I often write of the cornfield. Here, in Central Michigan, the corn plant is in the middle of its vegetative growth. On a recent one-day trip, I discovered the enduring tug of the cornfield, taking me in wandering ways through corn rows and over Midwestern terrain.

Just having come out of Africa, I am aware of the importance of corn, or maize, in that continent as well as our own. In fact, over the last 20 years, maize is now the most widely grown crop in Africa.

Nearly all of it is grown in the rain-fed areas, nourished at least by afternoon thundershowers – those heavy black clouds with their aggregation of water molecules held tightly together, which at some point becomes saturated to the point that the weight of the droplet overcomes its buoyancy in the cloud.

The huge droplets fall and, at times, this intense rainstorm can drive water erosion of soil particles leaving the crop field.

Recently my wanderings took me to a cornfield that was quite different than those found in Africa. There, many of the rows were almost perfectly straight, the result of GPS tractor steerage in our modern equipment. Seeds drop 5 to 8 inches apart.


This is so exact that you might think someone used a tape measure and hand-planted every kernel. The crop canopy height is nearly uniform, other than the portion of the field that is on a rise and therefore drier or in a pothole depression where the corn plants have suffered due to some degree of flooding.

I am amazed at the cleanliness of these Michigan cornfields. I cannot find any other plants growing here. No weeds, no grasses – nothing but corn. And I am amazed at the health and vigor of the plants themselves. The soil fertility must be delivering the essential plant nutrients in just the demand by the plant for optimal growth.

And of course the soil moisture is maintained by the rain-fed system of the Midwest. Luckily, we have had timely rains and so the transpirative demands of the plant have met. Fields in other parts of the country have not been as fortunate this year.

The Africa maize field does not look like this. The home-consumption model of shareholder farming – a family cultivating (by hand) one or two acres of land is demanding. The plants themselves are planted in a random manner, typically around stumps and roots that dot the field.

Fertilizer use is done with an ad-hoc approach. But rarely is it used, based on soil fertility analysis and the fertilizer recommendations for the crop yield and particular soil type and texture.

Weed control is a challenge. The farmers of South Sudan pull weeds by hand, one handful at a time, and generally children and women do this work.

Another challenge for the African farmer is animal control. Many crop fields, especially maize, can be completely destroyed by a band of monkeys that clean out the field at night. Some farmers even resort to a watchtower approach, with a weapon, to kill or at least scare away animals that invade the field.

Some fields have a perimeter thicket fence, a man-made series of branches and limbs from trees and bushes that have inch-long thorns on them. These are all built by hand.

Another challenge for the African farmer is what we call shifting cultivation. The soil fertility is degraded over time without the lack of organic matter turnover from residue, so the farmer abandons the field and clears a new one.

When land is relatively plentiful and population density is low, shifting cultivation is the norm, especially if all cultivation is done by hand and there are now manufactured inorganic fertilizers.

Land clearing, the burning of the bush during the dry season, is an enormously damaging practice. The air quality and ecological damage are significant, but farmers do not have other options in much of Africa.

All of which points out that the cornfields in central Michigan and the cornfields in much of Africa are universes apart. Yet the fundamental requirements for this plant are the same … heat units, soil fertility, water and, of course, the seed itself.

The challenge we have is obvious: To what extent do we think the shift from the Africa fields be made to the Michigan (or Midwest) fields?

In other words, what is required to bring mechanization and other crop inputs into the African field? We know what they are. The challenge is getting them to the field and then sustaining them once they are there.

I am of the opinion, unlike the majority of my colleagues, that the shareholder model is not working. By this I mean that the African shareholder farmer, the family (usually women and children) farming one to a handful of acres, all by hand, is not the approach we see as moving a country into further economic development.

For what reason should the majority of people in underdeveloped countries eke out existence in a farming model that enslaves people to the hard work of doing everything by the sweat of their brows and the tools all held by their hands?

I suggest the mechanization approach. One that clears land correctly, implements conservation practices that stabilize soils in the crop field (mitigates potential erosion), uses small walk-behind tractors and tillage equipment and basic nutrient amendments, whether they be manufactured fertilizer, manures or organic byproducts, and then, of course, the correct genotype seeds for the agro-ecological zone.

I am not convinced these are too over-reaching for the host nation. The formative steps toward mechanization and, to some extent, modernization of farming practices are clearly governance-related.

If the leadership, through policy, makes such a commitment and then backs it up with funding to implement such a program, the progress will break the enduring problem of entitlement programs that have been manifest in much of Africa for decades.

And we don’t have to invent anything new. We already have the tools to do the implementation part. What is lacking, and I find this in all countries I visit, is the huge difference between those with aspirational ideas and those with the ability to actually design the project and then get it implemented.

As is often the case, giving speeches about aspirational things is easy … what is not is putting these ideas down on a piece of paper with clear courses of action and specific objectives that will meet a desired goal or end state.

Admittedly, it is the degree of modernization that is the challenging part. But some form of modernization will release this notion that shareholder farmers are the answer for food security.

I don’t think it is. Yes, there are many other pieces necessary, such as access to credit, a road and transportation system, storage requirements, land ownership and a data monitoring program. These require deep thought. The total package will likely be specifically localized rather than one-size-fits-all.

Here is the take-home point. The vast differences between the cornfields in Africa and those in Michigan or elsewhere in the U.S. are based upon the degree of modernization and the quality of governance.

Modernization is relatively easy. We already know, incrementally, the steps necessary. What is much harder to know and accomplish is leadership and governance.

These require people with operational skills and those with a fundamental understanding of the two domains of the public sector and the private sector.

As I wandered through our Michigan corn fields recently, I was once again thinking to myself how so fortunate we are here in this country.

We have a superbly modern agricultural industry, with public officials exercising good governance and a vibrant, robust private sector. Yes, we have our challenges, but they pale in comparison with the African farmer. PD