U researchers grow vital African crops in St. Paul

Farming technology improvements could help to end the East African famine.

Yasin Mohamud

The plants growing on a one-acre plot of land in St. Paul may hold the key to ending the famine that has ravaged East Africa.

The University of MinnesotaâÄôs Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics is tending to a variety of foreign crops traditional to Africa in hopes of developing post-harvest farming devices and tools for subsistence farmers.

Under a banner proclaiming âÄúThe Lost Crops of Africa,âÄù it planted in an experimental field on the St. Paul campus with the help of Tiffany Stone, an applied plant and science major who works as a student assistant on the project.

The group has grown crops such as ivory teff and pearl millet, generally considered to be drought-resistant crops. Most of the unique crops being used in the project may be unknown to many in developed countries, but millions depend on them for their daily nourishment in Africa.

The department has teamed up for the project with Compatible Technology International, a nonprofit organization that alleviates hunger and poverty in the developing world by designing and distributing simple, life-changing food and water technologies.

CTI will use the harvested African crops to develop and test post-harvest farming devices and tools for subsistence farmers. By growing the crops so close to home, CTI ultimately hopes to refine their new equipment more easily to fit a particular crop.

âÄúThe methods farmers in Africa use to gather their grains can be very inefficient and itâÄôs staggering how much of it they lose during the process,âÄù said CTI spokeswoman Meghan Fleckenstein.

Fleckenstein said they hoped to double their food supply by developing equipment that will be hand operated and easy to use to allow farmers to keep 90 percent of their grain.

The project was not brought on by the current famine in East Africa, but has been  in the works for awhile, Fleckenstein said.

âÄúCTI has been committed to addressing these types of issues for over 30 years.âÄù

In addition to providing the land for the crops, the University has provided CTI with Paul Porter, an agronomy and plant genetics professor, and Stone to help oversee the project.

âÄúWhat the University has done for us has been amazing. The resources they have given us and Tiffany [Stone] especially has been invaluable to this project,âÄù Fleckenstein said.

Stone said there has been a lot of collaboration between the department and CTI, including many volunteers who are current and former professors from the University.

âÄú[They] have tremendous knowledge about the issue and are happy to use their knowledge to help the developing world,âÄù she said.

Stone, who said she became interested in this field at a young age, plans to study abroad in Kenya to complete an agricultural internship. She hopes that the University continues to collaborate with CTI and other agricultural companies to bring awareness to food crisis issues.

âÄúIâÄôve always felt pretty strongly about justice, and this might sound cliché, but IâÄôve always wanted to help people,âÄù she said.

âÄúAs Norman Borlaug put it, âÄòFood is a moral right for all those that live on EarthâÄô and I believe in that sentiment.âÄù