Farmers in the U.S. and Africa Have More in Common Than You Might Think

The same strategies used to promote agriculture in the 'developing world' can support U.S. growers too.
A farm in Columbia, New Jersey. (Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)
Apr 18, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

In the northwestern corner of New Jersey, the Garden State moniker makes sense. Warren County has made farmland preservation a priority and in years past has had more farm acres preserved than any other county in the state. Nonprofits such as the Foodshed Alliance have put their heads together with local farmers to consider solutions for the small and midsize farms in the area that, like many similar operations in the United States, struggle. But the challenges of a small-scale farmer in New Jersey are in many ways, it turns out, not unlike those of one in, say, Tanzania.

“People don’t like when I draw that comparison,” said Jim Thaller, who sits on the board of the Foodshed Alliance and is also a senior agribusiness advisor at the World Bank. “Here it can be even more challenging,” he added, owing to less aid money available to farmers, despite the U.S.’s massive subsidy program, as Thaller called it. Despite vastly different economic and sociocultural contexts, the act of growing and selling food can be seen as a relatively simple one—and the strategies used to develop agriculture in places like Belize, Nepal, or Kenya are not unlike the ones we can turn to domestically.

Market Access

Repeatedly, and in countries around the world, cooperatives have empowered farmers, especially women, by collectively leveraging resources and products to meet greater demand at larger markets. In Peru, the coffee cooperative Cooperativa Agraria Cafetalera began exporting its beans to the Europe, the U.K., and the U.S. and now runs a credit and savings bank, a scholarship fund to help members’ children attend university in Lima, and a weekly radio show.

Tweaking and expanding that approach in the U.S. could help growers chasing farmers market sales. When farmers bring their harvest to a food hub, they can share production, distribution, and marketing costs.

“The farmers market scene is saturated right now, and a farm can only be in so many markets,” said Foodshed Alliance executive director Kendrya Close. Instead, introducing a food hub is a way of “creating a new market for farmers in this area.” On its own, a small or midsize farm can’t meet the needs of a large-scale buyer like a local supermarket, hospital, or school, she said, but when multiple farms get together, they can.

We’ve seen successful versions of this model work for farmers in Zimbabwe, where Veronica Kanyango has mobilized her grassroots community to plant 7,000 sack gardens. Producing at scale, the women have been able to ensure a steady crop of better quality, fetching higher prices at markets and city hotels, including the local Marriott, than they could at rural roadside stands.

“In the amount of time that they’ve been organizing, they’ve been able to move from having no or insecure [land] tenure rights to securing their tenure, to figuring out how to feed their families and themselves, to figuring out how to go to market,” said Regina Pritchett of the Huairou Commission, a nonprofit that works on housing and community issues for women across Africa.

Value-Added Products

“Where there’s a market problem, there’s also a shelf-life problem,” Thaller said. Too much product and not enough demand can lead to food waste. Additionally, climate change and pest- and disease-damaged crops, such as rust-blighted coffee crop, can devastate a farmer’s livelihood. Value-added products stretch the bounds of the growing season and diversify a farmer’s revenue stream, and it’s what Thaller has been coaching small-scale producers on in the developing world for years.

“A pear is only going to last three weeks,” he said. “Pear jam will last years.” In Nepal, Thaller worked with a honey producer who was making approximately three times as much money as a comparable honey producer down the road from his home in New Jersey. “I buy it because he’s my neighbor,” Thaller said. “But it’s expensive.”

And here’s where the Foodshed Alliance sees an opportunity to provide to area farmers through a forthcoming food incubator, which would help growers develop businesses to sell honey, jam, and other value-added products. People will always want Jersey tomatoes, Close said, and the state already has a relatively long growing season, which hoop houses and greenhouses have bolstered. With product and market development, the food incubator would provide support for the entrepreneur who says, “I’m going to take this tomato and turn it into a salsa business,” Close said.

Aging Farmers

Around the globe, the problem is the same: Farmers are approaching retirement age, and few young people want to farm. “In sub-Saharan Africa, they’re always talking about the aging farmer,” Thaller said. “You have a youthful demographic that’s not interested.” Sound familiar? In the U.S., the average farmer is 57 years old, and a reported 400 million acres of farmland will transfer hands in the next 20 years. That’s why groups like the National Young Farmers Alliance are lobbying hard with the “Farming Is Public Service” campaign to have farmers, along with teachers, medical professionals, and law enforcement officers, included in the same federal program that forgives student loans after 10 years of public service employment and debt repayment.

Land

Access to land is a shared problem for farmers around the world. In patriarchal societies, land rights are an issue for women farmers, who comprise 70 percent of the agricultural workforce in sub-Saharan Africa but hold an estimated 18 percent of land titles, according to the Social Institutions and Gender Index. Groups like Landesa work hard to secure tenure rights for women.

Farmers have trouble owning land in the U.S. simply because of the price tag. New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country and the second-highest per-acre market value of farmland.

“Cost of land is by far their biggest challenge,” Close said. “We have a lot of land preserved, but it’s very difficult to put farmers on it.”

Some banks are offering new agribusiness programs but have requirements that preclude most farmers; the $10 million loan is not for the three-acre carrot guy, Thaller said. But the USDA’s microloans might be, and they can supply a farmer with up to $50,000, which helped California’s Sebastopol Microgreens blossom into a sustainable business.

“I wrote a thank-you letter to Obama,” owner Kathy Patterson told TakePart in 2014. “I said, ‘That loan was a game changer.’ ”