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A farmer by skill, if not by choice

By Anna Kramer
Birtukan Dagnachew Tegegn on her farm in northern Ethiopia. Photo: Ashenafi Molla/Oxfam

First she kept her own family together. Then she became a spokesperson for family farmers around the world.

Many of us are fortunate enough to be able to choose our careers. With a good education, plus opportunity and a little bit of luck, we can become almost anything we want to be.

Others have fewer options when it comes to earning a living. And, for some of us, the circumstances of birth mean there is only one possible path.

“I did not become a farmer by choice,” said Birtukan Dagnachew Tegegn, 37, in a recent interview with Oxfam. “I was born in a time and a place where farming was the only option for everyone around me.”

Tegegn may not have set out to become one of the world’s many family farmers, but this week she will serve as spokesperson on their behalf. Recently honored as a Female Food Hero in Ethiopia, she will join Oxfam’s delegation at the World Food Prize Summit in Iowa, and then travel to Washington, DC to meet with legislators. There, she will speak about the importance of investing in smallholder farmers around the world: people who, like her, may not have chosen this path, but walk it as best they can.

Trees sustain a family

Tegegn found economic success from planting trees, an uncommon crop in her region. Ashenafi Molla/Oxfam
Tegegn’s life began, as she describes it, like any other girl's life in her small town in northern Ethiopia. She went to school until age 14, when, according to local tradition, she got married.

Like her father and millions of other rural Ethiopians, her husband relied on farming to earn a living--a challenging job in a country where climate change has led to droughts and other shifts in weather. Many farmers also lack access to the agricultural training and technology that could make their labor easier and their farms more productive.

“Farming is very hard work,” said Tegegn. “I do not think there is a right word to express the excessive physical labor small holder farmers invest on their land.”

Tegegn’s situation became precarious after her husband passed away in 2000, leaving her a widow with three young sons and a daughter.

“Though I never considered myself a farmer, I had to start figuring ways to feed and sustain my family,” she said. “Otherwise, I was going to lose my children, since the boys [would] probably migrate and I [would] have to give my daughter to a husband so that she [would] have someone to take care of her. … I did not want to let that happen.”

Tegegn convinced neighbors to help plough her plot of land, a job considered too difficult for a woman to do alone. She sought out agricultural training and learned how to plant crops that would conserve water in her drought-prone region. Her training and education empowered her to make bold decisions—such as planting trees, an uncommon choice in her community.

“I used my backyard to plant 200 trees: coffee, banana, papaya, orange … The outcome was beyond my expectation,” said Tegegn. “I started selling these fruits, and for the first time in my life, I had some savings.” With this income, she has been able to not only feed her children, but pay for their schooling: her sons’, and her daughter’s, too.

What it takes to bring food to the table

In 2013, Birtukan won national recognition as a Female Food Hero. The Oxfam-supported award honors women who make major contributions to their communities but often receive little credit for their achievements. “It amazes me how women do most of the work on the farm, and only men get the title of a farmer,” said Tegegn.

Throughout Ethiopia, Oxfam is working with partner organizations to improve training for farmers by strengthening the country’s agricultural extension system—a kind of “farmer university” that helps them learn and share new skills. We are also calling for increased investments globally in small-holder farmers like Tegegn. Family farmers manage nearly 500 million farms around the world, and, in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, provide up to 80 percent of the food supply. So when governments invest in helping these farmers, they are ensuring that millions have enough to eat.

“If people knew what it takes to bring their food [to] their table,” said Tegegn, “I think they would start appreciating smallholder farmers more.”

Though she didn’t choose farming as a career, Tegegn acknowledges its importance. “When you collect the harvest … it makes you feel like you are witnessing the wonders of nature,” she said. “[You are] taking care of the most valuable thing, which is the food we all eat.”

Still, she hopes that her children, through their education, will be able to have the choices she did not.

“If you ask me if I want my children to become farmers, my answer is a definite no,” she said. “I know how demanding and stressing farming is, and I know that the financial reward is very small. To get something extra you have to work and give everything you have. ”

With reporting from Ethiopia by Seble Teweldebirhan.

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