Project AgGrad Student hopes to help India feed its people


November 26, 2012

By: Victoria Rebeck

Growing food and distributing it in an efficient and affordable way is difficult in India. Farming is still largely a manual process. Food distribution is greatly affected by political conflicts.

Sama Ao of Mopungchuket village, Nagaland, India, wants to help farmers in her home country develop ways to overcome these obstacles and make a sustainable living. Minnesota United Methodists are helping her—and helping to feed more people in India—by making her this year’s Project AgGrad student.

“My study will focus on corn,” says Ao, 34. “I will study cropping systems and crop rotation.”

Project AgGrad—now in its 26th year—provides a scholar from a developing nation a chance to earn a graduate degree in agriculture production at the University of Minnesota. Upon completion of the degree, the scholar returns to their home country to share what they’ve learned in order to enhance their nation’s farmers to feed more people in a sustainable way.

Ao is studying corn as it is a major crop in India, second to rice. Crop rotation will be a focus for her.

“Most of our farmers farm in for two years in a location, then shift to another location and leave the previous locations fallow for up to ten to fifteen years. The income they can earn is declining, so many are leaving agriculture—but there are not many other employment opportunities for them.”

The lack of mechanization also limits profitability. “Because it is all manual labor, many farmers put in lots of hours of work for relatively low income,” she says.

Some of the land is being taken for rubber plantations, she says. However, these don’t grow food and can require ten or more years before a profit is realized. But the corn farms tend to be small (two to six acres) and the land ownership is within clans. The clans determine how much land they want to allow to the farmers.

She’d like to help the farmers learn ways to engage in intensive farming.

“Their attempts at intensive farming in the past didn’t work,” she says, “because no one advised farmers on how to use fertilizer or provided technical support on how to use the same field year in consecutive years to keep the land productive.”

This could also prevent the ecological damage created by clear-cutting hilly forests for agricultural use. She’d like to see more use of less hilly lands.

She’s also concerned about developing ways to overcome distribution problems that result in high prices for grain.

“Even in normal conditions, we import rice,” she says. “The price of rice shoots up when the transportation of that rice is not possible because of blockades caused by political conflicts between states. It’s very problematic for most people to handle that price fluctuation.”

Developing ways to hold grain in reserve could hedge against these distribution problems, she believes.

“The area is fertile enough to raise enough for the next harvest,” she says. “Years ago, farmers could save rice in granaries for years. So if it was possible then, it should be possible now.”

She’s hoping that the graduate degree she will earn from the University of Minnesota will help her to help her home country address these problems. Upon completion of her degree and returning to India, “I would do research and teach, and generate knowledge on identifying crop varieties that are most suitable for our land in our state,” she says. “I would start with the basics—identifying the crops varieties that are most beneficial in our soil type, so it can be grown in large numbers and introducing rotation and soil management for sustainable production.”

Sama’s parents, both school teachers, raised their six children in a rural setting where they also had to cultivate small farmlands to grow rice and other cash crops enough for the sustenance of the family. Prior to coming to University of Minnesota, Sama served as assistant professor of Botany at Kohima Science College, Jotsoma, Nagaland, India.

“Sama is our first Project AgGrad student who is not from Africa,” says Eric Forsberg, chair of the Project AgGrad team.

This year the team sifted through about 20 applications.

They assess the applicant’s likelihood of succeeding in the demanding academic environment of the University of Minnesota. And “they need a commitment to return to their home country to help that country feed its own people,” Forsberg says. Further, they look for applicants who are people of faith. Ao is Baptist.

“I would like to thank Project AgGrad, especial the Minnesota Conference, for organizing such a great opportunity to reach out to help people in need,” Ao says.

Project AgGrad students are available to talk to churches about this world-transforming ministry and how their faith calls them to their work. Communities in which agriculture is a major industry may find these students’ presentations especially intriguing (though they are accessible to all who are interested in Christ’s call to feed the hungry).

To arrange for Sama to speak at your church, contact Eric Forsberg at (612) 215-3302.

Victoria Rebeck is director of communication for the Minnesota Annual Conference.




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