Alberta farming couple witnesses how Canadian ag is helping end hunger in Ethiopia

Thursday, June 14, 2018

“They [the Ethiopian farmers] were as passionate about their farm as my family is about our farm,” says Marilyn Preston, of Rosemary, Alberta, who visited Ethiopia on a Foodgrains Bank learning tour with her husband Fred. (Photo: Submitted)

“The landscape got deader and deader as we drove longer and longer. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we’d actually arrive.”

Those are the words of Fred Preston, a grain farmer from Rosemary, Alberta.

It was the middle of January during the dry season in Ethiopia, and Preston, along with his wife, Marilyn, was on an 80 km, three-hour drive to the remote Afar region of Ethiopia, as part of a Canadian Foodgrains Bank learning tour.

The Prestons provide leadership to the Newell growing project.

They, along with other farmers in the community, plant, tend and harvest a crop together each year. They sell their crop on the Canadian market, and then donate the proceeds to the Foodgrains Bank for use in the work of responding to world hunger.

On the trip to Ethiopia, they were going to see the hunger response projects they support in person.

The Afar is a region where ongoing and frequent drought means water can be scarce. Many people are pastoralists. They move with their livestock, and depend on them for their livelihoods. When water is scarce, it means livestock are in poor health, and families experience hunger and struggle to pay for things like medicine, school fees, and other necessities.

In years of severe drought, families are forced to travel long distances with their livestock in search of water. It’s a difficult life—but there’s hope.

Gebreyes Haile is an Ethiopian man with a Master’s degree in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Southampton in England.

Working with funding from the Foodgrains Bank through its member Canadian Lutheran World Relief, he began designing small-scale irrigation dams to divert water from nearby streams and rivers to land that before, would have been unusable.

The organization he founded, Support for Sustainable Development, trains pastoralists in how to add farming to their livelihoods, growing crops for consumption and cash crops for sale.

Through Canadian Foodgrains Bank member Canadian Lutheran World Relief, family’s like Halima’s (first row, centre) learned to add farming to their livelihood, enabling them to grow enough food to feed themselves and sell the excess for additional income. (Photo: Amanda Thorsteinsson)

When the Prestons arrived at their destination, the first thing they noted was the pop of green against an otherwise dry, brown background.

Today, vegetation springs out of that land like an oasis in a desert. Among the crops are maize, bananas and papayas.

The Afar is a world away from southern Alberta in many respects. But for Fred and Marilyn, that doesn’t mean there weren’t similarities.

The Prestons met with local farmers as they were checking the water levels on their irrigated fields.

“I worked on a flood irrigation farm in southern Alberta, so I was familiar with checking water levels,” says Fred. “But when I saw the river where they were getting their water, I wondered how on earth that tiny stream of water could irrigate 395 acres.”

“As we toured the demonstration garden, I saw how they managed to grow a lot with a little, though,” he says.

I saw how they managed to grow a lot with a little.

It’s not an experience they will forget.

“They [the Ethiopia farmers] were as passionate about their farm as my family is about our farm,” says Marilyn.

“The small portion of this country which I was able to see during this trip exhibited so many of the qualities that I aspire to have in my life and to share with my daughters at home in Canada,” she adds.

There was one farmer in particular who stands out in Fred’s mind.

“He was just excited to tell me about his project,” he says. “I could see the passion and hope in his eyes – and the pride.”

“Over 400 families’ lives had been transformed by [the irrigation project] alone,” says Fred. “To me this seems like a significant number.”

Last year, the Newell growing project raised over $155,000 for ending world hunger. For Marilyn, it’s a testament to the impact that Canadians and Canadian agriculture can have.

“These are our brothers and sisters that need our help,” she says. “Our work is not done. We need to keep working–perhaps we can help fill their stomachs while they teach us how to fill our hearts.”

There are over 250 growing projects like the Newell project across Canada that raise money for the Foodgrains Bank.

– Shaylyn McMahon, Communications Assistant