Synopsis : As an agronomist I used to dream of great achievements in improving the lives of poor farmers in Africa and Asia . There have been some pioneers like Dr.Borlaug and Dr.De Datta but such people are very few and their contribution to the welfare of the farmers is very unique . But even a simple agronomist can be of help when he takes the new technology and new high yielding seeds to poor farmers in remote parts of the world acting as a bridge between the research center and the farmers.
The dream of an agronomist
Source : Google photo
I often think of a great man called Dr.Norman Borlaug who for many years worked to develop new wheat varieties that produced great yields and were spread to many countries where the common farmer was the beneficiary. He personally visited many countries and brought the improved seeds that caused a green revolution just like the HYVs of rice that came out of IRRI in the 60s.
Such people are rare and by nature are self-effacing although the whole world recognised their contribution. Every agronomist dreams that he too can contribute in some way to improve the crop production in poor countries where the farmers are struggling daily with low fertility of soil, low yielding varieties,high infestation of insects pests, high cost of inputs and poor infrastructure that makes it difficult for him to bring his harvest to the market.
In every country I have worked in, I have noticed the same set of problems in varying degrees. The farmers are the backbone of any agricultural society and work very very hard to grow the food that the rest of the world consumes. We the consumers pay a high price for the food at the super market but how much of it goes back to the farmer? Does any one really know or care? Between the farmer and the super market comes a horde of middlemen who jack up the price to the final consumer and take enormous profit. In some countries they beat up the farmer if he dares to sell his produce directly to the consumer so the poor farmer has no choice but to sell to the middle man.
In the Philippines the rice farmers borrow money from the rice mill owners to pay for the fertilizer, seed or other inputs but at a great cost because the rice mill owner charges hefty interest on the money thus advanced and takes it out of the price he pays when he buys the rice from the farmer.Then he sells the milled rice at a good profit but the farmer who grew the rice does not benefit and remains poor in spite of his hard work. This is also true of vegetable farmer or the fisherman.
The producers of perishable food are more dependent on the middle man because they do not have the means to bring their produce quickly to the market. I know that the middlemen row out to the fishing boats and buy the fish from the fisherman at 1/10th the price you and I pay at the super market so you can only imagine the scale of exploitation.
Then there are cooperatives run by unscrupulous people who more often than not run away with the money so the farmer member gets a raw deal either way. In other countries large corporations that run agri business muscle out independent producers to reduce competition. They are often in cahoots with the government inspectors so there too the private farmer gets a raw deal. I remember a case in Oregon where a private dairy farmer sold pure milk but the big milk producing corporations came down hard on this poor man and caused him to sell all his cows to pay for the litigation. The government inspectors who were in cahoots with the big companies found many things wrong with the hygiene and sanitation and imposed heavy fines.
So the agronomists like Dr.Norman are among the very few people who really help the poor and the downtrodden farmers of this world with their admirable work.
I have worked with farmers all my professional life in many countries and have tried to do what I could to help them but I faced formidable challenges from the government offices . Like in Burundi and Mali the bureaucrats had no interest in bottom up development considering the farmer as a partner and had no concept of farming system or appropriate technology development at the grass-roots level . They laughed at my introduction of hand-operated grain thresher or blower and said that the development of agriculture can come only through importation of high cost machineries. We must not go backwards is what they said.
But such people are not farmers and have never worked with their hands. They have no empathy for a farmer who is poor and can only work with his primitive tools. The banks refuse to give him loans to buy machines or inputs because they are not sure how the farmer will be able to pay back the loan plus high interest.
When I was working with farmers in Vietnam, I smuggled some HYV rice seeds from IRRI by stuffing it in my socks because IRRI would not give me the seeds. With this small amount of seeds I was able to multiply it and give to many farmers. I could see the happiness in their faces when they had a good yield. I could see the same happiness in them in Haiti when they harvested bumper crops of the new rice varieties that I had introduced in Les Cayes. I had received the seeds from IRRI this time because they knew me and encouraged me to test these new HYVs of rice in Haiti or elsewhere. I will write more about the International research centers and their role in the development of improved crop varieties and their extension worldwide in my next blog.
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