For his latest volunteer efforts in Africa, Ron Overmyer was rewarded generously with a live chicken and a bowl full of sweet potatoes.
The gifts were from members of the Samora Machel Farmer Association who primarily grow white corn and soybeans on farms averaging five to eight acres in a highland area at the eastern base of the Bvumba Mountains.
Overmyer, of Oak Harbor, last month completed his third trip to Africa for the Farmer-to-Farmer program administered by the Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs, working with growers who live near the town of Catandica in west central Mozambique.
The association, formed in 2008 with about 15 members, now has about 1,370 members and could surpass 5,000 in five years.
Overmyer describes the association as similar to Grange and Farm Bureau in their infancies in this country. His assignment on this trip was to help the growers make the transition to an organization structured more like a farmers cooperative.
“After the civil war they didn’t have peace until the early 1990s,” he said. “Since then they’ve been forming associations to help farmers work together to improve their situation. A cooperative would have a more business-like structure. The big issue is strategic planning in the next three to five years. When I was there we looked at the initiatives they need to be working on to do that.”
A retired Ohio State University Extension educator, Overmyer said the plan includes strengthening the growers’ marketing ability by securing more customers for the members and improving their transportation system. Also, mechanization of some farming practices will need to be adopted to increase income and efficiency.
“The challenge as they add more members is the resulting complexity of the organization and being able to communicate with everyone,” he said. “Communications is a problem. In “the bush” area a number of them have cell phones. So they can call each other and pass on information. The association is made up of 30 or so clubs and club leaders will call members who have cell phones. There are no land lines so they try to have a member of each club spread the word to other members. That may take two or three days to get the message to everybody. Hopefully, the message stays consistent.”
A non-government organization helped the association prepare by-laws, Overmyer said, and he’s recommended those laws be reviewed to comply with the country’s regulations covering cooperatives.
Association members have said they’d like to build a warehouse to store corn.
“It’s not like in the U.S. where you have futures contracts and the crop price tends to fluctuate based on projections and so forth,” he said. “What happens there is prices are extremely low at harvest because most farmers have to sell because they don’t have credit and can’t hold the crop. So they usually have to sell at a low price. As the five-month marketing period goes on the price of the corn usually keeps increasing. So there is probably money there to take care of storage if they can get a well-managed warehouse built. That only happens with corn, not with soybeans.”
Association members last year sold about 7,500 bushels of corn and 7,000 bushels of soybeans. For the most part, the corn is processed into flour for human consumption – often mixed with water to make a dish called sema which has a consistency of mashed potatoes and tastes like grits, Overmyer said.
Soybeans are sold to large commercial poultry producers as a base for feed, he said. Chicken and eggs are an important part of the Mozambican diet.
The farm work is done manually.
“That means hoeing the field, planting by hand, weeding by hand, gathering the plants for threshing by hand, beating the soybean plants to remove the seeds and shelling the corn ears, and then separating and bagging the seeds,” he said.
Soybean yields are usually around 30 bushels per acre and open-pollinated corn yields average about 40 bushels per acre while hybrid corn yields average 80 bushels per acre.
“They’re making progress. The yields still aren’t that great but they have difficulty getting good inputs such as higher quality seed and fertilizer in particular,” Overmyer said.
Most of the growers live in round homes made of sticks and mud with roofs of thatched grass. While Portuguese is the official language of the country, many rural residents speak only tribal languages.
Overmyer roomed with another CNFA volunteer from Boston, who was working with another association, and an interpreter.
“It was a tremendous cultural experience along with the opportunity to share my agricultural expertise. I learned from them as much as they learned from me,” he said.
The gifts of sweet potatoes and the chicken were given to a CNFA director as they wouldn’t be allowed past customs.
The Farmer-to-Farmer program is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Overmyer is available for presentations to local groups. In 2011, he volunteered with corn growers in the Kasese District in Uganda and in 2012 he was a volunteer with the Agricultural College of the Catholic University of Mozambique.
To contact him call 419-308-5378.