MARL takes Brewster farmer on a South African adventure

WORTHINGTON -- Before Bill Gordon and his classmates in the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) program embarked on a 10-day study trip to South Africa earlier this month, he had a few expectations.

WORTHINGTON -- Before Bill Gordon and his classmates in the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) program embarked on a 10-day study trip to South Africa earlier this month, he had a few expectations.

He expected to see extreme poverty. He expected to see starving children.

What he saw instead were people thirsting for knowledge and hungry for opportunity.

Gordon, a rural Brewster farmer, traveled with the 32-member MARL Class IV and two leaders to Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 15. The journey took them to nearly a dozen farms, the U.S. Embassy, an agricultural school, the Center for Democracy and Kruger National Park.

The international tour is one of the final steps in the two-year MARL leadership program. The current class will graduate in April, and applications are being accepted through March for the fifth MARL class.


Gordon said the trip to South Africa focused on studying the country's agriculture, the culture of its people and South African government.

"(It was) to give us an international experience -- to make us better leaders," said Gordon. "The decisions now we make as leaders in Minnesota affect the state, the nation and the world."

The trip made Gordon realize that what goes on in Minnesota and across the United States is watched closely by countries around the world -- including South Africa.

"They watch our government a lot closer than we do at times," he said. "They watch our markets, our subsidies and our agricultural policies."

To gain a better understanding of South Africa, one of the first visits the group made was to the Center for Democracy in Cape Town. There, they learned of the struggles the country endured in Apartheid and the mission toward democracy. The country is home to blacks and whites, 11 different languages and a clear line between the haves and the have nots.

"None of the tribes get along," said Gordon. "There's more conflict between black tribes than between the blacks and whites. It's (surprising) how the country doesn't tumble into dismay."

The national unemployment rate is officially 27 percent in South Africa -- unofficially it's closer to 40 percent, said Gordon.

"About half the population wants to work and better themselves," he said. The other half doesn't want to work and threatens death to those who do -- because they don't want to lose their handouts.


Agricultural exploration

One of the most fascinating portions of the MARL trip for Gordon was a visit to the Fair Deal Training farm, an accredited agricultural school with 20 acres of test plots developed by Sabina Khoza, a black woman who moved to the rural area from Johannesburg.

"She had no experience in farming," said Gordon of the woman who is now showing her students the benefits of Bt corn and how its higher production can help meet the food demands of the country.

Much of Koza's work has been trial and error. For instance, when she first moved to the farm, she purchased chickens with the hope of producing enough eggs to sell. It wasn't until she visited with a farmer that she learned all of her chickens were roosters.

"From that point on, she took it upon herself to read and learn," said Gordon.

Koza first reached out to teach others when she grew her chicken operation and developed a partnership with seven other farmers. The chickens were sold to people in town, and the money earned was divided between producer shares and building the business.

Today, Koza operates a 40-day class in which she teaches students the anatomy of a chicken -- and every part of a chicken that can be marketed. She also teaches crop production -- mainly corn and vegetables.

"With the corn and vegetables, she'll let one (plot) get bugs and disease and weeds in it, and then she'll fertilize, weed and care for (the other plot)," said Gordon. Through the two plots, students learn that if they care for their crop, it will be much more productive.


The education Koza provides is a great benefit to the black population, which is regaining agricultural land taken from them years ago by the white people.

"The government isn't educating these people (when they do these land claims) and they don't know what to do," said Gordon. "By trying to help them, (the government) is actually hindering them because the land isn't being productive."

MARL participants toured a variety of farms, ranging in size from 200 acres to 36,000 acres. Crops included corn, wheat, potatoes, sugar beans and soybeans, while livestock ranged from beef and sheep to chickens, ostriches, dairy, goats and wildebeests.

"The townships are very poverish, with shacks with tin roofs held down by tires," said Gordon. As they drove out of the major city of Johannesburg, he said they drove through 10 miles of suburbs where 8- by 8-foot shacks stood just two feet apart. Millions of people don't have running water or electricity and share a common watering hole.

With the exception of the living conditions Gordon noted, the region looked quite similar to that in America, with rolling hills and productive fields.

Pacing growth

While the MARL group didn't travel to South Africa to impart wisdom on crop production efficiencies, Gordon said he and his fellow students did see room for improvement.

"Minnesota farmers could make them a lot more productive -- a lot more efficient," he said. "But, there's not going to be a real push because they have such a large labor pool."


Farm workers are paid roughly 1,400 rand per month, which equates to approximately $200 in the U.S. As for crop yields, Gordon said most corn was 100 to 150 bushels per acre, while soybeans averaged in the lower 40-bushel-per acre range.

"You can afford to have a lot of help and be inefficient because you have manpower," Gordon said.

That isn't to say they don't use farm equipment. Gordon saw a brand new, four-wheel-drive 9660 John Deere combine, as well as some "very old" John Deere and Case tractors. Other farm implements were generally older and smaller than what is now used in the U.S.

"They use smaller equipment and many more of them," said Gordon. "One farmer had two, eight-row planters for 6,000 acres."

During the visit, Gordon spent one night on a host farm. The 5,000 acre farm was home to sheep, bullock, a cow-calf operation, meat and angora goats and wild game that were marketed to hunting expeditions.

While staying at the farm, Gordon said MARL guests were treated to a braai, which is a barbecue. They dined on bullock sausage, lamb chops and lamb kabobs. The next morning, the farmer gave them a tour of his place, including a pick-up ride up a muddy mountain side to an elevation of 4,000 feet.

"Those were some of the most breath-taking views," said Gordon.

Among the more unusual sights during the journey through South Africa were visits to Kruger Park, which is home to lions, giraffes and elephants, among other animals, and a stop at a crocodile farm, where guests could hold a baby crocodile.


Joining Gordon on the MARL IV trip from southwest Minnesota were Jerry Svoboda of Jackson, Alpha native Kristie Ploehn and Lakefield native Jeremy Daberkow.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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