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Farming project aims for ongoing harvest

MALI (BP)–It was spring in western Africa and the previous year’s meager harvest had been eaten. The crops for that year had not even been planted. For Malians dealing with years of drought, poor crop production and resulting hunger, timing is everything.

International Mission Board missionary Steve Roach is working to break this cycle. Roach, as the IMB’s strategy coordinator for the Bambara people of Mali, is teaching them a different way of farming, one that will produce enough crops to eliminate starvation.

Roach, an Oklahoma native, first heard about “Farming God’s Way,” a strategic, no-till farming program developed in Zimbabwe, during a visit to South Africa. Started 28 years ago, the program attempts to teach improved farming techniques through church networks. It combines biblical teaching with training in technology and management.

Each year for generations Malians have plowed the rough ground with cattle, tossed seeds unsystematically and burned off fields at the end of harvest. These are the practices Roach has been working to change.

Putting hands and feet to Roach’s plan are Sam Jones*, an IMB journeyman from Crystal Springs, Miss.; ISC missionary Slim Lanier* of Live Oak, Fla.; and Jeremy Toombs, a volunteer from Lawton, Okla. Previous helpers were Ryan Schelb of Tampa, Fla., a volunteer who stayed for six months at his own expense, and Andy Motley of Columbia, S.C., another volunteer who helped for three months. Despite long hours of back-breaking labor, primitive farming tools and brutal weather conditions, the men planted crops of corn, millet, peanuts and beans.


The idea behind the no-till farming plan is to keep the soil fertilized and in place, even with torrential rains and, in the process, share Bible stories teaching Malians the God-given potential of their land.

Because it is tradition to just toss seeds, many are washed away by rain, eaten by birds or just never grow because of crowding. With the no-till farming model, the farmer digs holes approximately 24 inches apart and 6 inches deep. Each row is about 30 inches apart.

Manure then is placed at the bottom of the hole and covered by a layer of dirt, leaving about 3 inches. Three seeds are placed into the hole and covered with the remaining dirt.

Placing manure in the hole first helps the soil remain fertilized even if the ground is flooded during the rainy season. “Whatever fertilizer you put in … stays there and has enriched the soil that amount for next year,” Roach said.

“Any kind of bean adds nitrogen to the soil. Corn or millet, which are the staples here, need nitrogen,” he said. “… What the beans add to the soil, the corn takes out. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship.”

Last year’s lack of rain yielded few results with the new farming method. Unfortunately, the Malians’ method produced even less. By February, the villagers were out of food — their harvest is not until November.

“They [the villagers] greatly resisted the farming method and told us, ‘We are farmers and we know how to farm better than you,'” Jones said. “They told us that we were crazy. This was hard to believe because they never produce enough food to eat for a whole year. … However, the traditions are so strong that they just couldn’t admit that there might be a better way to do things than the way their fathers did them.”

Beulah Baptist Church in Hopkins, S.C., has worked with Roach to come up with alternative methods to help the Malians feed themselves.

The church, which sends mission teams to Mali every couple of months, initially gave food to the people. But this year they decided to try something different.

“I talked to [the villagers] about teaching them to fish instead of giving them a fish,” said Brad Bessent, the church’s senior pastor. “So we started a farming project with a well-watered garden.”

With funds from the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund and grant money from South Carolina churches and the state convention, there is now a fenced garden area that produces food year-round.

In addition, Bessent buys the villagers a bag of grain for every compost hole they dig — but they must be to his specifications. As of June, Malians had dug 289 holes, although not all met the pastor’s requirements.

Roach and the no-till farming group decided to try a new approach as well. The group found a new village in November 2009 and explained they wanted to demonstrate a different way of farming and a better way to compost. The villagers agreed — and the group has had great success.

“Because this village is not so gripped by the desperation of hunger, they are more open to new methods,” Jones said.

And there have been even greater dividends.

“In February, three men accepted Christ. Since then, we’ve been meeting together weekly with these three men teaching them new stories from God’s Word,” Jones said.

Lanier, who is leading the men in this latest effort, and Jones have learned that some of the no-till method will just not work in Mali’s soil, which is different from Zimbabwe’s. However, the villagers are curious about the results.

“We will hopefully have a good crop of peanuts and beans,” Jones said. “The villagers are taking note of how we planted both of these crops and are seemingly impressed at how they are doing.

“This year our focus has been on the ‘main’ thing — church planting,” Jones added. “The Lord has blessed that as we work with these three new believers. Planting a field in this village has given us a lot of credibility.”
*Names changed. Emilee Brandon is a former staff writer for the International Mission Board. Southern Baptists’ contributions to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and through the Cooperative Program provide for missionaries like Roach and their ministries. To learn more about the Bambara, visit www.gowestafrica.org/peoplegroups/bambara. To hear a challenge about how your church can minister overseas, visit www.imb.org/video/pastorchallenge. World Hunger Fund information is available at www.imb.org/worldhunger.

    About the Author

  • Emilee Brandon