A tour through drought-plagued Ethiopia is an experience Betty Turner says she’’ll never forget.
“We tried to prepare ourselves for what you read about and what you see on TV but there is really nothing like seeing it first hand,” said Turner. “We asked the local farmers what more we could do and they said, pray for us and pray for rain. And although we may not experience those drastic of circumstances, as farmers we can all relate to praying for rain.”
Betty and her husband Dennis have been farming on the edge of Killarney for the past 30 years and last year, as part of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) Killarney Growing Project, helped to raise over $90,000 for the organization.
The couple was recognized by the CFGB as leaders and was offered the opportunity to follow the CFGB donation trail to see how project money is being put to use.
“If people have never been to the developing world, it is such a huge eye-opener and just really makes them understand how blessed we are in our country and how far a little bit of our help can really go,” said Harold Penner, CFGB regional representative for Manitoba and northwest Ontario. “Very few dollars can go a long way in helping someone get back on their feet.”
At the beginning of February, the Turners joined eight other Canadian farmers on a 10-day tour of CFGB projects throughout Ethiopia.
“The purpose of these tours is to give people like Betty, great advocates, a chance to see what is happening overseas. To inspire them and also to give them their own stories to tell in their communities as they talk to others and involve them in the work of their growing project,” said Penner.
A personal account
Paying their own way, Betty and Dennis left the comforts of their southern Manitoba home and began the 30-hour journey to Ethiopia.
“Landing there and the airport when we first arrived was an experience in itself,” said Turner. “There was certainly an element of culture shock from the heat and high populations of people everywhere.”
She says the effects of drought were obvious everywhere they looked and despite the local farmers’ best efforts, there was very little growth because it has not rained in such a very long time.
“It is really dry and farmers talking to farmers, we all know that you need rain for crops to grow and they are dependent on those crops for food. That is the hard thing,” she said.
Ethiopia is no stranger to drought but experts say the severity and length of the country’s current drought is one of the worst since the 1960s due to El Niño, which has caused shifting rain patterns.
Eighty per cent of Ethiopia’s population subsists on rain-fed agriculture and local media has reported crop production fails of 50 to 90 per cent in certain regions and complete failure in others. Hundreds of thousands of livestock have already been lost.
The CFGB also reports that approximately 10 million people in Ethiopia are currently in need of emergency assistance.
Turner describes the farms she witnessed to be very small, 1.25 acres to 2.5 acres and usually existing on rocky, dry hillsides.
“We travelled in both north and south Ethiopia and focused on projects that the CFGB had already established. One of the projects focused on conservation agriculture. It showed farmers how to create mulch. We saw these plots of fields that were covered with banana leaves, maize leaves and manure from animals and they left their land covered with this to keep as much moisture in the soil as possible,” said Turner.
Everything was done by hand with no equipment and the most commonly grown items Turner saw were tomatoes, cabbage, ginger root, maize, teff (an annual grass) and bananas.
During the tour they visited a CFGB project that involved building weirs and holding areas with aqueducts that would carry the water down to the fields, and another where hillsides were terraced to help prevent erosion.
“They really have some great projects. You know the story about you can give a man a fish or teach him how to fish. Well, these projects really help the people of Ethiopia with the tools in order to learn sustainable agriculture,” said Turner.
Despite the grim situation Turner says she was still taken aback by the happiness of the local people she met.
“Standing beside these people they were so warm and happy and you can tell that they help one another. It is just in their culture that no matter how little they have they still help their neighbour and that was really moving. They really are happy people but they are hurting too and it’s not their fault, they work really hard but it just hasn’t rained.”
Every year in Canada farmers step up and dedicate a few acres of crop production for the CFGB, a donation that is matched four to one by the federal government.
Those funds are put towards CFGB initiatives in countries around the world.
“Last year we worked in 40 countries and spent about $43 million, helping over a million people. We usually spend around the $40-million mark on our projects every year,” said Penner.
According to a recent press release from the CFGB, in Dugda, the Oromia region of Ethiopia, the Foodgrains Bank has been providing 41,000 people a month with emergency food rations through its member, World Renew.
“Through these programs I think that it gives the local farmers some hope that people in other parts of the world care about what they are going through and that we are trying to help,” said Turner.
According to Penner, it is projected that this year Manitoba will see 6,000 acres of crop production donated to the CFGB.
“This trip was an experience and a journey. One we will never forget. They say the journey changes you and it should,” said Turner. “I am thankful every day for where I live and the blessings we have in this country. Here it seems like such a little thing to give a few hours and grow a crop for someone who is hungry.”
The CFGB Killarney Growing Project committee sowed 140 acres of Emerson winter wheat last fall on the Turners’ land and will also be mapping and selling additional acres for fall harvest that will be donated to the CFGB.
“I am certainly motivated to work with our committee, neighbours, and community and we are excited about growing another crop again this year,” said Turner.