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Iowa Farmer-to-Farmer Program Is Bridging The Gap For Women

Iowa Farmer-to-Farmer Program Is Bridging The Gap For Women

Iowa farm women are sharing their experiences in central Africa, where 80% of the farming is done by women. This collaboration was developed by a farmer-to-farmer project through ISU Extension.

Iowa farm women are sharing their experiences in central Africa, where 80% of the farming is done by women. This collaboration was developed by a farmer-to-farmer project through Iowa State University's Global Extension program with cooperation from a Ugandan nonprofit organization, Volunteer Efforts for Developing Concerns (VEDCO).

A Ugandan farm woman wields a hoe, which often is the only tool the women have available.

The program, Bridging the Gap: Increasing Competitiveness of Ugandan Women Farmers in the Marketplace, is a year-long project funded by Weidemann and Associates through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In late March, the first group of volunteers visited the Kamuli district of southeast Uganda to conduct farmer training and education with Ugandan women farmers. The group included three volunteer Iowa farmers and ISU Extension specialist Margaret Smith. Objectives included training for improved maize (corn) quality, facilitating maize grain marketing, introduction of improved soybean production methods and improving written farm record keeping. 

Iowa farm women are helping educate Ugandan farm women

"Groups of Iowa women volunteers spend 10 to 12 days in the Kamuli District, Uganda, where the poverty rate is above 40% and much of it is concentrated in households that depend on agriculture," says Mary Holz-Clause, associate vice president for ISU Extension and Outreach. 

Dana Foster, Chris Henning and Brenda Zylstra were the first three women to volunteer for the project. All three have ag backgrounds and are influential volunteers in their Iowa communities. While their similarities led them to this project, they each brought a unique perspective to the first volunteer visit to the Kamuli District.

Brenda Zylstra, center, measures an emigo stick with Ugandan farm women.

Foster, a teacher and farm manager at Scattergood Friends High School in West Branch, uses organic farming methods as everyday practice to teach her students. While in Uganda, she noted the importance of making the Ugandan women's work easier along with increasing their crops' market competitiveness. Most of the farmers do nearly all of their field work by hand with just one heavy-duty, hand-held hoe.

"Our gardening at the high school involves a lot of hoes and hand weeding because of small scale, organic production," Foster says. "When I saw Ugandan women farming on only a slightly larger scale, I thought of other kinds of tools they could be using. For example, just having access to a wheel hoe instead of always having to lift a hand hoe up and down could save a lot of energy."

Some of the challenges are lack of tools, and improving grain quality

Some of the biggest challenges the program identified for these farmers include availability of tools and equipment, transportation and quality control for grain. Poor grain quality and the lack of adoption of regional grain standards puts small-scale farmers at a disadvantage. Much of the maize is shelled by using a stick to beat the kernels off the ear, resulting in a high percentage of damaged and cracked kernels that are subject to insect and rodent damage.

 Grain buyers come around to farms to buy grain that's available for sale, but don't use inspected scales and there are no grain standards in place in the countryside. When grain does reach mills for processing, the clean-out losses of damaged and broken kernels can be as high as 40% of the original volume.

"The advantages we have in the U.S., such as standard weights and measures, ready availability of tools, motorized equipment and the mechanics to maintain it, are so often taken for granted," says Chris Henning, of Prairie Skye Productions in Cooper, Iowa. "A few strategically distributed maize shellers and some wheels and axles could make a huge difference for Ugandan farmers."

The project is introducing hand- and bicycle-powered maize (corn) shellers, both to speed the shelling process and to improve grain quality.

Henning's interest in the women-to-women farming program is vested in her roots as a farmer, the oldest sibling of six girls and a facilitator of various women's programs for almost 30 years. 

Zylstra, also a farmer, raises corn, soybeans and a small goat flock in Lyon County while also working part-time as the staff lawyer at Frontier Bank in Rock Rapids. Her four young children were in the capable hands of her husband during her volunteer service. When sharing pictures and stories of her family, she quickly found the common bond of family linked the Ugandan and Iowa women. 

VEDCO, a non-profit Ugandan organization, is essential in the effort

Zylstra, Henning and Foster all recognized VEDCO as essential to their efforts through their translation, cultural knowledge and marketing efforts.

"VEDCO was invaluable in that they had laid the groundwork in identifying the farmers and farmer groups with which we worked," Zylstra said. "If we had to start from scratch, we would have needed months of time in Uganda."

The next group of Iowa women farmers worked in Uganda in late May. They met with VEDCO administrators and continued the work begun by the first group to improve on-site farm production, crop quality and farm record keeping in the Kamuli district. For more information, contact Margaret Smith, project co-director, ISU Extension Value Added Agriculture Program, at

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