Minnesota Farmer


What’s next?
September 3, 2017, 9:30 pm
Filed under: church, Minnesota, Ondini circuit, Shetek Conference, South Africa, travel

So I’ve shared all of my trips to South Africa’s Ondini Circuit with you.  If you are not a long time reader, you can find the first two trips in February of 2011, and August of 2014.  These exchange trips have been going on between the Shetek Conference and the Ondini Circuit since 2008, but what’s next, how do we move along further in this relationship.

Change has seemed to be almost glacial in the Ondini.  There are many societal reasons for this, and change takes time.  In some of my conversations with the younger Lutherans in Ondini I know that they are chaffing at how bad things are and wanting more for their people, but change is also frightening.  We here in Minnesota see something that needs to be done, and do it, in the Ondini, that does not happen.

 

We have spent years now developing a relationship.  It is expected that we will show up every few years to renew that relationship.  Now it is time to step our game up to another level.  We need to spend more time with each other so we can really have a chance to change things.  Two things are being worked on to make longer relationship building happen.

First we are researching ways to get younger residents of the Ondini Circuit who have potential to spend time in Minnesota.  There is a program that brings Africans to the U.S. to work at bible camps.  We are researching how these young people are sourced and placed.  If we can get that information to our friends in the Ondini Circuit, it is hoped that they will come up with candidates to work at our own Shetek Bible Camp.  This will develop a core of young people trained in Christian education to work in their home area. We also plan to help those young people find their way around the Shetek Conference and support them however we can.  That support could also include gardening and health tips to take home with them.

Second we are hoping to place an advisor from the U.S. in the Ondini Circuit to help them expand and improve the projects through out the circuit.  This advisor would have to have an understanding of management, gardening, livestock production and building projects.  They would have to commit themselves to staying on site for at least three months.  Ideally this would be a retired individual or couple with a lifetime of experience to pass on.

Our partners in the Ondini understand their problems.  Pastors and teachers are doing their best to bring the needed change, but they have other jobs to do and personal lives to live.  We need to empower some of the younger people to carry on the changes they envision.  Whatever we can do to keep the best and brightest minds in the rural areas, we must do.  Only when young people see hope where they grew up will the people of the Ondini stay and create the jobs needed to benefit all of Africa.

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The Grand Tour of Ondini Churches

When a delegation only makes a physical connection every three years concerns mount.  The folks in the Ondini had been wondering if we were still active and supportive of their efforts.  To help “show the flag” we headed off on what I called the “Grand Tour.”

Travel conditions, once you get off the main roads, are not that great.  Distance, and the fact that few in this area have cars of their own, mean that actual physical visits from members of the Minnesota partnership, may not happen.  So on August 10 we made the 96 km (60 miles) East to Muden, and the area churches of Mhlangana and Stendal.

Churches in the Ondini are usually made of home-made brick with a steel roof.  Newer ones, like this one could also be made of concrete block.  Muden had lost it’s building several years ago, so this was obviously newer construction.Interior walls are plastered over and painted. The floor is usually concrete, perhaps with tile on it.  It is rare to see a church with a ceiling, usually just open rafters.  Simple benches make do for seating.

This was the newest electrical connection I had seen in any building.  These two outlets and a few lights on the rafters are all the electricity they have here.  The ceiling lights were bare CFL bulbs of the push and twist type, not the screw base we are used to.

The men’s toilet was rudimentary, the women’s at least had  door on it.

Our next church was further into the hills.  Water was short here and barrels sat along the road for people to use in their homes.  The school across the road did have water, and a pump in the lot behind the church was available for use.

This church at Mhlangana was in the start of an expansion.  The home-made blocks were starting to pile up as they began the process of adding a kitchen.

The 14th of August found us heading off to the farthest out churches, those of the Harrismith and Bethlehem Parishes.  Harrismith is 136 km (84 miles) to the northwest, Bethlehem is 68 km (42 miles) further west, and Reitz another 48 km (30 miles) north.  Now this is not our plains area travel, this is travel through the northern reaches of the Drakensberg mountains.  The buttes and mesas reminded me of Arizona and New Mexico.  Thus is high dry country, but the area has several dams and reservoirs that provide water for the area.

Few of the mountains in this area top 2000 meters (6560 feet), but we did go through Van Reenen’s pass which is at 1646 meters (5400 feet).  Fantastic views were everywhere as we wound our way up and over the pass.  Today’s travel was mostly on the N3 and N5 so the roads were good.

The Harrismith church again sits next to a newer school complex.

