Talk to enough organic farmers, and eventually one of them will tell you, “We’re just doing things the way Grandpa did them.” This is certainly true in the United States, where large-scale farming with chemical inputs became prevalent only after World War Two.
But it’s also true all over the world. Indeed, small-scale, sustainable farming practices have been the norm for most of human history. And a growing number of today’s farmers are looking to yesterday’s in search of solutions for their operations. As Ghanaian farmer Abraham Yidana puts it, “To be sustainable, you have to practice the traditional ways of doing things.”
Before you can practice traditional farm methods, of course, you have to learn about them. That’s the goal of the organization Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA). Yidana is one of more than 1,300 farmers who have connected, via MESA, with other like-minded operators around the world to share their skills and learn new ones.
Founded by Lauren Augusta in 1994, MESA’s core program is a cross-cultural exchange that pairs aspiring food producers in one part of the world with “stewards” in another country to trade knowledge and information. The group also offers small grants to select participants in order “to encourage on-farm projects that seed collaboration and innovation between farm mentors and stewards,” says Augusta.
Yidana, for instance, trained at a ranch in Washington state, where he studied animal husbandry and sustainable farm practices. When he returned to Ghana, he founded an organization (in part, with a grant from MESA) that works with farmers in the West Mamprusi district of Ghana, a low-income region where farmers rely heavily on pesticides. Yidana’s organization is training some 200 farmers to cultivate rice without chemicals. Multiply his story by the 1,300 other participants in MESA’s exchange program, and you begin to conceive the powerful ripple effect of the organization’s work.
While the primary focus of MESA’s programming is on sharing skills, the organization frames this work in broadly political terms. The goal is not only to help individual farmers, but also to effect change, explains Leah Atwood, who co-directs the organization with Augusta. “In the face of multinational agribusiness that prioritize profit over people and the planet, we need to build multinational grassroots organizing and collaboration to amplify the voices of a community-led sustainable food movement,” Atwood says.
To that end, the group recently raised more than $30,000 through a crowdfunding effort to fund scholarships, grants like the one that helped Yidana, and for new online educational programming. MESA currently runs a “Global Agroecology and Local Food Systems” certificate program that provides online training and certification for farmers who participate in the exchange program. With the new financing, the organization hopes to expand the existing curriculum and make it widely available an educational resource for beginning farmers, farm interns, and mentor farms worldwide.
Organic Valley is committed to building a just and sustainable food system and is proud to support Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA) in its efforts.