount of seed to use, the type to use, weeding and even how to save the income. Now productivity has increased, in some cases to 20 quintals [2 metric tons]," adds Ato Demise Tsegaye, chairman of the Gemechu Seed Grower Group in Alem Tena, Ethiopia. "It is not only the direct financial support but also the technical advice that is changing our lives."

Back in Iowa, there is still more rain in the forecast, and Wayne can't do anything but wait and pray that the rain will stop — just as the Ethiopian farmers he met can't do anything but wait and pray that the rain will start.

As Wayne observes, "Like farmers in all places, the weather is everything — whether you're Ethiopian or from central Iowa."

Kim Bradley works as a communications officer for CRS. Kim recently traveled to our programs in Peru with winners of the 2007 Egan Award for Journalistic Excellence.

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