The interior is nicely done and the benches have backs.  Being in a larger city has helped to keep this church building in good shape.

Signage like this is rare, again a larger city.

I liked the shape of the church at Bethlehem.  Visible in back is the pastors residence.  On the left side of the picture is the church garden.  The last pastor had been a diligent gardener and provided much of his food from this garden.  This church also has a young pastor in it now.

The interior of the Bethlehem church was also interesting.  Several members of this congregation provided us with lunch here.  One older lady was exited to see us again and had pictures of us from the induction ceremony at Emmaus.

Now we turned north to Reitz.  Here the country flattens out and farms are everywhere.

The church at Reitz is the oldest in the Bethlehem parish.  It had originally been the home of the missionary pastor for the parish.  That position later moved to Bethlehem.

The young lay minister in this congregation is the grandson of a former pastor here.  He is working hard to keep his congregation going and hopes to be ordained someday and follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.

These posters on the wall helped us get an understanding of the Diocese and Circuits of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa.  Everywhere we went we saw large calendars and posters that showed pictures of bishops and deans of the church.  The churches of the Ondini are very proud to be part of a larger church and do everything they can to help their parishioners understand how the church works.

It was distressing to me to see holes in many church windows.  Vandalism is common and when you have little money and no insurance, getting church windows fixed is not on your list of things to do.  All church compounds are fenced, but unless the building is in a larger city, it is fencing meant only to keep cattle and goats out.

As you can see differences in church buildings is great.  A building in a smaller, poorer area is small and spare, but no less loved by its congregants.  Church buildings in larger towns show more of the European influence with high ceilings and rafters covered.  None of the church buildings have heat.  This area is a relatively benign area, with lows and highs never far from the comfortable stage.  Even in summer the congregants will wear their church uniforms and pastors will be in full regalia.

Well the grand tour is done.  We visited the churches and met the people of congregations of most of the Ondini Circuit this trip.  Our travels are not yet over, there is more to come.



Minnesota farmers visit South African farm

One of the requests we had made on a previous visit was to spend time with a farmer from South Africa.  Some of it is curiosity on our part on how agriculture is done in a larger scale, and the other reason is to get a baseline for what agriculture could be in the Ondini Circuit.

Understand, that this is dryland/irrigated farming on a scale not familiar to us here in southwestern Minnesota.  Everywhere we travel in South Africa agriculture is so different.  Timber, sugar cane and pineapple are foreign to us.  Corn, cattle, hogs, soybeans, barley, wheat and oats we understand.

Our South African farmer host also farms on a different scale than we do.  While many in our area farm with only family labor, he has a considerable labor force employed.  He, his daughter and son-in-law make up the management team.  They have 9 full-time employees and 6 part-time employees.  The operation produces white corn, soybeans for seed, black oats for cover crop, pasture and hay, wheat, pumpkins and squash for seed, and cattle to make use of land which can not otherwise be farmed.

Our host grew up speaking German, his daughters married English speakers, and his grandchildren speak Zulu with their friends and in school.  Most of his employees are native Zulu speakers.

Keeping employees is one of his hardest tasks.  To keep good employees he pays them above normal wages and builds a house for them in town.  Employee loyalty is rewarded by advancement as space opens up or need requires.

The 8 row, row crop planter he had in the shed has all of the latest attachments for no-til planting, fertilizing and spraying under GPS guidance.  While the size of planter was small by our standards, the availability of labor to keep that planter on the move made it just right for his farm.

The nearly new John Deere tractor in his shed complemented the other smaller and older tractors that populated the farm.

The John Deere combine and sprayer also looked familiar to us.

The truck configuration was different to what we use.  We saw very few hopper bottom trucks in our travels, but double trailer and straight truck with a trailer combinations, with steel rather than aluminum frames were everywhere.  Road conditions and local road laws are the most likely reason for this difference.

Land does not sit idle in this area of South Africa.  When one crop is harvested, the planter is already in the field to plant the next.  Irrigated oats keeps cattle graze in peak condition although they do have to add some dried hay to keep the cattle on green grass from getting diarrhea.

Irrigation water for this farm comes from reservoirs sourced in the Drakensberg Mountains.  Our host farmer serves on the local water board to help manage that crucial water.

Corn stalks are also used to graze stock cattle when available.

During the summer, when all of the irrigated land is planted to other crops, native grass pastures are used to keep the cattle growing. A feed lot is also on the farm, but it is presently only used for part of the year.  That is one place he hopes to make more use of.  Right now he only has cattle in the feed lot to meet the Christmas market when local prices are highest.

