Perspectives Online

Significant Yields - College researchers bring new production and weed management strategies to peanut growers in Ghana. By Natalie Hampton

The work done by Dr. Rick Brandenburg (above, left) and his colleagues in Ghana can benefit the lives of these children, who attended the field school with their parents.
Photo Courtesy Rick Brandenburg

At a typical agricultural field day in North Carolina, the crowd could be largely men. But in Ghana, West Africa, the farmers you’ll find at a field day are mostly women, some with young children.

Such field days scenes are not unusual to Dr. Rick Brandenburg, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Entomology, and Dr. David Jordan, peanut specialist in crop science, both in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Brandenburg and Jordan have been involved for more than 10 years in Ghana with the Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program, a program of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In that time, they have seen increases in peanut yields, which are significant for the country’s subsistence growers who rely on peanuts as a primary source of dietary protein. And the knowledge they’ve gained working with growers in Ghana has direct benefits for growers back in North Carolina.

Experts like Dr. David Jordan (top photo on the left) work with rural villages to conduct field demonstrations in test plots (middle and bottom) and help local farmers select effective production strategies.
Photos Courtesy Rick Brandenburg
“Since it is subsistence agriculture in Ghana, we’re trying to bump them out of that. In one of the villages where we work, they’ve really made big strides. They’ve doubled and tripled their yields; they’ve increased their acreage,” Brandenburg said. “But Africa’s a place of extremes, and life is not easy there.”

The USAID Peanut CRSP is managed by the University of Georgia, with partner universities working around the world. The College’s involvement in the program goes back to the early 1980s and has included leaders such as Dr. Johnny Wynne, peanut breeder and now dean of the College; Dr. Tom Stalker, former head of the Crop Science Department; and the late Dr. Jack Bailey, professor and Extension plant pathologist. Other College leaders have included Dr. Tom Isleib, crop science professor; Dr. Robert Moxley, sociology and anthropology professor; Dr. Bill Campbell, emeritus professor of entomology; and Dr. Marvin Buete, emeritus professor of plant pathology.

Brandenburg began work with the program in Southeast Asia in 1989, and in 1996, he was asked to work with the project in Ghana. Jordan joined the project in 2002, following Bailey’s death.

The N.C. State researchers work with two research centers in Ghana — the Crop Research Institute in Kumasi to the south and the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute in the north. Despite some initial ambivalence about the assignment, Brandenburg says the experience has been wonderful.

“One of the biggest challenges [for the scientist at these institutes] is that they have such limited resources with which to fund their research. That’s what the Peanut CRSP is all about. We team up with them, and we find good scientists. We’re fortunate in Ghana; the scientists have really been good at doing quality research,” Brandenburg said.

Through the Peanut CRSP, USAID provides funding and experts like Brandenburg and Jordan to support Ghana’s research and extension efforts. The two institutes team up with rural villages to conduct field demonstrations and involve local farmers in deciding which production strategies are most useful for them.

“They’ve really taken it upon themselves, once they test a strategy at the research station, to get it out to the farmers,” Brandenburg said. “They get the village chief to donate them a field, and they travel every two weeks to the site. And the farmers see what they’re doing; the farmers are intimately involved.”

Farmers are eager to come to the field days, and for their participation, they receive a day’s wage – about $1, U.S. – as compensation for giving up a day’s work. After three years of regularly attending the field days, farmers are awarded a certificate from the Peanut CRSP, a valued achievement in rural Ghana.

Growers in Africa face many challenges and have few resources to fight back. So finding cost-effective production and pest management strategies is the challenge of the researchers. Leafspot, for instance, is one problem that Ghana’s peanut farmers face, but unlike U.S. farmers, they don’t have chemicals to combat the disease.

“Their big step forward is that they can actually take homemade soap and spray the peanuts with it, and it will suppress the disease — not a lot, but it helps,” Brandenburg said. “Well, if they could just insert one application of fungicide early in the season, it would make a huge difference. But the farmers don’t have the money to go out and purchase it. If they did, their yields would increase, and they could put money aside for next year to purchase fungicide. But they face the challenge of getting out of that cycle of just getting by.”

In West Africa, the field day participants (top) are mostly women. Brandenburg (bottom photo, front right) joins a field day group. Those with three years of field day attendance are awarded a certificate – a valued achievement in rural Ghana.
Photos Courtesy Rick Brandenburg
Weed management is another important issue to these farmers, who do all their weeding by hand. “They spend like half of their life weeding fields. So weed management and practices that minimize weed production is just a huge thing. If you could cut their weeding time in half, you’d free up 25 percent of their time,” Brandenburg said.

Jordan said that there is a big difference between developed and developing countries in terms of farmers’ ability to try new technologies or production strategies. In the United States, growers trust that new technologies have been thoroughly studied, and there are safety nets available for those willing to take a risk on something new.

“In developing countries, their lives are shaped by the predictability of what they’ve been growing for a long time,” Jordan said. “If we make a mistake there, the consequences are much greater.”

An important challenge for Africa growers is trying to achieve consistent levels of production, rather than highs and lows. “You have to really search for a plan that flattens those peaks and valleys out,” Brandenburg said. “A record year one year, and a record low yield the next, is the worst situation they can be in. If there’s a disaster, the impact is huge.”

Research on peanut-related problems has also benefited growers in North Carolina. In fact, about half of the funds received from the Peanut CRSP stay in North Carolina and are used to support graduate students or to supply resources needed to address peanut issues in the state. One example of a direct benefit occurred when tomato spotted wilt virus threatened peanuts, and the Peanut CRSP was able to quickly fund a graduate student to work on research related to the problem.

Both Jordan and Brandenburg are passionate about their work in Ghana, a passion that has extended to their families. Brandenburg took his 15-year-old daughter, Ashley, on a recent trip to the country. And researchers visiting from Ghana enjoyed a traditional North Carolina dinner at David Jordan’s family home near Edenton.

Jordan, who first came to N.C. State as an undergraduate, recalls that his interest in international research and extension began while he was a student in Dr. Bob Patterson’s popular class on world population and food prospects. “After beginning my career at N.C. State, the idea of international agriculture, learning and assisting developing countries was something I was very interested in, but it still seemed a challenge in terms of finding a way to be involved,” Jordan said. “The Peanut CRSP opened that door for me 15 years after I first thought that it would be neat to be involved in that type of work.”

Now, Jordan lectures in Patterson’s class and describes his work to today’s undergraduates. He finds that many of them also are interested in international development. “The hope is that they will recall what they see in this class,” Jordan said, “and that they may be involved in similar work during their next break, the coming summer, two, five, 10 or 20 years down the road.”