The Will to Food – South Sudan
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
The evolution from a sharp stick, to a steel hoe, to a moldboard plow, to trained draft animals and expanding fields of produce – it’s all part of the beginning of a path to healthy families, villages and nation states for developing Africa, a path that includes sustainable organic farming practices, the improvement and maintenance of dignified human-scale agriculture, appropriate economic development, and the respect and regard of indigenous cultures.
South Sudan, a new equatorial nation in east-central Africa, is a paradox wrapped in opportunity. It is a poor country and it is a rich country. It is a country threatened almost daily by tribal unrest. It is a vigorous nation which needs help. An answer to their need might contain an opportunity for it to contribute widely to the stability of the region and by example to peace in the world. South Sudan does not now feed itself, it is dependent on less than stable imports from neighboring countries. People there are hungry. A few in positions of leadership in that struggling democracy believe that the best ways to solve this problem also offer up excellent patterns for a rich scale-specific economic development
Many of the people of South Sudan are ready, willing and able to grow their own food. But there is a puzzle as to how they might best do this. The insight of one man in diplomatic service may have started a process which found the missing pieces and triggered a reasonable way forward. The continuing efforts of a small and dedicated group of individuals would seem to assure a good, and perhaps outstanding chance of success. There is an implicit model within these ideas which should be of benefit to assorted diplomatic efforts around the planet.
Today almost all of South Sudan’s farming is done by hand, with crude hand hoes for tillage. We see images of women and children swinging wood handled digging hoes to break up land, and we imagine how much time and effort goes into working up each small plot. There is no history of general use of tractors and modern industrial farming practices. There is no infrastructure in place to support such endeavors. But these people know what it takes to grow food, they just lack a way to reasonably increase their efforts. And by ‘reasonable’ we are talking about giving these folks tools and power sources that are readily and inexpensively ‘accessible’. South Sudanese aren’t going to jump a cultural canyon and disrupt who they are and where they came from to try to accommodate industrial-scale agriculture. But they might consider easing down into a logical valley of growth and evolution.
South Sudanese agricultural production could be increased by up to 200% through the sensible and careful introduction of animal-powered organic farming systems. These hard working people are ideally suited to accept this transformation. Such a move could work with the ample cattle population to also improve family, community and tribal cultures. The introduction of animal-power, employing a less-is-more approach to development, need not be expensive nor cause cultural upheaval. It can be accomplished in a series of quiet, steady and simply-planned steps. And those steps call for suitable connections with individuals, institutions and small businesses. Those steps presume that there exists an infrastructure somewhere out in the wider world that can supply, support and encourage such outreach and development. And it does exist. But you need a map and a guide to get there from here. Cyber maps and internet searches won’t get you there.
These things came to my sharp attention recently when I was approached by the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan with a request for assistance that centered on oxen power and organic farming.
Michael McClellan asked me if I could possibly help an African TV film crew gain access to the worlds of animal-powered sustainable farming in the US. He also asked Richard Roosenberg, executive director of Tillers International in Michigan. (Tillers has an outstanding relationship with successful oxen-base farming initiatives in Uganda and The Congo.) McClellan, a subscriber to Small Farmer’s Journal and other US publications serving the alternative agriculture communities, had identified through his readings and study, that South Sudanese farmers could be usefully impressed and positively influenced by a view of Amish farming and community as well as the wider new farming efforts encompassing the concepts of CSAs, market gardening, local food movements, and oxen power. He asked of Mr. Roosenberg and I that we orchestrate visits and discussions with Amish farmers, equipment manufacturers and opinion leaders.
The plan was to send a two-man South Sudanese TV crew to meet up in the US with a state department official assisting in travel to Ohio, Michigan and Illinois from end of June through the first week of July 2013. Through personal contacts with Amish philosopher David Kline of Farming magazine and the ingenious Wengerd family of Pioneer Equipment, a full and varied itinerary was devised permitting the crew to visit many different types of Amish farms, businesses and market events. Richard Roosenberg then planned many visits for them to and around the Tiller’s International facility in Michigan, immersing the crew in international development approaches to farming with oxen and horses as well as visits to small farms centering on the ownership, management and labor of women. Many South Sudanese farmers are women. The third leg of their time in the US centered on a three day visit to the annual Horse Progress Days, this year in Arcola, Illinois. At this event many new contacts were made to strengthen and embolden the TV film-crew of Alex Taban and Henry Jada in their growing case for a new South Sudanese agriculture. But all of this puts the proverbial cart before the horse; let’s backup and look at some of that country’s realities and distinctions.
