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Friday, February 7, 2014

Finding Common Ground - and Corn - Half a World Away

KyCorn Communications Director Jennifer Elwell recently traveled to South Africa with the Kentucky Agricultural Leadership Program. KyCorn supports the 25-year old program, currently administered by the University of Kentucky.

Jennifer in a South African corn field.
I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life last month, thanks to Kentucky’s farm community. I traveled with the Kentucky Agricultural Leadership Program (KALP) to South Africa, and spent two weeks visiting farms and agribusinesses and learning about their culture and politics.

If for no other reason than having a conversation with our South African tour guide about antibiotic use in American livestock, I believe I am a much stronger leader now than before I became an international traveler.

I had not thought much about the country prior to learning I would be traveling there. I worked to keep an open mind and put away any preconceived notions. With that being said, there were several things that surprised me about South African agriculture:
  • South Africa has incredibly diverse farmland due to climatological and topographic variations. They produce much of their food within the country, which is about twice the size of Texas. About 14 percent of the land is used for crop production, but only 3 percent is high potential arable land.
  • Their commercial agriculture system is much like our own. There are many large farms specializing in a few crops or livestock depending on their resources, and they are under similar regulations with regard to food safety and environmental factors.
  • Land seemed to be utilized more effectively to feed more people. It was not uncommon to see makeshift subsistence gardens along the highways or to see livestock roaming the streets of rural areas. There was a substantial difference in the breeds of cattle used depending on vegetation available.
  • Corn (maize) and other cereal grains are their most important crops. They grow quite a bit of white corn for food. Pap (think of super thick corn grits or polenta) is a staple and available at most every meal. White corn is exported to other African countries, and yellow corn is imported for livestock feed.
  • They make wonderful wine and horrible ketchup (tomato sauce in a bottle).
  • South Africans are very familiar with Kentucky, as there was a KFC in most every town we visited.
  • Many of the farm laborers came from bordering countries. Farm owners said they were willing to work longer and harder for less income.

Pear harvest is Western Cape.
Learning about their young democracy was also extremely interesting. While this is probably not the place to discuss South African politics and social issues, many of the people we talked to were generally pleased with the government’s progress over the past 20 years.

The instant I set foot in South Africa, my world grew much smaller. I was also able to experience a world much different than my own. I took my experiences and knowledge and left them with those I met, and I was able to bring back new knowledge that I may be able to put to use here. I even made my Bullitt County 4-H Club endure my photo slides and storytelling, because I thought I might inspire young minds to travel beyond the comfort of their familiar worlds and consider other possibilities.

I am deeply grateful to all the individuals, companies and organizations that make KALP and this international learning opportunity available to me and my leadership classmates.  I cannot speak for the others, but the journey provided me a much closer look at what it takes to feed the world and cemented my notion that I am involved in THE most important industry in the world.

Thank you, KALP supporters. 

South African Barley Breeding Institute in Caledon. Supported by SABMiller. 

SABMiller Barley Malting Plant in Caledon. 

View from a South African Saddlebred horse farm - Saddlebreds originated in Kentucky!

Feeding time at the crocodile farm. They eat a lot of chicken.

Bonsmara cattle in Marble Hall area.

Blyde River Canyon - 3rd largest in the world.

Bourke's Luck Potholes near the Blyde River Canyon.

First sight within Kruger National Park. It was raining elephants, and we saw all the
Big 5: Lion, Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Leopard and Rhinoceros. 

Grain, sugar beet, potato and cattle farm in Middleburg.
I had one of my favorite meals at their on-farm restaurant, The Corn & Cob.

We saw both red and green equipment. 

Brent Burchett (Ky Soybean) and I taking a closer look at sheep at farm in Belfast.

The South African flag painted on an equipment shed at Beestepan Farm.

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