Fifth-generation farmer and agribusiness entrepreneur Doug Keesling has been appointed to the board of directors of an international agricultural development organization, Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture.
Keesling owns and operates Keesling Farms, which grows wheat, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum and forages on a 2,500-acre operation in Chase in Rice County.
“As a lifelong farmer, Doug will bring a unique, hands-on perspective to the CNFA board,” says CNFA Chairman John J. Cavanaugh. “Farming is deeply ingrained in his family history, so his participation will help ensure that our programs address both the practical and entrepreneurial aspects of agriculture.”
Keesling is a former chairman and current member of the Kansas Wheat Commission and was instrumental in the formation of the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan.
He has represented Kansas Wheat in trade missions to Cuba, Iraq, Africa and Central America.
Keesling says he first learned about the work of CNFA in Havana, Cuba, while he was on a trip for the Kansas Wheat Commission.
"It was during a reception on the last night of that mission. I was talking to Mike Espy [U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration], and he told me he wanted to introduce me to someone. That's how I met [CNFA president and chief operating officer] Sylvain Roy. Mike said he thought I'd be a good fit for some CNFA projects. Over the years, I kept running into different board members in other circles in ag."
It was about six months ago that he was first asked about joining the board.
"Sylvain asked me about joining the board. He said they wanted to get an active farmer who is also familiar with D.C. to be part of the board. So I said, 'Yes, I'll do it,' and now I am really excited about working with them. I hope I can be someone who makes a difference."
Keesling's experience as an active ag producer and someone who has taken a leadership role was attractive to the organization.
“Doug has been involved in nearly every aspect of agriculture — both as an active, hands-on farmer and businessman, and as a domestic and international advocate,” says Sylvain Roy, CNFA president and chief executive officer. “This range of broad experience has provided him with a deep understanding of the critical role that agriculture plays as an engine for economic growth and rural community development. These attributes are ideally matched to CNFA’s mission to use market-driven approaches to bring sustainable agricultural development to underserved regions of the world.”
CNFA works with businesses, foundations, governments and communities to build customized local and global partnerships that meet the world’s growing demand for food.
“CNFA promotes entrepreneurship as an essential key to improving the economic and social well-being of farmers around the world,” Keesling says. “I look forward to working with other CNFA board members to further replicate this successful approach to elevate the livelihoods of the world’s farmers, and their families and communities.”
Keesling says he has traveled to Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania and is planning to return to Mozambique in August.
He says he has been touched by the struggles of farmers in the world's underserved regions.
"I think there are a lot of people in Kansas and in the Midwest who have a negative feeling about American taxpayer dollars going overseas. People have this perception that there's just this major flow of money. It isn't that way. I was amazed how $1 a day can make a huge difference."
Keesling says that he has met other people from organizations who are trying to help and has learned that agricultural interests often dovetail with other humanitarian efforts.
"I met a couple of ladies who were working in Ethopia with foster kids and orphanages. They took me and showed me some of the work they were doing.
“I met these girls who grew up in the rural area on farms, but their family did not make enough money to feed everyone. So they came into the city to try to find a job. They tried to rent a place to live, and the landlord gave them a break on rent for a period of time. Then, when the time was up, he demanded full payment. When they couldn't pay, he forced them into prostitution. That's how I came to understand that what looks like a totally different issue — human trafficking — could be tied to agricultural poverty," he says.
Projects that are designed to help farmers can also help villages, he says, citing the example of a farmer who got help to drill a well and install a pump for irrigation.
"There was a nearby village that was also having terrible problems with lack of water supply," he says. "The help for the farmer came with a stipulation that he would install a spigot where the villagers could come and fill up water vessels. The farmer actually put up a water tower and paved a pad around the spigot where people could pull in their oxcarts and get their water."
Keesling says his desire to be involved in helping overseas comes in part from his father's participation in a similar organization, Windrock International.
"I remember my dad saying food is important to world peace. He would say, 'People with a full stomach don't fight.' I think if you help meet basic needs, you not only help them eat, you foster good will."
It is for that reason that he says he supports aid in the form of bags of wheat or flour rather than money for purchase of local commodities.
"I have seen firsthand the impact of having our military members handing out those sacks of wheat or flour with the American flag on them. The women make the empty sacks into clothing. That American flag comes to symbolize people who help them eat," he says.
In addition, he says, villagers who get that direct gift from military members are more likely to cooperate when the military is seeking information.
"In the past decade or so, we've moved toward providing money rather than goods. The idea is the money goes to local or regional farmers, and the U.S. saves the cost of transporting the commodity. There is some truth to that. But there is a value to the good will factor, too."
Since 1985, CNFA has managed more than $600 million in donor-funded agriculture development programs and has worked in 44 countries across the world in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and South and Central Asia.