South Sudan is but two years old, born after 50 years of hideous and costly civil war resulted in a splitting off from Sudan. South Sudan is a nation of approximately 8 million people on a land mass roughly the size of Texas. There are 200 miles of roads, no electricity, no clean water source, and just one hospital. In that poor country the very ill who still hold a chance of cure must pile up four to a bed. The land of this equatorial nation holds great natural resources including abundant virgin soils, huge grasslands and the upper Nile River, yet its people use spades and hoes to try to farm. An extensive herd of millions of distinctive regional cattle co-habitate with scores of wildlife, grazers and carnivores. Bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and The Congo, South Sudan’s millions depend on imports for food, even though by normal measure they should be able to feed themselves.
Proud though they may be for their hard won independence, this new country has all of the difficult and terrible conditions – poverty, hunger, disease, tribal suspicions and depression – to thrust it back into ever-increasing levels of internal strife. There exists a genuine even critical urgency for the leaders to find ways to grow South Sudan’s agriculture towards self-sufficiency and proud health. Urgency frequently dulls the vision by a move to simplistic answers, but some in South Sudanese leadership have managed to see beyond, that its best future rests with giving its people the appropriate tools and instruction to farm sustainably and with identity enhanced. In this way and with these conditions, South Sudan represents one interesting model for much of the developing world of the twenty-first century.
The idea was simple enough. Provide a film that South Sudanese farmers and social engineers could watch that showed what a span of two oxen could accomplish hitched to a modern walking plow. Show men, women and children operating that plow. Allow the indigenous farmers to see for themselves the incredible dramatic difference between what a span of oxen could accomplish in a day as versus that hoe. Show video of young calves being trained to work yoked together. Show a variety of new implements at work. And then provide a panorama of the rich and vibrant animal-powered community of North America featuring in part, of course, the legendary Amish. McClellan understood that his first task was to convince the farmers of South Sudan that this could be done, could be done well, would improve production and was exciting in its modern manifestation. He had to convince them that this represented a step forward not backward. He chose to work with important young men of South Sudan, film-maker Alex Taban and journalist Henry Jadar, to encourage and facilitate production of a television show for all of South Sudan and much of Africa.
To accomplish his ambitious goal McClellan understood he needed access to the sometimes private world of the Amish farm community and the far flung industry of North American animal power. He found that access when he communicated with Richard Roosenberg and myself, Lynn Miller. We were willing and able to help to arrange such introductions and arrangements. The next step in the process was to have an individual of suitable skills and talents to actually guide the filmakers on the ground in the states. He found that man in State Department contractor Kevin Krug, an intelligent individual of true sensitivity and appropriate experience.
One of the results that Michael McClellan could not have foreseen is the amplified enthusiasms that were found everywhere the film crew visited. Amish and non-Amish animal-powered American farmers were thrilled to share their working ways with the crew. And in that process discussions ensued that cast a wider net out to how this vital community might assist in international development while learning themselves of new ways to work and value their skills. This South Sudanese initiative did not spring up in a vacuum. The synchronicity of many parallel connections and experiences is quite remarkable. Discussions included not only South Sudan but also projects in Mali, Uganda, The Congo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. And the discussions are important to North American non-governmental initiatives from entities as far flung as the Minnesota National Guard, the Sam Houston University of Texas, the Horse Progress Days board, and Tillers International. But the focus was never lost. The focus is an effort to assist South Sudan in its goal to realize self-sufficiency.
With these large sweeping concerns, objectives and ideals, determining a plan for the best beginning is a sensitive and critical matter. Recent international development histories are full of the evidence of failed and/or misguided efforts that began with grandiose ceremony and truckloads of money, two elements always certain to attract professional pilferers on and off territory. A few of the most dramatically effective developmental efforts began quietly and modestly on the ground, out back as it were; look to Tiller’s International as a sterling example of modesty and effectiveness. The South Sudanese farming condition and objective would suggest that this small-can-be-effective approach would apply ideally well here.
Ryan Foxley and Lynn Miller were able to attend Horse Progress Days and assist in the South Sudan project because of a grant from the Sage Foundation.