The days of the CBC radio “Farm Broadcast” have passed into history, perhaps inevitably with the decline in farm numbers. But many still fondly remember the noon-hour market reports and general agriculture news, including city dwellers who appreciated the link to their farm cousins. (For a recent glimpse back into farm radio of the past, download a CBC podcast of Farm Radio Forum at www.cbc.ca/podcasting/includes/rewind.xml).
The Prairie stations had their long-standing and popular hosts, and in Ontario that role was filled for 25 years by George Atkins. It’s been many years since his voice was heard on a CBC Ontario farm broadcast. But at the time of his passing Nov. 30 at age 92, George’s influence was being felt by a radio audience many times larger, measured literally in the millions.
In 1975, George was in Zambia to help with a workshop for Commonwealth farm broadcasters. While chatting on a bus with two broadcasters from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, he asked about their recent program topics. He found they were delivering information such as on using pesticides, fertilizers and cleaning spark plugs on tractors. All worthy topics – if any of the farmers listening could afford such modern technology. George wondered if they wouldn’t be better off with practical information such as raising and using oxen or effective use of manure as fertilizer. His counterparts said they would, but had no source of such information. That was about to change.
On returning home, George set about forming the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (DCFRN), an organization that could prepare radio scripts on topics of practical application for Third World farmers. On May 1, 1979, the first package went to 34 broadcasters in 26 countries.
Today, DCFRN, based in Ottawa under its new name of Farm Radio International (www.farmradio.org),distributes scripts to 320 radio broadcasters in Africa. Many work in tiny, community-based radio stations. While radio may now be old technology to us, no other can deliver information so quickly and cheaply, and be so effective to listeners who can neither read nor write.
Doug Ward, a former CBC manager who now chairs FRI’s board, describes hearing one of the broadcasts and being concerned at what he thought was an excessively long musical introduction – here in Canada it would be just a few seconds. It turns out that’s deliberate – the music is the signal to stop working in the fields and a few minutes are needed for farmers to return and listen to the broadcast on the village radio.
To Canadian ears, the subjects of FRI scripts may sound “low tech,” but they embody the scientific principle of trying something different, seeing if it works, and passing it on to others. This year’s winner of the George Atkins Award, an FRI competition for scriptwriters, was Gladson Makowa, a broadcaster from Malawi, for his script “Manure – the magic worker,” which can be heard on FRI’s website. It describes how a second application of manure during the growing season, rather than just one, can produce yields competitive with commercial fertilizer. Other scripts describe how cayenne pepper can discourage a formidable crop pest – elephants, or how lighting a candle in a grain storage container before sealing it can consume its oxygen and prevent insect infestation.
Underlying Farm Radio International is a key principle – to help smallholder farmers. It’s unfortunate to lose your farm in Canada, but in most cases there’s some kind of job and home to go to afterward. If you lose your farm in Africa, the odds are that you’ll end up working as near-slave labour in a factory, as a beggar on the street, or worse.
That principle of helping the smallholder farmer was recently endorsed by someone at the other end of the income scale, Bill Gates of Microsoft. Speaking last Oct. 15 at a World Food Day ceremony in which he presented the World Food Prize in honour of the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, Gates addressed the“false choice” of either using new technology to increase productivity, or not because of environmental concerns. He said there are points on both sides, but said this, repeating it a second time for emphasis:
“The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first. It must be guided by smallholder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.”
That endorsement of George’s vision is more than just verbal – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a major FRI study on the most effective way to deliver farm radio. But in the meantime George’s organization still needs support for its ongoing work. His family has asked that any donations in George’s memory be made to FRI for its work in delivering scripts to help African farmers keep their families, their land and their communities healthy.
In his memory, we’ll end with the sign-off that George used for each of his broadcasts.
“Serving agriculture, the basic industry, this is George Atkins.” John Morriss is a director of Farm Radio International