Wisconsin Potato Grower Donating Tons of Wisconsin Seed Potatoes to Farmers in Ghana and Liberia

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Wisconsin potato growers are involved in numerous projects around the globe to help feed struggling nations. Here’s the latest example.

In January 2012, Larry Alsum, President and CEO of Alsum Farms & Produce Inc., and Derrick Smit, Safety and Training Coordinator at Alsum, spent two weeks in Liberia and Ghana working alongside local farmers, sharing their years of experience in sustainable farming and water conservation. They also held farming and marketing workshops for the farmers interested in establishing agribusinesses to help support their families and communities.

Now, as a follow up to that visit, Alsum Farms & Produce has shipped forty ton of Wisconsin seed potatoes, as well as four ton of fertilizer, to the capital cities of each nation. While Ghana is more advanced than Liberia, hunger is still prevalent in rural areas; Liberia remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Alsum hopes to help alleviate this by providing farmers with the means to grow a crop that will provide them with much-needed nutrients — potatoes. The potato is one of the world’s most prevalent crops and is known for its ability to grow in some of the most inhospitable climates.

“The farmers we met in January were very interested in growing what they call ‘Irish’ potatoes,” notes Alsum. “They currently grow yams and cassava, but potatoes have a greater nutritional value — they provide 620 mg of potassium and 45% of the daily recommended daily value of Vitamin C.”

Alsum notes that growing potatoes can also provide the farmers with a new stream of income. “Both Ghana and Liberia are emerging market countries with new opportunities to expand business. There’s a large expatriate population in these countries who want to buy Irish potatoes and these crops can fill some of that need.” Alsum predicts that 10% of the yield will be used to feed the farmer’s family, with most being sold to markets for domestic consumption.

In the months since his visit to Africa, Alsum has been working closely with seed potato growers at Wild Seed Farms and Guenthner Farms, Inc. both located in Antigo, Wisconsin, to determine which seed potato varieties would be best suited to the soils, precipitation levels and climate of Ghana and Liberia. Alsum consulted with Tom Wild, who has been exporting seed potatoes to Central America for 15 years, and Peter Joyce, Seed Consultant to the United States Potato Board, who has completed agricultural projects in Burkina Fasso. They selected Red La Soda and White Langlade seed potatoes. In addition to carefully selecting seed varieties, Alsum has collaborated with Jay Mar in Plover, Wisconsin, on a fertilizer that would provide a sound fertility plan for the potatoes.

The seed potatoes should be enough to plant about 40 acres between the two nations. “The farmers don’t have the tools and technologies we have here in the states — they have machetes and hoes. That’s it. So, each farmer farms about one to two acres. Farmers will plant about one-half acre of potatoes each from this shipment, which should help support about 80 families,” adds Alsum.

While Alsum admits there’s risk involved in this project, he’s hopeful. Aside from the unknowns of the climate and the labor involved in growing the crops without the benefit of machinery, the greatest challenge will be logistics.  “We’re on a tight schedule and Superstorm Sandy has set our timeline back a bit. We shipped the potatoes from Wisconsin on November 6. It will take them a month to five weeks to go from New Jersey to the capital cities of Accra and Monrovia. There aren’t established highway systems, so getting the potatoes to the individual farms is going to require a lot of effort. They’ll be taken by pickup trucks to the individual farmers and will be planted in early January.” The growing season in Ghana and Liberia will be from January to April. The rainy season, which typically occurs from May to October, is too wet for potato crops.

Alsum has partnered with the US Agency Partners Worldwide, who has partnered with two affiliate agencies — Hopeline Institute in Ghana and Liberia Entrepreneurial and Asset Development Inc. (LEAD) in Liberia — to provide training, education and micro financing for the farmers. Alsum will also return to help the farmers at the end of February 2013. “The potatoes should be well established and producing tubers. I’ll help them with the cultivation, assessing the health of the crop and planning the harvest,” he explains. Until then, Alsum will continue to connect with the farmers via email. “Right now, I email most of them on a daily basis and I’ll continue to do so until I return in February.”

Alsum attended a conference in Chicago on November 8 – 9 to meet with and train representatives from both countries, Hopeline Institute (Ghana) and LEAD (Liberia). The representatives will assist Larry in mentoring the farmers. He has developed a training manual for all the involved parties.

The project is being funded by an export development grant from the United States Potato Board and by Alsum Farms & Produce, Inc. Jay Mar has kindly donated the fertilizer for this project.

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