Most of the cattle he has on hand have bells on them.  Although all cattle must be branded to prove ownership, there is the potential for theft.  The bells are to help the night guards keep track of cattle movements.

One of our South African church hosts was along for the trip, and was very impressed with all of the science that was needed to farm.  That one fact is something that few who do not live on the farm understand.  If we are to raise food for the world we must use every bit of science at our disposal.  Margins on the farm are razor-thin, to make a profit so we can feed our families and pay our employees is not easy in today’s price environment.  That fact is true in South Africa as well as Minnesota.



Back to South Africa

On Wednesday, August 2, 2017, ten members of churches in the Shetek Conference of the ELCA left for the Ondini Circuit in the Kwa-Zulu Natal of South Africa.  This group from Southwestern Minnesota included 5 farmers, a nurse, a food service worker, a pastor and two young men just headed off to college.  For 4 of us this was a return trip, for the rest it was a new adventure.

Roughly, the Ondini Circuit includes the area from Estcourt, Muden and Weenen in the southeast to Bethlehem and Reitz in the northwest.  It goes from the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains and up into the mountains.  The area is rough.  Valleys and level areas are separated by sharp hills in the southeast and buttes and mesas in the northwest.  The best farmland is controlled by descendents of white settlers, but many areas with good potential still exist in the native, black settled areas.

Most homes in this area have access to clean water, but in some cases it may be a barrel that is filled by a water truck.  Homes vary from those with every convenience we here in the U.S. expect to a steel or concrete walled structure with a steel roof.  If you have a job, you have a decent home, if you do not, the living is rough.

Temperatures in the area rarely fall below freezing so homes are easy to heat with a small fire or heater in the winter.  Summer temperatures are hot, but not unbearably so, the nighttime cooling easily counters the daytime heat.

This is dry country.  What rain they get makes it easy to grow crops in the spring and summer, but this land can support year around agriculture, irrigation is needed to get a really dependable crop, and the area has had a three-year run of drought.  Runoff from the Drakensberg mountains fills reservoirs, but not all water is impounded like it could be.  Some of the water is destined for drier cities to the north and is not accessible for local use.

Our trip was mainly to visit the black churches of the Ondini circuit, to talk about health and wellness issues, pastoral support and ways to provide other support to the many who live here on government support.  It is an important task that local churches have taken on, but they need help. Most expertise to run mission outposts was removed when the post Apartheid government and churches took power.  It is to one of these old mission outposts that we were bound.

More posts are coming on our trip to the Ondini.  Stay tuned.



Topsy-Turvy weather
April 29, 2017, 5:59 pm
Filed under: cold, Corn, Farm, forecast, Minnesota, planting, snow, spring

The warm weather earlier this spring convinced me that spring was here to stay.  I went to work refilling my stack of wood and settled in for the warm weather we expect in spring.100_3113

Unfortunately I did not keep access to some of the dryer wood.  Now the weather has turned cold, with freezing temperatures in the morning and a forecast of snow for Sunday.  That has left me scavenging burnables and searching for dry wood in tree lines. All of this in a time the calendar says I should be planting corn.

Many of my neighbors used the previous warm weather to plant corn.  I looked at the weather forecast, checked soil temperatures, looked for barn swallows and tree leaves and decided to wait.  I’m not sure how much damage is happening out there in that cold wet ground, but I was not going to chance it.  I was not the only one, with many a planter sidelined waiting for needed warmth.

Now the forecast is for snow and two more days of cold.  Then the weather reports says spring will be here.  If the warm comes as predicted, it looks like I’ll be starting planting this Thursday of Friday, two weeks after those early go getters started putting their corn in the ground.  If it will make any difference I do not know.  I just know I am happier for having waited.



Maturing or dying
September 8, 2016, 9:18 am
Filed under: Ag education, agriculture, Corn, Fall, Farm, harvest, Minnesota, rain, weather | Tags: , , ,

It’s been a wet year in our part of Minnesota.  We have never been short of moisture at any time this year, in fact most of the year we have been wet.  The rains come and do not turn off.  Getting field work done has been hard.  Now as the fall harvest is nearing, corn farmers are wondering is my corn maturing,img_0705

or dying?img_0706

Every year as harvest nears a host of rots and diseases move into our corn stalks to start the breakdown of dying corn plants.  Sometime they move in too soon and the corn dies before it matures.  Then you have a mess like in the second picture above.  Modern corn varieties are less susceptible to many of those diseases and rots, but when too much water kills off the corn before it matures, the rot takes over.

