Midwest farmers extend operations to Africa

Red River Valley farmer Wallie Hardie
Red River Valley farmer Wallie Hardie looks at photos of the Mozambique farming operation while sitting in his farm office near Fairmount, N.D., on Dec. 7, 2012. Hardie is one of several Midwest investors in the African farming venture.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Wallie Hardie's family has been farming successfully in the Red River Valley since his great grandfather settled here. His operation has done well growing corn, soybeans and grains, and now he wants to extend that success.

So he's investing time, effort and money in Mozambique, some 9,000 miles away.

Betting that Africa will be a big player in future world food production, Hardie and others are part of Aslan Global Management, a for-profit corporation investing millions of dollars to develop farmland there.

The organization has gotten a lease from the Mozambique government on 25,000 acres and expects to have all the land in production within five years, growing primarily soybeans and corn.

Many countries and corporations have taken advantage of land concessions in Africa to expand crop production. They often export all of the crops and let local residents see little benefit. Critics call those concessions land grabs or neo colonialism.

Hardie said Aslan Global Management intends to make a profit, but he said profit isn't the only reason he wants to farm in Africa.

His interest started after his daughter served as a medical missionary there about five years ago. When Hardie visited her, he was troubled by poverty and hopelessness that he saw.

Mozambique soy bean field
This photo of a soybean farmworker in a field was taken in early 2012 on the Aslan Global Management farm in Mozambique.
Photo courtesy Aslan Global Management

"The bottom line is that we'd like to do some good here," Hardie said. "The thing that tears my heart out is people, especially men, sitting by the side of the road doing nothing, staring out into space. That's the thing that motivates me.

"They're just asking for a shot. They're willing to work hard. Just give me a chance to get some education, to be an apprentice to a farmer."

Hardie pointed to a large map of Africa spread out on the desk in his farm office here about 70 miles south of Fargo.

"This is where our farm is," he said, pointing to the nation on the east coast of southern Africa. "Pretty remote."

"They're just asking for a shot. They're willing to work hard. Just give me a chance to get some education, to be an apprentice to a farmer."

Remote means no electricity, dirt roads and land that's mostly tree- and brush-covered. Hardie and his son go there several times a year to work and share their farming expertise. They've shipped farm equipment, seed and herbicides to the farm, each shipment taking several months to arrive.

Hardie said the plan is to develop a large intensive agriculture system, using profits to help local residents start their own farms.

Last spring the farm harvested its first soybean crop on a few hundred acres. This year he's planting a larger crop. Most of the soybeans will be sold to local chicken farmers.

The plan is to expand to two additional operations, another in Mozambique and one in neighboring Tanzania and establish a "hub and spoke" operation to encourage residents to start 100- to 200-acre farms nearby. The company will provide expertise, operating as an extension agent, and will buy crops from farmers.

The climate is perfect, Hardie said. About 40 inches of rain falls each year, and the land is fertile. The farm will be able to raise two or even three crops a year because of the tropical climate, he said. The biggest challenge is earning the trust of local residents.

"But the big thing here is you got to burn up a lot of brain cells," he said. "You've got to do this right. You don't push it, you don't force it, and you've got to get the community buy-in. Right now, big is assumed to be bad unless you prove otherwise."

Hardie said the group is hiring local workers and making investments in local projects like a new well for the nearby village.

Land being cleared
This aerial photo shows land that is being cleared for farming in northern Mozambique.
Photo courtesy Aslan Global Management

Aslan plans to work with other non-profit groups to develop a medical clinic, a school and a micro loan program to help local residents start farming.

Minnesota native Paul Larsen, co-founder of Aslan Global Management, said the organization is faith-based, and its stated mission is earning a profit for investors while doing social good.

"It's very important for us to not be in Africa to extract wealth," Larsen said. "We are in Africa to create wealth or to create value. And that's a very big distinction between what we're doing and what others do."

Larsen says most of Aslan's investors, many from the Midwest, are successful business owners who want investments that also make a difference. It will take about five years before the investors start seeing a financial return, he said.

Larsen said the company will eventually invest $25 million to $30 million in the Mozambique farm, about $1,200 an acre to get the land cleared and the farm established.

That's a lot less expensive that buying a comparable Minnesota farm at current prices of $6,000 to $10,000 per acre.

The group is already expanding by leasing 98,000 acres in Tanzania and negotiating a lease on another Mozambique farm, Larsen said. Africa has 60 percent of the remaining farmable land in the world, he said.

"Sub-Saharan Africa has enough land to feed five times its population," Larsen said. "But currently it's dependent on other countries for two-thirds of its food. Our view is if we can come alongside with some capital and some know-how, they will be feeding a very large chunk of the world 15 or 20 years from now."

ā€” Follow Dan Gunderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gundersondan

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