The Need for Strategic Agricultural Training

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Why do we Liberians import most of the meat we eat? Well, for starts, we can ask how many veterinary doctors (vets) have we? How many of these highly specialized animal doctors have we had since Dr. Christian E. Baker, our first vet, returned from studies at Michigan State University in 1956?

There may be many, but they are mostly abroad. The last vet that we knew of who ended his exile in the USA and returned home to serve the Ministry of Agriculture in the mid-2000s was Dr. Leon Ledlum. He shortly thereafter died. We understand he was thoroughly frustrated on the job. There is another vet around—Dr. Kpadeh Koikoi—but it is unclear where he is engaged.

Why do we raise these questions. This Editorial follows a news story of US$500,000 in scholarships for agricultural training which Golden Veroleum, the oil palm company, has offered the Ministry of Agriculture. Will that money be used effectively for the purpose intended? And what will happen once the people are trained?

We understand that there are several highly trained agriculturists in the country who have had great difficulty finding employment with the Ministry of Agriculture, especially under the previous Minister, Dr. Florence Chenoweth. One of them, Dr.
Emmanuel Lincoln, told this newspaper at the weekend that when he returned home with his PhD in the critical field of Soil Chemistry, the Minister told him there was no place for him in the Ministry! So he had to leave. And who quickly hired him? The
United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Food Enterprise Development (FED).

Is there any wonder that Florence Chenoweth failed miserably in that position and caused the country, after eight years as Agriculture Minister, to be still importing fruits and vegetables from Guinea and La Cote d’Ivoire, meat from rain-starved Mali and rice from Asia?

Today we are calling on the new Agriculture Minister, Dr. Moses Zinnah, to make a listing of all highly trained people in the agricultural field, and find out what they are doing in their fields of specialization.
For example, we know of a soil chemist who is currently working in academia at a local university.

It seems to us that this soil chemist and all others should be fully and effectively engaged by the Agriculture Ministry to help our farmers choose and prepare the right soils in which they can grow their crops.

We consider this a very serious suggestion because it has been scientifically proven that there is too much acid in Liberian soils. That is definitely one of the reasons our farmers are not as productive as they should be. It seems to us that this is a particular challenge, even responsibility of all Liberian soil scientists? They should immediately get involved in reducing the acidity in our soils so our farmers may become more productive and make more money.

If the new Agriculture Minister could tackle this one problem—dealing effectively with the acid in Liberian soils, he would be making a great contribution to empowering our farmers towards greater agricultural productivity.

Perhaps the most successful soil scientist Liberia has ever had was a man who inherited the talent in Chemistry from his mother, Mrs. Anna Cooper, who was Liberia’s first woman scientist. She was head of the Department of Chemistry at Liberia College (now University of Liberia). Her son, James T. Phillips, studied Soil Chemistry at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA.

Upon his return home in the mid-1950s, Mr. Phillips immediately started growing fresh vegetables, such as cucumber, lettuce, red and green sweet peppers, radish, tomatoes, etc. He ran a small store Down Waterside called “Fresh Food Market.”

Mr. Phillips became the first Liberian to head the Soil Chemistry Department at the Government Farm (now the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI).

In later years he proved his proficiency in soil science when he started producing vegetables, especially pepper and bitterball, on a massive scale, both in Kpain, Nimba County, and in Careysburg, Montserrado County. Liberian market women flocked daily to Careysburg to buy Mr. Phillips’ pepper and bitterball.

Alas! Ever since the 1980 coup makers put Mr. Phillips, a former Agriculture and Finance Minister, respectively, before a firing squad on April 22, 1980, no one has grown pepper and bitterball the way he did. Since that time and even today, Liberian market women travel all the way to Guinea and La Cote d’Ivoire to buy pepper and other vegetables for sale in Monrovia.

Who will be the next J.T. Phillips?

That question is not for our soil scientists only, but also for the new Agriculture Minister, Dr. Moses Zinnah. It is he who must find ALL our agricultural scientists and put them to work in the public and private sectors.

Another critical agricultural sector awaiting Minister Zinnah’s vision and action is livestock production—cattle, goats, sheep and pigs—poultry and eggs. The Minister must begin by scouting for those Liberians trained in Animal Science and veterinary medicine and put them to work.

This newspaper, the Daily Observer, has long argued that Liberia can feed itself in meat, poultry and eggs. The Observer’s relentless highlighting the plight of Liberian poultry farmers in the 1980s led the government to impose a ban on imported chickens and eggs. This empowered our poultry farmers to grow more chickens and eggs and this made them happy and rich.

If it could have been done in the 1980s, it can be done today.

Can Dr. Zinnah take up this challenge? We sure hope he can and will. But first, he must engage and put to work all of our agricultural scientists. This will empower them to help our farmers to produce the finest meats in the world and all the vegetables we need.

The Minister can then go on to tackle the big one—organizing the mass production of rice, toward making Liberia, at long last, self-sufficient in our national staple.

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