Doro Wat with a side of mash?

Teff may be the Ethiopian staple food, but potatoes offer tremendous nutritional  advantages. An RPCV tells how American expertise and technology are helping Ethiopia’s potato farmers raise better spuds

by Charlie Higgins (Haik 69–71)

Higgins in 1969 Peace Corps facebook

When my wife, Judy, and I were Volunteers in Haik in 1969, potato yields were less than 50 hundred-weight-per-acre [cwt/acre]. In the 40 years since, the population of Ethiopia has grown from 20 million to 80 million, but sadly the potato yields per acre are the same. Small farmers with only three or four acres in the high mountains have only potatoes to feed their children after the grain is used up and before the next harvest comes in. But because Ethiopian farmers use ground storage — or even store a few potatoes under the bed — upwards of a half of their crop can be lost to insect damage. This is a disaster in a country where forty percent of the children do not receive enough calories. Because potatoes produce more food per square yard than any other crop that can be grown at altitudes up to 12,000 feet, increasing potato production could alleviate some of the hunger and malnutrition problems in Ethiopia. This has already been done in China and India. The green revolution has come to Ethiopia for grain crops but not for potatoes.

Increasing potato production
Four years ago, while I was on a USAID Farmer to Farmer visit to Ethiopia, I saw an empty potato tissue lab used for the propagation of seed potatoes that had been built with USAID funds — your tax dollars. Construction was incomplete and they did not have clean clones to start production.

Bechard, right, sharing coffee with farmer and Ministry of Agriculture officials in Asfew

Over the past four years, I have seen improvement come to Ethiopia little by little thanks to the hard work of a team of people from the University of Wisconsin, Heartland Farms, Walther Farms of Michigan, Michigan State University and North Dakota State University along with Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture Potato Researchers. They all jumped at the opportunity to help Ethiopia potato farmers. We were able to help get clean clones for the lab, and Ermias Abate, the tissue lab manager, received training in the U.S. with Dr. Amy Chirkowski at the University of Wisconsin — who also made a trip to Ethiopia in March to provide advance training to Ermias. The University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University have provided Ermias with germ plasm of late blight tolerant clones that can be tested and crossed with Ethiopian high yield varieties of potatos. Dr. Gary Secor and the disease and tissue labs at North Dakota State University taught Ermias how to clean diseases from field tubers to produce clean clones. Drs. Chirkowski, Russell Groves, Felix Navarro, Jiuan Palta and many others at the University of Wisconsin provided critical training in lab management and screen house production. Now the lab is producing, and the screen house is full of clean seed production, and the Ethiopian potato research team now has email support from the best minds in the U.S.

Potato farming in Gojam: basic cultivation, superior varieties, great yields

AND SO, WITH GREAT PLEASURE, last November I watched an Ethiopian farmer harvest a crop of a new high-yield variety of potatoes with a team of oxen. These new varieties were selected by the Ministry of Agriculture Potato Researchers from true seeds from the International Potato Center (known by its Spanish acronym, CIP) in Peru and developed for sustainable farming in developing countries. The new potato varieties made by Ethiopian researchers CIP true seeds  can yield 300 cwt/acre compared to less than 50 cwt/acre from the local varieties.

Solving the storage problem
As I mentioned earlier many farmers lose as much as half of their crop each year during ground storage. To reduce this loss, on-farm potato storage is being designed and built with assistance from this project as well.  The storage can be built by the farmers with locally available materials.

Ethiopia has a wealth of sunshine. There are nine or ten months of sun and then it rains about 40 to 50 inches in two or three months during the rainy season.  Many farmers are replacing their thatch roofs with tin, and the tin roofs with some black cloth and clear plastic can become excellent potato and other vegetable dehydrators — a system that Steve Schewe (Gambella, Addis 69-71) helped design. The U.S. team is supporting the on-farm development of these solar dehydrators, and is encouraging Ethiopian nutritionists to develop recipes with dehydrated potatoes that can be made into nutritious soups by adding boiling water. The dehydrated potatoes can be made from damaged potatoes, and be  can be stored for years. If the rainy season fails to arrive, dehydrated potatoes could add to the food security for these small farm families.

Next on the to-do list
The next step will require the development of a micro-loan program so farmers in Ethiopia can contract for clean seed potatoes, fertilizer and pesticides.  The micro-loans would be repaid with cash, dehydrated potatoes or potatoes for the local school breakfast program.

Do it for the kids: potatoes give children a head-start

The ultimate purpose
In remote mountain villages children of migrant workers are left with relatives for months at a time while the parents search for work. The director of one school told us that some of her students, children of migrant workers,  get only one meal per day and only attended school two to three days per week. Jason Walther and Nancy Poynter of Walther Farms are funding a school breakfast program to help these children more directly.

In the U.S. test scores increase significantly if children have breakfast available at school. With the aid of Fred Bechard (Dessie 69-71), now a retired superintendent of schools in Maine, and other RPCVs of the XII group (1969 to 1971) a pilot school breakfast program will be tried in a small school in Gumet near Secala in Gojam. The local farmers have volunteered to support the school breakfast program with donated potatoes to pay back micro loans for clean seed potatoes of improved varieties.  Richard Pavelski of Heartland Farms, who has helped fund of the Ethiopian projects, advised in setting up the tax deductible Ethiopian Sustainable Food Project at the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin to manage the funds.

Charlie Higgins, Ph.D., is Director of Research & Development for Heartland Farm in Hancock, Wisconsin, and Walther Farm in Three Rivers, Michigan. The two farms total nearly 27,000 acres.

2 responses to “Friends

  1. We are quite proud of what Charlie and Fred are doing with potatoes in Ethiopia. It is heartening to all of us Ethiopia XII RPCVs that this project is moving along so well. I was glad to contribute a small service to the project, as a mechanical engineer, by doing a web search to find good, effective solar dehydrators. A friend and I then built a small working model that Fred and Charlie took with them to Ethiopia. I’m confident that the solar dehydrator design is effective and can be scaled up to dry large quantities of potatoes. Keep up the good work, Charlie and Fred!

  2. Semagn A. Kolech

    I want to thank Charlie Hegles for his contribution to assist Ethiopian farmers. Now a days there is some green light in producing clean potato planting material. Most of the local farms are infected by Viruses such as PLRV, PVY and PVX and bacterial wilt. By using clean planting material alone, we can increase the farmers potato yield by 50 %. so, We have to strengthen our effort for better life of the people of Ethiopia.
    Semagn A. Kolech
    From Cornell University, Graduate student

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