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Corn+Soybean Digest

Africa: A Near-Death Experience


A farmer only has one chance a year to plant a crop, and we all want to make the best of it. The same is true for me in Ghana; but I do not have the selection of seed varieties, chemicals or fertilizers as the U.S., so I try to do the best with what I can access. Planning is key. In the U.S., you’re the customer with plenty of dealers competing for your business. In Ghana, we are operating one of only a few commercial farms producing corn so if you want something, you have to do it yourself.

This year, I was able to put everything together for our crop on a ferry and send it directly to our farm located on Lake Volta. There is currently a shortage of urea in the country, but I found one supplier who had stock left over from last year. I was able to get seed, but the Pioneer dealer told me I should put a down payment on the quantity I needed to ensure I received it. It took some planning but it was nothing like last year.

We planted last year on April 22. Instead of having everything I needed at the farm for the whole season, I only had what was needed for each process. This meant taking many trips across the lake in a local wooden boat. David, the boat owner, has made a living for himself transporting goods. It is 60 ft. long by 4 ft. wide, and its sides are 5 ft. tall. The bottom is flat with 4x4 support beams every 3 ft. The large boat carries local goods like charcoal and yams, and up to 50 people every Tuesday and Friday across the lake for market day.

I always tell the guys I work with that if you have not had a near-death experience in the last three months, you are due for one.

Last year we had finished planting and were preparing to broadcast urea as our nitrogen source. I had arranged a truck to bring a load of fertilizer in 50-kg. bags (110 lbs.) to Kotoso, the small market town at the end of the road where we launch our boat. David’s boat came across, and there were about 15 women on the boat to help transport the bags from the truck to the boat. We loaded about 10 tons of fertilizer onto the boat. I asked David several times if the boat was strong enough to take it. He said it was, so off we went.

Two 40-hp outboard motors were on the back of the boat, but only one was operating. David had control and we were on our way to the farm.

I watched a few trees pass by and did not think anything of it. Lake Volta was dammed between 1962 and 1966, and when you dam a lake of its size, it is impossible to remove all of the trees. Since we are on the West arm of the lake where the Afram River ends and the lake begins, it’s shallow and there are plenty of trees both above and below water.

One man sits watch at the front of the boat helping the driver dodge fishing nets and tree stumps, but that day we were not so lucky. As the boat purred along, we heard a noise like something scraping the bottom, and then all of a sudden the 4x4 beams started breaking and water began rushing into the boat. We were about a half-mile offshore; there is no Coast Guard, and people can not hear screams of people from a half-mile away. Luckily the motor kept running and we were able to reach the shore just as the boat sank. The fertilizer was ruined but everyone was alive. 

No one had been willing to insure the boat, so I ate the cost of the lost fertilizer and ended up buying the fertilizer again, transporting it in smaller quantities on the same boat.

Ghana remains a challenging but rewarding place to work. The agriculture industry in the U.S. was not built overnight, and I hope that we continue to make strides in the right direction. 

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