An Invitation to U.S. Farmers and Ranchers

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Profound. That’s how I describe a recent “learning journey” to South Africa and Zambia to explore one of the world’s most pressing questions: How to produce enough food for a growing, more affluent and increasingly urban world in the years ahead? Cargill hosted the trip in celebration of its 150th Anniversary.

Our group of 25 included food and agriculture supply chain representatives, civil society representatives, international agricultural development organizations (e.g., Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa or AGRA), academics, and several Cargill employees, including senior leaders within the company. Participants brought diverse experiences from Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Many had worked in Africa throughout their careers; for a few, it was their first visit.

Our objective was to explore agriculture from farm to fork, focusing on maize value chains primarily, and immerse ourselves in the big food and agriculture questions facing southern Africa, such as: How can the region feed itself? What do farmers need to be successful? What is the role of finance, technology, markets, and infrastructure? It was a very “AGree-like” experience – building trust and understanding on complex food and agriculture issues – only on the road in Southern Africa!

We spent six packed days exploring farms of diverse sizes and food- and agriculture-related businesses such as community agro-dealers, warehouses, processing facilities, traditional markets, and supermarkets. We met with women smallholder farmer groups, farm families, a village chieftess, and operators of a school feeding program sourcing food locally.

Meridian Institute (AGree’s institutional home) has published a report that shares lessons and findings from the learning journey. As I also serve as a member of the team supporting AGree, I’d like to share a few reflections on the experience as viewed through a U.S. policy lens:

Agricultural development works. Increasing productivity and profitability, while safeguarding soil, water, and other natural resources, can make immediate and lasting improvements in rural African communities. We saw firsthand how African farmers and supporting institutions are working together to improve food security. U.S. agriculture has an opportunity to contribute its expertise and political support to this critical work.

The need is great. I was humbled by the farmers we met and their determination to build a better future for their families. As we witnessed in Zambia, simple tools – improved seed varieties, foot operated irrigation pumps, hand crank maize shellers – can make a world of difference. Some here at home fear building competitive efforts around the world. I disagree. Supporting smallholder African farmers’ efforts to feed themselves is in the long-term interest of the United States. This makes sense for humanitarian, national security, and market development reasons.

African agriculture is not a monolith. We experienced two Africas – agriculture at scale in South Africa and smallholder farm communities in Zambia. We saw affluent urban consumers in Johannesburg contrasted with small operators who are largely absent from markets in Zambia because if they don’t grow it, they don’t eat it. We need to think about these diverse scales existing on the same continent and look for opportunities to harness investments (infrastructure, market development) for the benefit of smallholder farmers. Savvy U.S. producers and suppliers understand the chain reaction that occurs when productivity and profitability improve, leading to consumer affluence, including demand for U.S. grain, protein, consumer products, seed, inputs, etc.

There are many roles to play. Government, the private sector (including farmers and ranchers), African farmers organizations, U.S. farm organizations, civil society, and research institutions all have critical roles to play in ensuring regional and global food security.

We need leadership. AGree sees an opportunity for U.S. agriculture to champion targeted, accountable U.S. government investments that support smallholder efforts and market-based development. AGree hopes future learning journeys include U.S. farmers and ranchers to help build an understanding of agricultural development and working relationships for the long haul.

It was inspiring to be with leaders who brought diverse expertise to the table, carefully listened, and demonstrated true commitment to overcoming the challenges of regional and global food security. AGree invites and encourages more U.S. farmers and ranchers and farm groups to join the effort. Together, we can dramatically improve food security.

Heather Lair (right) in Zambia with Pam Johnson, Iowa farmer & past president of the National Corn Growers Association. Photo credit: Dennis Dimick.

Additional information about the Cargill Learning Journey to southern Africa can be found here, including a short video about the experience.

Heather Lair is Chief of Staff of AGree and a Senior Mediator with Meridian Institute.