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Iowa's answer to global hunger: a 12-horsepower diesel tractor

The small red tractor sitting here in front of the white frame building beside Highway 3 looks more like a toy than a tool of big-time American farmers. In fact, it is neither. The sturdy, 12-horsepower, diesel-fueled tractor, and others like it, are Waverly, Iowa's long-term answer to the global hunger problem.

Specifically designed to meet needs in developing countries, the machines boost the output of farmers who usually plow and plant their small plots by hand. An estimated 350 of these tractors are already in use in more than 40 other countries around the world. One is currently en route to Ghana for field testing under a variety of soil and weather conditions.

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The Self Help Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered beside the highway here, specializes in sending interested developing nations the blueprints and instruction manuals so tractors and attachments can be manufactured in those countries.

Ray Howland, a United Methodist minister on special assignment as Self Help's executive director, often conducts studies personally to see if the machinery is suitable for the interested country.

The idea for Self Help has come a long way since Vern Schield, a local farmer and founder of the crane-producing Shield Bantum Company, first launched it in 1959. While making the rounds of his company's overseas distributors in third-world countries, he was consistently struck by the level of poverty and the primitive approach to food production.

``I noticed they were doing everything by hand,'' Mr. Schield recalls. When he asked those based at various missionary stations what they were doing to help in terms of technical assistance, they told him there wasn't much they could do.

Once home, Schield arranged to ship abroad used equipment such as combines, sewing machines, and cement mixers, which he and other producers in the United States no longer needed. In time, Schield developed a small tractor that required few repairs. Self Help shipped the machines abroad as requests came in.

But eventually the small staff running this nondenominational and then largely giveaway effort realized the practice was breeding an attitude of dependence. They also found that lack of on-the-scene know-how and parts availability was leading to the abandonment of some machinery.

In the mid-1970s, Self Help shifted tactics to encourage local manufacture of the tractors within the developing country. The hope was to also create jobs and train more workers. Locally made machinery is also cheaper for farmers to buy. Many have used it to increase their income by providing custom farming for neighbors.

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But that shift to aid greater self-sufficiency for developing countries has made it considerably tougher for Self Help to get donations in this country.

Mr. Howland says the shift caused a 50 percent drop in church donations. ``We're a society that likes to see where our money goes,'' says Dennis Hoch, Self Help's development director.

Thus far, the foundation's most successful production programs are in Pakistan and in Mexico, where a center in Oaxaca has been producing tractors since the summer of 1983. In Pakistan, a team of 18 workers produces about seven tractors and the implements for them each month. Still, quantity produced is not necessarily considered a measure of success.

``In this country we tend to have the old Henry Ford complex -- the idea that if you can't make a million of them, don't make one,'' says Wesley F. Buchele, a professor of agricultural engineering at nearby Iowa State University. ``But putting out five machines a year can be a good market for somebody.''

Self Help is currently negotiating with civic groups and foundations in Nigeria, Paraguay, and Ghana with an eye to setting up similar programs there.

The foundation's leaders will meet this month in Washington with officials from the Agency for International Development's Bureau of Private Enterprise. The bureau is a Reagan administration offshoot that often makes loans to lending institutions in developing countries to open up new avenues of credit and improve the local business climate.

In addition to helping with planning and on-the-scene training, Self Help often provides some hard-to-assemble manufacturing aids such as engines and jigs for welding and lathing operations.

Back here at home, Hoch says, foundation officials hear from overseas operations only when something goes awry. ``The minute something goes wrong, we're apt to get phone calls in the middle of the night asking, `How does this fit?' or `What do you do if. . . ?' ''

But in Schield's view, self-sufficiency in food production is an idea whose time has come. While commending the massive rallying of world food help for starving Ethiopians, he says that method is not the long-term answer. ``We can't keep giving them corn all the time. It makes paupers out of them.''

One of Self Help's new hopes is to bring foreign agricultural engineering students who have been studying at US colleges to the Waverly machinery center for training. It also hopes to enlist their help in translating the foundation's instruction manual before they return home. -- 30 --

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