International Ministries

Constant Innovation

February 16, 2006 Journal
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In the 1966 Arthur Mosher wrote a thin book entitled "Getting Agriculture Moving."He identified 5 factors essential to transforming agriculture into a significant source of material improvement in people's lives.Two of these factors are constant innovation and local availability of supplies.Even now, 40 years later, his analysis hits the mark.Without improved varieties and techniques, Congolese agriculture will never be able to keep up with the demands of a growing population farming poor tropical soils.Yet even when better varieties and techniques are identified, farm families and the rural economy benefit only when the innovations are widely available.That is one reason that we see seed multiplication as a key activity.More productive varieties and high-quality disease-free seed allow a farmer to get the highest return for her investment of time, energy and accumulated knowledge without big changes in general farming practices.While agricultural innovation doesn't end with better varieties, better varieties are a strategic place to start.With modest resources, Christians can help farmers make big improvements in their lives. That buys time to work on innovations that involve more complex cultural adaptation.

The team here at Lusekele is just finishing up drying the peanut harvest.You may remember that we started the season off with one big rain and nearly a month-long drought.Farmers looked on anxiously as the seed waited in the hot dry soil for a break in the weather.Early germinating seed suffered water-stress.Shallow-planted seed that didn't germinate cooked in the soil.

And the widely spaced plants that germinated haphazardly provided perfect conditions for a devastating stunting disease.Only the lucky few with fields in more humid locations salvaged a decent crop.The rest of us were thankful to recover even part of our seed.Lusekele managed to harvest 7 or 8 sacks of peanuts from seven and a half acres of land.(We had expected to harvest 175 sacks.)We will be buying seed for next season rather than selling it.Most of our cooperating farmers will be in the same boat.

But there is a blessing in the middle of this disaster.Two years ago an international agricultural research program sent us 50 seeds each of 32 peanut varieties being evaluated in West Africa.We planted observation and multiplication plots in 2003 and 2004 and finally had enough seed of 18 varieties to conduct our first trial this rainy season.The test plots were planted at the same time as peanuts in surrounding fields.After two weeks without rain Antonie Lumonakiese and I decided to have day workers carry water bucket by bucket from the river 400 yds away to give the seeds a little moisture.But it's hard to put on enough water this way to make a real big difference.We were just hoping to salvage precious seed.To our amazement, three of the varieties did better than Lusekele production usually does in a good year.And five other varieties produced at least as much as typical yields in local fields in a good year.If we hadn't had the drought, we might never have learned that some of the new varieties seem to be at least a little drought-tolerant.We will multiply seed this short rainy season in order to be ready for on farm tests and serious seed multiplication in September.

Semi-subsistence farmers are not a priority for Congolese politicians and government leaders.Research and extension programs don't exist for them . . .except where the church, compelled by the example of Christ, steps in with a helping hand.This week Timothée Kabila visited a Catholic church center in southern Bandundu province with a program similar to Lusekele's.A Presbyterian project on the outskirts of Mbuji-Mayi encourages innovation among market gardeners.Fellow American Baptist missionary Virgil Nelson works with isolated farmers in the Kikongo area west of us.Committed Christians giving an example of what innovative agriculture can do to transform people's livelihoods.None of us has the resources to change an entire nation.But we can blaze the trail, demonstrating that God doesn't intend for His people to live in poverty and constant want.After all God has a whole treasure house full of amazing innovations -- like new drought-tolerant peanut varieties.