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The ones who feed the world

By Anna Kramer
Four farmers come together on an Iowa farm during a visit organized by Oxfam. From left, Lyle Neher, Iowa; Jacqueline Morette, Haiti; Jim French, Kansas; and Moussa Ag Demba, Mali. Photo: Sarah Peck / Oxfam America

Moussa Ag Demba lifted a gourd wrapped in ropes, letting it swing through the tiny flecks of hay drifting in the late afternoon sunlight. “We have no rivers … so we use this to scoop up water from the irrigation channel,” explained the rice farmer from Douékiré, Mali. Next, he held up a thick metal hoe. “When it comes to tilling, there are no tractors—only this.”

As Ag Demba described coaxing crops from the drought-prone soil, dozens of Iowa farmers watched from hay bales scattered around the barn.

That October Saturday marked just one stop on a nationwide speaking tour by Ag Demba and three of his fellow small-holder farmers—Le Ngoc Thach, from Vietnam; Jacqueline Morette, from Haiti; and Duddeda Sugunavva, from India. Brought together by Oxfam America, Africare, and WWF-International, the farmers spoke at venues from the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines to the World Bank offices in Washington, DC. They told their stories to agricultural scientists, US Senators’ staffers, Florida churchgoers, Oxfam volunteers, and ordinary people all over the country. All four spoke about the obstacles they faced in their efforts to feed their families, and the gains they’d made when they used innovative methods to improve their harvests.  

“The people who feed the world are facing enormous challenges—from climate change to economic hardship. And that leads to widespread hunger,” said Jim French, Oxfam America regional advocacy lead and a farmer from Kansas. “But the answers are simple: We need to invest in small-holder farmers, and give them the tools that can help them become more resilient.”

Knowledge to bring home

It was early that same morning—October 16, World Food Day—when the four international farmers arrived at Neher Acres, a family-owned 500-acre corn and soybean farm in Grundy Center, Iowa. Thach strode out into the cornfield first, his slight, dark-suited figure nearly vanishing among the tall stalks. Morette followed; plucking a ripe ear of corn, she skimmed it clean with her thumb, cupping her palm to catch the golden kernels.

Soon the farmers, their translators, and various staffers crowded around Lyle Neher as he explained the workings of his family’s farm.

“How do you plant the fields?” asked Sugunavva, her flame-bright sari ruffling in the wind.

“How many acres per bag of seed?” asked Thach. A few minutes later, Neher’s son went into the farmhouse and returned with a printout he’d made for the visitors that converted the farm’s measurements into the metric system.

Though harvest time was over, the Nehers had left a patch of corn still standing for their guests. One by one, the four farmers clambered up into the cab of a red combine harvester, taking turns driving the bulky, roaring machine through the rows.

“It’s exciting for me to see these methods, but sad, too,” said Morette, leader of the Oxfam partner organization the United Women’s Association of Pouille. “I wish we had access to this kind of equipment.” She demonstrated corn harvesting methods at home: one person walking through the rows to pluck the ripe ears while another strips the kernels by hand. She said it would be hard to imagine a field this size in Haiti, where the average farmer’s plot measures about 3.7 acres.

The scale felt more familiar at the farmers’ next stop. At Marshalltown, Iowa, Community College, an agricultural extension program teaches new and immigrant farmers to cultivate small plots of land using sustainable methods. As students demonstrated a composting worm box and a moveable pen called a “chicken tractor,” Morette sketched careful diagrams on a yellow notepad. “These are techniques I can adapt to use at home,” she said.

In a small town, with an open mind

At High Hopes Gardens, an organic farm in Logan Township, Iowa, the visitors sat down for a lunch of locally-grown food, from crisp vegetables to a sweet raspberry cobbler. Bees hummed in the air as about 70 Iowa farmers and their families joined them at picnic tables in the shadow of the red barn.

Later, everyone crowded inside to hear the visiting farmers’ stories. Morette spoke first, describing how she helps women farmers convert crops into more long-lasting and profitable products, like jams and peanut butter. Ag Demba, Thach, and Suganavva talked about their successes using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), an innovative technique that yields more rice using less water and fertilizer. “Now, thanks to SRI, we can eat three meals a day instead of two,” said Ag Demba, who explained that his village used the surplus funds from the rice harvest to build its first school.

Many of the Iowa farmers asked questions, comparing the guests’ farming techniques to their own methods here in the US.

“I grew up on a farm, in a small town, with an open mind,” said Ellen Walsh-Rosmann, who runs a 200-acre Iowa organic farm with her husband and his family. “A lot of Iowa farmers claim that we feed the world. If we truly do, then we should think about poverty and hunger, and our relationships with farmers worldwide.”

It was just one day in what French described as a successful effort to bring the farmers’ stories to life for Americans. “Our role at Oxfam is not to speak for these farmers, but to bring them together with those who can support their efforts,” he said.

And in Iowa, he added, their audience may have understood the message best of all.

“No matter where we farm, we all share a common bond with the land,” said French. “We all want the same things: clean water, a decent living, food on the table. If we can understand that, we can come to solutions together.”