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Plant Sciences Study Tour in Kenya and Zimbabwe

During Spring break in March 2017, graduate students and researchers from the Department of Plant Sciences participated in a study tour of research and Extension activities in Kenya and Zimbabwe that support the development of resilient agricultural practices for small-holder and commercial farmers.

May 17, 2017

During spring break in March 2017, a team of research and Extension students and staff from the Department of Plant Sciences participated in a study tour of research and Extension activities in Kenya and Zimbabwe that support the development of resilient agricultural practices for small-holder and commercial farmers.

Participants were M.S. students Tracy Hillenbrand, Melissa Geiszler, Lizzy Lovering, Matt Rellaford, Kelsie Egeland, Nick Schimek and J Stanley; Ph.D. student Jason Adams; and research specialists Chad Deplazes and Darin Eisinger. Extension specialists Joel Ransom and Hans Kandel led the tour.

The group toured a rose-breeding facility in Kenya, where rose varieties are developed for the cut-flower market. Kenya exports roses to Europe. The group also visited the Rift Valley area and Lake Naivasha, which are near the rose-breeding facilities, to study geology, water resources and invasive weeds.

The International Maize (corn) and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which is near Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, was the group’s first stop in Zimbabwe. The center receives funding from various international donor organizations, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The CIMMYT’s main emphasis is on breeding corn that has tolerance to various leaf diseases and is adapted to the African growing conditions.

One of the tour highlights was the visit to a number of local subsistence farmers who evaluated newly developed corn hybrids under regional environmental conditions.

“While I was more familiar with poverty-related things from my previous travels, I enjoyed learning about and experiencing how small-holder farming is done,” Geiszler says.

Tour participants also gained new insight into the importance of agricultural research in the lives of small-scale farmers and how innovative Extension and development approaches can bring new technology to farmers in very different circumstances than those encountered in North Dakota.

Although the majority of Zimbabwe’s farmers plant only a few acres per family, those producers are interested in utilizing hybrid corn seed and other improved varieties, including vegetable seed.

One of the main suppliers of seed is the African seed company Seed Co Limited. The group visited the company’s vegetable and crop research facilities and learned about the challenges to developing appropriate varieties for the various eco zones.

In addition to variety numbering, the seed company utilizes small images of a monkey, zebra, lion or elephant to indicate very early, early, medium and late-maturing hybrids, respectively.

“I was quite impressed with Seed Co’s technique for labeling their varieties with animals,” Lovering says. “That was a wonderfully ingenious way for their producers to remember what seed they needed for their fields.”

The group also visited a commercial dairy farm, banana plantation and the Africa University near Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe and learned about the regional production practices and challenges.

“Zimbabwe has a lot of potential for farming and agriculture, but due to the political environment and other social factors, that potential is not realized,” Adams notes.

This was the first time many of the students had visited a developing nation.

“Although the people may be very poor, cellphones are very important,” Hillenbrand observes. “The people may not have very much food or mechanized farming practices but will have a smartphone, solar charger, and purchase minutes for their phone.”

Schimek particularly noticed the production difficulties.

“One of the biggest takeaways from this experience was the challenges associated with large- and small-scale production because of the number of limiting factors that can affect yield, as well as the variability that can take place across a single acre,” he says.

Zimbabwe was selected for the 2017 program because of the important role that agriculture plays in the country’s economy and the large proportion of the population involved in agriculture. An NDSU graduate, Itai Matukwa, greatly assisted in making local arrangements.

Source: Joel Ransom ( and Hans Kandel (
Editor: Ellen Crawford, Information Specialist in Agriculture Communication, re-printed with permission
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