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Tracy Frank, Published February 27 2014

ND farmer calls Africa the ‘final frontier in agriculture’

FARGO - About half of the good farmland that’s left in the world is in southeast Africa, says Wallie Hardie, a Fairmount, N.D., producer and past president of the National Corn Growers Association.

Hardie has been farming corn and soybeans used for chicken feed with his son, Josh, for the past two years in the northern part of Mozambique.

They’re buying a cashew nut farm out of bankruptcy and plan to develop the 8,000-acre land in the next two years.

“We really think Africa might be the final frontier in agriculture,” Hardie said at a recent Northwest Farm Managers Association meeting in Fargo.

Hardie first became involved in Africa seven years ago when his oldest daughter, who had just graduated from North Dakota State University’s nursing program, was on a mission trip, helping care for AIDS patients.

“We started to fall in love with the place,” Hardie said.

They also started wondering if they could farm there and what they could do as a family to make a difference and help the children who were orphaned and malnourished, he said.

Local farmers didn’t have equipment more advanced than a hoe, so when Hardie was able to bring in a planter and his son planted 1,500 acres in three days, Hardie said it “just amazed everybody.” As did his ability to dump 400 bushels of beans in just a few minutes with a combine instead of using a mini thresher, he said.

Hardie and his son each spend about three months of the year in Africa, alternating when they’re there.

“It’s an adventure,” Josh Hardie said. “Mozambique is one of the very last places on earth where pioneering can still be done. That opportunity won’t be here long.”

But there are challenges.

“Everything is hard, very, very hard,” the younger Hardie said. “Driving on the dirt roads during rainy season, shopping in a city filled with little thieves who will try to steal the bumper off your pickup if you’re not careful, getting seed, getting fertilizer, getting equipment and parts.”

The east African country also has almost no agricultural infrastructure, requiring the Hardies to ship almost everything months in advance.

Still, it’s worth it, Josh Hardie said.

“Finding those few Mozambican workers and small-holder farmers who see there is a better future than they have known. They get it. They are some of the hardest workers I have ever seen,” Josh Hardie said. “They are the reason Mozambique will be totally different 10, 20, 30 years from now.”

For the Hardies, their operation is not just about business, they said.

“We’re there not just to farm, we’re there to make a difference in the lives of people,” Wallie Hardie said, adding that the greatest way to make a difference is through economics.

Right now, not many Mozambicans near their farm can run the machinery and most are illiterate, he said. But they plan to train Mozambicans to be part of their team, and there are chicken farmers in the area putting together a trade school for young people who want to come out of the village culture, he said.

“Part of the problem is the nail that sticks up gets pounded down,” Hardie said. “It’s very difficult for a young person who wants to go on and get a better life to break out of their culture.”

“Our farm is a hub where good seed and simple, sound agronomic practices will be shared with local growers who have the ambition to grow more to create a disposable income,” Josh Hardie said. “We will also provide a market and a place to pool and store their crops to receive a better return.”

And corn and soybeans, two of North Dakota’s major crops, seem to do well in Mozambique.

“Within 18 hours of planting beans, they’ll be out of the ground,” Wallie Hardie said. “Here it can take over a week. It shocked us.”

Hardie said he’s trying to encourage American farmers and agribusinesses to become interested in Africa.

“It could be the next big thing for U.S. agriculture if we really wanted it,” he said. “It’s going to be developed by someone…. I think we can do it in a way that honors the people living there and gives them their country back.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526