Planting the seeds

It wasn’t just a tour, Kirby Schmidt said, and it wasn’t really a mission trip, either. It was a hands-on learning experience, the kind that takes you from meeting agriculture students in Africa, to helping plant a field of rice or sweet potatoes. At the heart of it all was the need to find practical solutions to the problems of hunger and poverty.

“It was an incredible experience,” Schmidt said. “I want to help share the story.”

In June, Schmidt, a rural Marshall resident and a student at the University of Minnesota, was one of six collegiate FFA members from around the United States chosen to travel to Burkina Faso as part of the FFA Global Outreach: Africa program. The group spent three weeks traveling to villages and communities in Burkina Faso to learn about agricultural and education programs there. The trip was made possible by the National FFA Organization, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Catholic Relief Services.

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in the Sahel region of Africa. The group arrived in the capital city of Ouagadougou, which Schmidt said has undergone rapid development in the past few years. However, about 80 percent of the people in Burkina Faso are subsistence farmers, growing just enough food to live on.

“For the last 10 years, climate change has been real for them,” Schmidt said. “Many farmers don’t know how to react.”

Changes in rainfall and soil composition have a crucial impact on Burkina Faso, Schmidt said. In the northern part of the country, where conditions are more dry, an entire year’s crops depend on a short rainy period in summer.

From Ouagadougou, the FFA students traveled to villages and communities around the country and saw farming practices and educational programs being implemented there. The group also visited Burkina Faso’s only agricultural university. Schmidt said the students there are trained in different areas, similar to the Extension education service in Minnesota. After attending the university, students become “field animateurs,” or extension agents, and work to help other farmers.

Some of the programs that the group saw in action were started by Catholic Relief Services. CRS has helped to provide education and relief aid in Burkina Faso since the 1960s. Many of the programs the FFA group saw were focused on finding simple ways for people to improve their food supply and make a better life for their families.

“I was just fascinated. Everything there was very practical,” Schmidt said. “If there’s a local challenge, you need to have local solutions.”

Those local solutions ranged from research programs to develop more nutritious varieties of staple foods like sweet potatoes, to farming methods that will help conserve water and improve the soil. One farm they visited was using a method called “zai,” which involves digging small holes throughout a field, filling them with compost and planting crops like cowpeas or other legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil.

“It’s been very successful for them,” Schmidt said. Even the windbreaks on the farm used acacia, a native tree that also fixes nitrogen.

Another CRS program the group saw in action was the Savings and Internal Lending Communities (SILC). Through SILC, the members of a community are taught to work together to save and invest money in ways that will help the community. In the community the FFA group visited, three local women were literally given the keys to the village money box and played a big role in helping to decide how the funds should be invested.

“The idea is that if you give the money to women, they are more likely to work for others and invest it for others,” Schmidt said. In eight months, the village the group visited had saved up the equivalent of $1,200, “Which is huge.”

“There was a huge celebration afterwards,” he said. “They planned on buying a lot of livestock with that money.”

Schmidt said the group got lots of hands-on experience in local farming methods as it traveled.

“There was one morning we went to go out and plant rice,” Schmidt said. He said he had pictured going out into rice paddies, but instead the local farmers taught the group how to cultivate a dry field with hand tools.

Much of the farming in Burkina Faso is done by hand, Schmidt said, and it’s women who do most of the work.

While he was looking forward to helping with planting, Schmidt said, “I was also like, ‘Gosh, I hope they get rain.'” Later a rainstorm did arrive, albeit a with a lot of force.

“There was this giant wall of dust ahead of it,” Schmidt said. “It was like a blizzard in Minnesota, minus the snow, with dust in the equation.”

The group also visited a livestock market. Cattle, sheep and goats were being sold and traded, but Schmidt said there were no livestock trailers. In some cases, animals were simply lifted on top of vehicles.

“One of the interesting, and kind of amusing things, was how they were able to fit six full-grown goats on a motorcycle, and the driver just cruised away, perfectly balanced,” Schmidt said.

Meeting the people of Burkina Faso was another highlight of the trip, Schmidt said.

“There’s a strong sense of community and family,” with neighbors taking care of each other, he said.

Families’ connections with their land and farming traditions also ran deep. Parents would bring their children into the field with them and teach them to care for the crops, Schmidt said.

“They are real family farmers,” he said.

The outreach trip wasn’t just an educational experience for the FFA students. Now that he’s back in Minnesota, Schmidt said his job is to share what he’s learned. He’s written a long paper, and he said group members are also required to give talks sharing their experiences with the public.

Schmidt said the Howard G. Buffett Foundation urged group members to make the best use of their own “40 Chances” to make a difference. The idea behind the 40 Chances initiative is that everyone has about 40 productive years to change the world – or 40 growing seasons, from a farmer’s perspective.

“I am still working on figuring out how I can best share my talents and skills,” Schmidt said.

However, he said he does know that education makes a powerful difference in people’s lives. He said he sees himself making an impact as an educator, guiding future agriculture students. Sharing knowledge and experiences like the GO: Africa trip may inspire future generations to continue the fight against world hunger.

“Education is power. We need to see more hands up asking questions and looking for knowledge to be applied in the field, not more hands out asking for food. That’s what people want, too,” Schmidt said.