Monday, October 27, 2014
"Out of Africa" (vii) -- Agriculture
Just outside my window wide sections of razor-cut farmland run to the horizon in every direction, corn and soybeans all around, real "agri-business," especially this time of year. Massive combines have been inching over the fields for a month already, harvesting what looks to me to be yet another bumper crop. Farming is business here, big business.
Very few farmers in Siouxland put things they grow on their own tables. In gardens--yes; but not in those wide sections of ground running all the way to sky. Subsistence agriculture--the economic system that drew all European immigrants to the region 150 years ago--has been dead for just about that long, if, in fact, it ever existed.
Starting communities here, I once read, wasn't a long process. Ten years is what it took, basically, from breaking ground on a brand new homestead to creating a functioning village where crops could go to market. Railroad traffic past our place this time of year is as endless as the tracks are ancient.
Call it ignorance or stupidity, but I was surprised at how much of the African countryside was being farmed. Maybe I expected a continent-wide game preserve. In long road trips we took through Ghana and Mali and Niger, almost everywhere we traveled people grew the crops they needed to survive--corn, millet, sorghum, as well as exotics like peanuts and watermelon.
You read that right--watermelon. Amazing as it might seem in area where rainfall can be as slight as it is, people grow watermelon. In Mali, they were everywhere.
Where I expected to see nothing but veldt, there were crops, thin crops, stunted corn by Iowa standards, but noticeable green crops from ground that would make most Siouxland farmers wince. A few tractors made their way along the highways, but most agriculture I noticed seemed subsistence, often primitive. Here and there, workers wielded hoes to break ground, as they might have for too many generations.
But agriculture was there, almost always, even in the farthest regions of Mali, where all the roads, trust me, are less traveled. Crops get eerily patchy, even though I'm sure our being there in rainy season gave the landscape more flashes of green than it normally shows at dry times of year. I was amazed--there was no end to fields of grain.
The world is beginning to recognize, once again, that burgeoning opportunities exist in Africa. Most experts seem to argue is that agriculture throughout the continent has to become more of a business, and it can, simply because vast regions of rural Africa could, if handled efficiently, produce more for its own people--and even for others.
Pushing that agenda isn't simply some hybrid 21st century colonialism (although that exists too), but a realization on the part of most world powers that the growing population of the planet will require more food than our harvests now reap. International experts look to Africa as a place where more can be produced to feed many more hungry people.
Images like this will exist only in scrapbooks if African farms are to become businesses; and that's unsettling, to say the least, to people who've lived like this woman for generations. In all likelihood she earns no more than a dollar a day for her work, if that. Will she benefit from a pronounced emphasis on agriculture? Yes.
Will life change for her? Most certainly.
The row crops all over rural Africa came as a surprise to me, but it's difficult to imagine scenes like this transformed into what I see right now outside my window.
Will it happen? It may have to, not simply for Africa's sake but for the stomachs of the world's hungry people.
Such radical change will require a level of community the world's powers have rarely been able to create. Something will have to be done to make this woman's transition to a whole different way of life just and sustainable.