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Turning Back the Desert
After 10 years testing drought-resistant crops in the most economically deprived and agriculturally under-developed countries in Africa, crop physiologist Bill Payne '82 finds political corruption and the absence of a marketing infrastructure even more daunting enemies of the people of Niger than the harsh environment.

Bill Payne '81 knew it was time to get his family out of Niger's capital city of Niamey when the mortar shells began exploding outside the front gate of his home.

"When you're huddling in the hallway and there are bombs going off and there's paint falling from the ceiling, you take a reality check and wonder why you're there," the former Wabash chemistry major says with an exasperated laugh.

When you realize that it took threats to his family's safety to finally pry him from the continent, you begin to understand the scientist's commitment to his work, his appreciation for the dilemma facing the farmers of the semi-arid tropics of Africa, and his genuine love for the continent that was his home for the better part of a decade.

For 10 years Payne worked to increase food production and improve nutrition levels, first in Mauritania, then in Niger. He and his wife, Paula, raised their family there in an internationally-diverse neighborhood far from the temptations of the American consumerism the scientist decries.

Payne donned local garb (and modes of transport) during his Peace Corps days.

Bill Payne on Camel 


His work yielded viable cropping system alternatives to native practices; systems that could help reverse the decline of food production in a country whose agricultural practices mirror, in many ways, those practiced in Europe more than 500 years ago. He evaluated new cultivars and proven their ability to withstand the region's unforgiving environment, and several of those cultivars were approved for use.

But there were as many frustrations as there were accomplishments. In truth, Payne considered leaving long before the bombs started exploding in 1996. For while his scientific efforts met with success, the fruits of that success became available to few of the farmers who needed them. In 10 years in Africa, the scientist learned a great deal about developing sustainable crops that could thrive in arid lands such as Mauritania and Niger. He learned even more about the many obstacles that stand in the way of getting those crops into the hands of the people who need them.

Looking for Adventure

The on-site African education of Bill Payne began shortly after his graduation from Wabash in 1981. Courses such as the College's Cultures and Traditions requirement opened his eyes intellectually to the fact that there "was an entire world out there," Payne says, and he joined the Peace Corps.

"I'd never traveled, I'd never seen the ocean, never been on an airplane," the Indiana native recalls. "I didn't have any money and wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do-it sounded like an adventure, and that's what I was looking for."

Later that year the 22-year-old was bound for the African nation of Mauritania, having completed intensive agriculture training as well as classes in the French and the country's Arabic dialect of hassinya. Working as an agricultural extension agent among the bedouin peoples in the northern region of the country, Payne discovered both his love of agricultural science and the pleasure of improving the lives of others.

"They had a diet low in nutritional value, so we were trying to encourage the growing and marketing of vegetables," Payne says. That encouragement included education, seed selection assistance, well construction-just about anything they could do to increase production or lengthen the growing season.

And it worked. At least, in the short term.

"We managed to increase vegetable consumption and improve nutrition, so farmers had larger markets for their vegetables and suddenly people were making money," Payne recalls.

Such heady success in a country where conditions for agriculture were so difficult led Payne to pursue graduate work in soil physics at Texas A&M after his tour of duty with the Peace Corps and two months wandering the U.S. on a motorcycle. His master's thesis work took him back to Africa-this time to Niger, one of Africa's poorest countries. Completing his graduate work in 1990, Payne remained in Niger and became a crop physiologist at the ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) Sahelian Center.

Bill Payne inspecting crops in Niger.

Farming Against the Odds

At ICRISAT, Payne evaluated the ability of new varieties of pearl millet to survive and thrive in the Niger's hostile climate. The conditions he found facing farmers in a country where less than 3% of the land is arable were staggering.

"They were trying to grow a tough crop under incredibly difficult conditions," Payne explains. The country's "mono-modal rainfall pattern brings precipitation for three months during the year-then the rain stops for nine months. Because of increasing population, farmers can't let the land rest for the 15 or 20 years its needs to regain its fertility, so every year the soil is less productive and more prone to erosion by wind and water.

"Agriculture in that part of the world is still done by hand," Payne notes. "They aren't even using animal traction, and the net production per capita continues to drop from year to year."

Payne's task was to turn that number around and increase production by developing more efficient cropping systems. A cropping system includes not only the hybrid cultivars developed by genetic engineers, but also a particular way to manage soil, fertilize, and irrigate.

To develop this system, the scientist would grow promising varieties of pearl millet and test them for resistance to drought and other stresses. To be a successful seed, the new variety had to be better than the cultivar already being used in the area. And Payne tested several that were just that.

That's where the frustrations began. Research stations such as ICRISAT's provide far better conditions for growing than most local farms, so the seeds had to be tested on local farmer's fields. If the seed survived that test, it would have to be grown elsewhere to make enough for area farmers. Such an industry is a given in the United States. If a promising cultivar is developed, seed companies jump at the chance to multiply and market it. No such industry exists in Niger.

Institutional rivalries also prevented the distribution of the seed. Sometimes a national program competed with an international program such as ICRISAT and blocked the production of the seeds. Sometimes the cause was jealousy. Sometimes the cause was a genuine scientific disagreement.

Even if the seed was distributed, fertilizer necessary for growing even the traditional varieties of crops was unavailable or too expensive. The soil is too spent to grow crops, the economy is too weak to provide fertilizer to rejuvenate the soil, and the government seems unwilling or too incompetent to do anything about it.

Challenges in the U.S.

So when the shooting began in the streets of his neighborhood in 1996, Payne was already considering returning to the U.S. He sensed he'd done all that he could do and he began to have doubts about continuing his work.

"When you see something that's scientifically sound yet isn't being transferred to the people who need it, that raises fundamental questions about the value of what one is doing in this field," Payne explains. "By the time I left, I felt the major problems in that part of the world were political, not technological."

In 1997 Payne left Niamey for a position as a dry land crop argonomist at Oregon State University's Columbia Research Station. Once again an arid climate is his nemesis (eastern Oregon receives even less rain than parts of Niger), but his partners include well-financed seed companies ready to mass-produce cultivars and growers eager to find cropping systems that are less destructive than current agricultural practices.

"Folks here have been farming this land for 100 years, using a method called 'bare fallowing,'" Payne explains. The method results in loss of topsoil and erosion that threatens nearby salmon spawning grounds.

"The farmers are working with us, hoping to find more sustainable farming practices while still being able to feed their families and pay the bills," Payne says. "We're trying to introduce chickpeas into the rotation. That will protect the soil. Now we have to see if those crops will leave enough water for the next year's wheat crop."

Though making sustainable, lower-impact agriculture a reality for Washington and Oregon is now his goal, his mind drifts easily back to the successes and frustrations of his work in Africa.

"I was committed to raising food production there," Payne says. "There's a great deal of poverty and suffering that need not be. If I could do my little part, so be it. But I had to move on for reasons of family and safety.

"I'm convinced after having spent 10 years in Africa that the best contribution we as Americans can make is to continue to educate their best minds," Payne concludes. "I hope to do that now as a professor of agronomy, training their grad students so they can solve their own problems. In that sense I'm still optimistic."

And still not quite able to leave behind the fields of Africa he sought to make green again.