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Getting third-world farmers jazzed up about agriculture

In West Bengal, India, one of the catchiest tunes on the radio is about peas: We have a shortage of pulses [peas]

Pulse-growing is profitable indeed.

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Your lowland can also yield pulses

along with winter paddy. . . .

Competing with the usual fare of love songs, ballads, and top musical hits are lyrics about vegetables, irrigation, insect control, and planting wheat.

``Farm songs,'' as they are called, are so popular the best musicians in West Bengal vie for the opportunity to play and sing them.

The lyrics, which come from agricultural and farming tidbits, are composed by Dr. Pradip Dey, an officer at All India Radio in Calcutta. Among his most valued sources of grass-roots farming information is a small, unpretentious organization halfway around the world.

Based here in Toronto, the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network supplies Dr. Dey and hundreds of other affiliates in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Pacific with tapes and scripts that provide the raw material for songs, puppet shows, posters, dramas, leaflets -- and, most important, radio broadcasts, the best means of reaching illiterate villagers with the kind of information they most need.

``In Africa there's one radio for every 16 persons, in most of Asia at least one per family. . . ,'' explains George Atkins, the founder of the network. He points out that the broadcasts are heard by over 100 million radio listeners.

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``The philosophy is to help farmers in the developing countries help themselves,'' he says. ``If those farmers were able to increase food supplies just by 10 percent, what a great increase in food supplies that would mean for the world.

``The vast majority of development projects run in the past -- multimillion-dollar projects -- have helped in larger farm areas,'' he continues. ``[But] very little has been done to help small-scale farmers, the people that have just an acre or half an acre.''

Long ago Mr. Atkins doffed his own farm boots and overalls for business suits. Yet he still possesses the visage of a man who knows the nuances of the land like a well-worn map. After growing up on his family's spread in Oakville, Ontario, farming himself for a time, and then working for 25 years as an agricultural commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he conceived of the developing-world radio network ten years ago.

The catalyst was a visit to Zambia, where he assisted with a professional workshop. Atkins says the first thing he noticed was that the agricultural information these broadcasters were transmitting was of little use to their listeners. ``Many were talking to illiterate farmers, and farmers who had no money and couldn't afford to buy fertilizer, cement, or pesticides,'' he says.

``I said to them, `Look, if I were to go to other developing countries and find information that would be useful to you and pertinent in your circumstances, and if I were to send it to you, would that be helpful to you?' They said, `Yes, by all means.' ''

A round-the-world trip brought Atkins into contact with agricultural specialists, missionaries, teachers, farmers, and others who provided him with the basic information he was looking for. He started making tapes and mailed them to 36 rural communicators in various parts of the globe. Since then his 6-person organization has built a network that includes more than 500 participants. It is supported by the Canadian International Development Agency, the University of Guelph (where there is an office for the network), and Massey-Ferguson farm equipment company (whose products are not promoted in the broadcasts).

The project is praised by broadcasters in the third world and by specialists in agriculture and education.

``Tanzania is putting a lot of emphasis on compost-making to reduce overdependence on inorganic fertilizers, which are becoming more expensive. Yours is the clearest description of compost-making that an average farmer can follow,'' writes one broadcaster from that country.

``The Organization of Rural Associations for Progress is running courses on how to build improved granaries and how to store grain. Your item number 1 we found very relevant,'' writes another user from Zimbabwe. ``We like the fact that the items are simple -- short and to the point. We shall circulate them to our village centres. Please send us more.''

``It's amazing that no one thought of this sooner,'' says Eugene Whelan, president of the World Food Council (a branch of the UN established in 1974 to provide policies and programs to alleviate world hunger) and a former minister of agriculture here in Canada. He notes that the listeners in most third-world countries have little access to technology beyond their transistor radios. ``The way this is put on,'' he says, ``anybody can understand it, can receive some benefit. . . .''

Layne Beaty, former chief of the United States Department of Agriculture's radio and television division, agrees that Atkins's organization is effective in filling a void. ``I've been impressed by the scope of it,'' he says. ``Having been overseas myself back in the '50s in developing countries, I found that one of the best ways to get agricultural information to people on the land was by means of radio.''

Sets of tapes with 17 segments each are disseminated by the network twice a year. From these a broadcaster can choose topics appropriate for his locale. Individual scripts range from suggestions for dealing with drought to getting more milk from a dairy cow. One script, for example, explains an African custom of building beehives by hanging hollow logs or pieces of bamboo from trees and smearing the ends with honey. The bees are attracted and eventually take up residence. The broadcast ends with tips on how to raid the bees' larder. Another script describes a method for keeping weevils out of grain by mixing it with wood ash from one's fireplace. When the grain is ready for use, one simply winnows the ash out.

The tapes are available in three languages -- English, Spanish, and French. Often further interpretation is done by the local stations. ``In Uganda, the broadcasts are translated into 20 languages, and Chinese broadcasts are translated into Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong,'' Atkins says. At Ecuador's Radio Bahai, a commentator who cannot read or write listens to the tapes in Spanish and interprets them in the language of the Quechua Indians living in the mountains.

Not every participant in the network need be involved in radio, notes Atkins. They can be writers, missionaries, or teachers. The important thing is that ``they communicate with farmers -- with rural people at the grass-roots [level].''

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