Bill Luckey didn’t expect to have boots on the ground in the African country of Tanzania for 11 days this April, but an unlikely set of circumstances landed him there planting hybrid seed corn for a Christian Ministry working to fulfill the needs of thousands of children and teens.
Luckey, who farms land about 3 miles north of Behlen Mfg. Co, was contacted by his nephew one Sunday in early April inquiring as to whether he would have any interest in volunteering his time and services – traveling on his own dime – in Tanzania. He was asked to aid the Siouxland Tanzania Educational Medical Ministries (STEMM) become more financially sustainable by helping them plant seed corn that they could turn around and sell for a profit.
Jeff Krohn, Luckey’s nephew, goes way back with the founder of STEMM, Sioux City-based orthopedic surgeon Steve Meyer. The latter established the nonprofit organization with his wife, Dana, in 1996 after taking a mission trip to Tanzania. The experience left him with a calling to serve the people living in the area.
Since its inception, Meyer said the organization has sent 10,000 children through primary and secondary school, serves 5,000 hot meals daily, provides medical care, teacher housing, a birthing center and an orphanage that houses a few dozen children.
Sitting on about 100 acres, one of the main goals has been to transform a portion of a plot into a sustainable nest-egg.
“We have an annual budget of about $500,000, and one of the big challenges is having 100 acres, with the goal of having enough farmland to economically sustain the orphanage,” Meyer said.
Speaking with different agronomy experts, it was determined that growing crops should provide STEMM about $20,000 per month, but for some time there has been a net loss of around $5,000 monthly because of the difficulty with producing good yields.
Meyer, fed up with the planting woes, traveled to Tanzania a little less than a month ago and started brainstorming solutions. He was able to land a production contract with the agrochemical company Monsanto to receive hybrid seed corn at $14 per bushel.
“It was potentially a really lucrative opportunity and a way to make us some serious money with a reputable company growing seed corn,” Meyer said. “And we still needed to meet with agronomists and other experts, but our most urgent need was getting a farmer to plant the corn because the people of Tanzania just don’t have the expertise to get this off the ground.”
Finding that right farmer, though, proved to be extremely burdensome. Meyer said he called every farming connection he knew, and the right fit wasn’t found. They didn’t have a passport, or they didn’t have the finances to swing the trip themselves or there was a work conflict of their own.
But a surprise encounter with Khron built the bridge leading to Luckey.
“I ran into Jeff on a Sunday after church at Target, and I hadn’t seen him in something like five years,” Meyer said. “He’s a family practice doctor and used to work in a rural community, so I asked him if he knew any farmer who would be willing to go to Tanzania on their own dime.”
Finding the right farmer
To Meyer’s surprise, Krohn said that his uncle may have an interest.
The call was made, and less than three days later, Luckey was seated on a plane preparing for the day-long flight to Africa.
“I really didn’t even get to do too much research on the country,” he said of Tanzania, which is home to about 58 million people. “The turnaround was so quick and I had to get my stuff lined up at home, so I was working frantically on Monday and Tuesday morning to get my work done so that I could be gone for 10-12 days."
In his absence, his wife and three boys manned his corn, soybean and hog operation.
The idea of the trip to Tanzania was appealing to him because he said he enjoys traveling and also being in the field. The adventure allowed him to do both. Prior to heading to Africa, Luckey had been to China, Southeast Asia, South America and parts of Europe.
While in Tanzania, Luckey did have the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing. He went on a safari and also had astonishing views of two world-renowned mountains.
“Mt. Kilimanjaro was off to my right and Meru Peak was straight ahead of me. I could see both mountains right from where I stayed,” he said. “The scenery was pretty nice.”
Although the view was nice, getting rolling with planting was another story. The seed from Monsanto didn’t arrive on time, a normally wet time of year better for planting was extremely arid and the John Deere Planter provided to him wasn’t working properly.
Eventually, the seed did arrive, and the planter – which had never been used by the Tanzanians who were helping him – came together by crafting some parts at a local shop.
“This was the first time they had ever used a planter on this land, otherwise it was always hand-planted,” Luckey said. “Everything is done by hand in this operation, that’s just the way it was done.”
The goal was for Luckey and his team to plant 40 acres of corn, but only 12 ended up being completed. Since February, Luckey said the area he was in only received 2 inches of rain and the days were frequently above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
The soil conditions in some places made planting a virtual impossibility.
“One field I found where the dust was 10 inches deep,” he said. “It was like flour, you would just be standing there with the dust halfway up your shin.”
The water situation was another main factor that the planting quantity was forced to diminish. The wells used for irrigation where Luckey planted could generate about 80 gallons of water a minute, in contrast to about 800 gallons a minute in irrigated areas in the U.S.
But by brainstorming and coming up with some creative solutions, 12 acres of land now have a real shot at benefiting the entire STEMM operation. It wasn’t a relaxing trip for Luckey whatsoever, but surprisingly enough, that’s really the kind of vacation he prefers.
“Sometimes I’m not the greatest tourist, I’d rather normally go over there and just be doing something,” he said of traveling. “Most of my trips overseas involve meetings for the pork industry, so I am used to working instead of site seeing. I worked eight days in a row over there, including Sundays, getting this field planted.”
His crew, generally, worked from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
“I go after 5,” he said, with a smile.
Now back in Nebraska, Luckey has learned that the crops are taking root and that corn sprouts are starting to pop their heads through the formidable soil. A few days ago, Luckey received a call at midnight Nebraska time from a Tanzanian field worker wondering if they needed to keep irrigating – wetter weather is anticipated on the horizon.
He assured them that they did, in fact, need to keep water on the valuable crops.
Meyer said that finding Luckey to assist with the planting was, well, lucky. And perhaps more of a Godsend than anything else.
“It was honestly beyond a miracle,” Meyer said of Luckey being able to make the trip. “I couldn’t believe it at the time, and I really still can’t believe it. In no uncertain terms, I’ve told him that I feel like he’s an angel of mercy.”
Luckey said he just feels fortunate that he was able to benefit a great organization that helps a lot of people. Whether the crop turns out strong or weak this year, at the very least the people who will be working these fields for years to come took away some valuable crop lessons.
“You know, for them, brand new technology is using a planter that we (Americans) used 40 years ago,” Luckey said. “So, they are really impressed when I tell them about how we farm over here in the United States. And they would like to be able to use some of that technology someday, but you just have to sort of take it in baby steps.
“Just one step at a time. You can’t jump right to the products that we use. They are going to have to do this over a period of time. And they are going to have their challenges, but there are ways to get around them. And anytime you have major challenges you have people thinking of ways to get around them.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.