Farmers of the Future is the brainchild of Professor Dov Pasternak, a world-renowned Israeli agricultural scientist. Dov spent the first 30 years of his career at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, working on the team that developed drip irrigation and helped to introduce it to several countries around the globe. In the last decade, Dov has worked with thousands of rural farmers in West Africa to use agriculture as a path out of extreme poverty. As Dov explains, "subsistence farming is a major cause of poverty in Africa. A subsistence farmer grows rain-fed crops and consumes almost all that he harvests. As a result, he earns little income, keeping him and his family trapped in perpetual poverty."
The best way to generate income from small plots is to use intensive farming practices. You start with irrigation, so the land can produce several crops a year. Then, by growing high-value crops like vegetables and fruits, and raising small animals for milk or meat, you can dramatically increase the economic and nutritional value of what is produced. However, Professor Pasternak found that adults are very resistant to change, and became convinced that reaching out to younger generations is imperative to changing agricultural practices. Thus, the concept for Farmers of the Future was born.
The Farmers of the Future program involves primary school children and their parents in experiential learning to demonstrate that farming is not just for poor people, and can be a good source of income. Currently in the pilot phase at a handful of schools outside the capital city of Niamey, Farmers of the Future hopes to ultimately change attitudes and practices in the entire country of Niger. The project is being implemented by LIBO, a local NGO in Niger, and funded by two North American organizations: Eliminate Poverty Now, a U.S. non-profit creating economic opportunity in Africa, and Pencils for Kids, a Canadian NGO promoting educational opportunity for children in Niger.
The program for children has two main components: a classroom curriculum covering seven major topics and a mini-farm right outside the classroom door. Taught over a two-year period, students learn how to grow vegetables and trees, and how to raise small animals. The "mini-farm" has a well, pump, and water reservoir for irrigation, and is fenced in to protect the children's hard efforts by keeping grazing animals out.
Fifteen to twenty mothers of students at each school are invited to become partners in profitable farming ventures, such as fruit tree nurseries and vegetable gardens. Women keep 50 percent of the revenues for their own use, and the remaining 50 percent covers on-going operating cost and subsidizes school fees for the entire community. There will also be father/son and mother/daughter activities to spread these new concepts broadly throughout the villages.
John Craig, President of Eliminate Poverty Now, says that they expect to take several years to conduct field tests and refine the program, but the goal is to eventually expand nationally. To that end, they have worked closely with Niger’s National Ministry of Education to create the curriculum, and have shared the concept with several high-level government officials.
“One of Niger’s top national priorities is to achieve self-sufficiency in their food supply. They see a program like Farmers of the Future as an important enabling strategy. We’ve got great support from the top down. Now the pressure is on us to deliver a program that really works. Fortunately, we’ve got world class agricultural expertise in Professor Pasternak to draw on and a great team on the ground in Niger dedicated to make the project a success,” says Craig.