In about a month we will be into harvest.  If too much of our corn is down and rotting, we will have reduced yields and difficult harvest conditions.  Then we will know the answer to our question, is that corn crop maturing or dying?



Water issues

I spent this last Wednesday at FarmFest near Redwood Falls, Minnesota.  As always, there were lots of displays and things for sale, but I always take time for some of the forums on current issues.  IMG_0674The 1:15 session was titled “Buffers, WOTUS* and other Water Quality Issues.”  Now when you get farmers talking water, you get all kinds of concern.  We are always talking about how little or how much water we have.  Water is life for both our crops and our livestock.  Water is a big deal on the farm.  Now if you add in government control of our water, you are likely to get fireworks. (*Waters of the United States, it refers to a bill that could increase government control of water way beyond what is reasonable.)

The forum brought together nine speakers from various backgrounds, mainly commodity and farm group leaders, plus the local legislator (who wrote the “Buffer” bill) and an assistant to the state secretary of Agriculture.  So here are a few nuggets of wisdom and some comments on water issues from the forum.

“We all want water quality, we just want someone else to pay for it.”  Now isn’t that the truth.  But who should pay for it.  Well it boils down to blaming the least vocal, least politically connected voices, lately that seems to be farmers.

“Currently in Minnesota about 80% of the waters that need a buffer already have one.”  That was a revelation.  When the governor started pushing for buffers along all the waters in Minnesota you would have thought we had a real problem, but most of the job is already done.  But the next one really did open my eyes.

“In many cases, waters that do not have a buffer, need something other than a buffer to protect water quality.”  Now isn’t that interesting.  So again we have politicians pushing for something that is only needed in a small number of cases and they end up creating a big fuss when the job is almost already done.

“There are no waters in the state of Minnesota that are clean enough to drink risk free, and have most like never have been.”  Now I’ve been canoeing in the “pristine” waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and I know that even there  you deal with fish, mammal and bird poop in the water and the bacteria they have that can cause distress in humans.  That is a remote area, in areas more densely populated and warmer that density of potential problems increases.  Waters that contain fish, entertain birds and have swimming and wading mammals, amphibians and reptiles will always contain risks for disease transmission, this is not new.

Groups that regulate farmers seem to be seeking out ways that they can push for multi-million dollar fines for doing activities that are not even in their rules to control.  Normal farming activities that are up to date and environmentally friendly to most are being levied with suits to see if the regulation will stick.  If farmers cave in, it becomes law.  “They want to face individual farmers, not farm groups.  If we contact our farm group we can combat these illegal taking of farm activities.”  As a group we can face up to those who wish to push the law too far.  The courts have been on our side, but one farmer cannot afford all of the costs of lawyers, that is where your commodity or farm group can help.  Do not suffer alone.

Now the comments turn more hopeful.

“The changes in U.S. Agriculture since the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972 have allowed agriculture to have a smaller environmental footprint.”  Farmers get all kinds of bad press when they get bigger and increase the density of their endeavors, but the truth is once we get bigger we get more concerned about controlling all of the possible elements on the farm.  Two issues from our own farm.

1) When we raised pigs outdoors, pens were not designed to control manure runoff.  It was spread on fields at anytime of year with no concern for whether it may end up in a stream or lake.  Now every bit of manure is controlled and used as the precious resource it is.

2) Newer machines have allowed us to control crop chemicals in ways we never could before.  Now we can control our crop chemicals down to the fraction of an ounce.  This means using only enough, never too much of that expensive crop input.

“Water quality is improving in Minnesota, but as more obvious point sources of pollution are eliminated (factories and city sewage systems) the search for the next point of pollution goes to more and more diffused sources.”  In other words, we have already done the large part of cleaning up our act, if anti-pollution groups are to keep their funding they must find more places to put the blame that may not amount to much in the overall picture.

“Farm groups are being asked ‘Are we sustainable.’  Well, yes we are.  We have over 40 years of work on being sustainable.  We are not yet done on improving on our sustainability.  We now produce more food on less acres and with fewer animals than 50 years ago.”   We have less waste and fewer inputs for more yield than at anytime in my life, that means we are doing something right.

At times when we talk water issues and government policy, it seems as if everything is hopeless.  There are too few of us and we are so small.  Still if we band together, our voice can still be heard.  The courts have been good to us, if we get a chance to make our case.  Alone we are helpless, together we can protect this precious way of life that provides food for so much of the world.