Illinois Farmers Share Skills to Give Hope to the Hungry
Effingham County farmer Norbert Soltwedel knows food insecurity around the world won’t improve unless people start taking action. He also has a heart for underprivileged people across the globe. That’s why, in 2016, Soltwedel spent 12 days in the rural villages of Ethiopia in East Africa educating local farmers about how to better grow food for their communities.
“I try very hard to put myself in their situation, to learn how they think and what they believe,” says Soltwedel, who raises corn and soybeans near Shumway. “We are so blessed in America with enough food, so many interstates and highways, decent health care and education opportunities. I get a lot of satisfaction from learning about African culture and helping make someone else’s life better.”
Soltwedel took his trip as part of Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) Farmer-to-Farmer Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to help promote economic growth, food security and agricultural development in Africa. He has also traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Russia and the Ukraine on similar missions.
“Africa is a very engaging place. When you go, you want to go back,” Soltwedel says. “I especially like the Farmer-to-Farmer Program because it helps people help themselves. We provide agricultural training, but the biggest thing for the African people is the fact somebody cares about them. The program provides hope and inspiration to improve themselves, and it helps give them tools to accomplish what they need to accomplish.”
In Ethiopia, Soltwedel trained farmers with the help of an interpreter about how to better handle crops after harvest to prevent spoilage and reduce losses.
“About 30 percent of crops are lost in Africa due to rats, termites, insects and moisture spoilage,” he says. “I gave my presentations on a flip chart because there was no electricity. The trainees paid close attention, writing everything down. Our hope is that those who attended the classes will train others – when you get a small group of people to succeed, often others will follow.”
Many female farmers attended the training, as they often manage crop production.
“In African culture, women farm, too,” Soltwedel says. “They are often in charge of their family’s garden or plot, and they do the digging, soil preparation and food preparation.”
Making a Difference
It’s difficult to measure the impact the Farmer-to-Farmer Program has had around the world, but Soltwedel says even little changes implemented make a difference.
“Some farmers didn’t realize they were losing so much crop in the field, or that their crop had mold or bugs in it,” he says. “Now they know the problems they had and the reasons why those things happen. I’m told they’ve adopted the practices we’ve shared, but you have to keep realistic expectations because change takes time.”
Soltwedel’s volunteer assignment was one of nearly 500 focusing on agriculture, food security and nutrition in East Africa. Volunteers from the U.S. travel to East Africa for anywhere from one to six weeks with their expenses paid by USAID.
“I encourage other farmers to look for opportunities for mission work through churches as well as CRS, which does such good work with farmers, food programs and health in underdeveloped countries,” Soltwedel says. “It’s also important to have support from home. I owe tremendous thanks to my wife, Linda, and my brother, Delbert, for taking care of things at home so I could go on these missions.”