Grant to help UI lead overseas farming program

URBANA – A $9 million grant will help Illinois agricultural scientists bring their expertise to developing nations over the course of five years.

And the program could grow to $50 million.

The University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences has the lead role in a consortium awarded $9 million in federal money to improve conditions and education for farmers in the world's poorest nations.

The Modernizing Extension and Advisory Systems project, overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development, will help 20 of the world's poorest nations modernize and strengthen their agricultural Extension systems.

"This is something we haven't had for decades," Schuyler Korban, director of ACES' international programs office, said of the grant.

"The UI and the College of ACES in particular used to have a large number of these awards coming our way," he said. "This is our first new success story, not only the $9 million grant, but we will have access to $50 million in other grant money that we can seek from USAID missions in the different countries."

The project went into effect Sept. 15. The teams of five, including one UI educator in each group, will be starting work in upcoming weeks, Korban said.

"It will be a tremendous opportunity for UI personnel that will allow them to gain that in-country experience, and of course, to contribute to the needs of these countries," he said.

Theresa Miller of ACES said that the majority of the $9 million grant goes to the UI as lead agency. She said a project director, emeritus Professor Burton Swanson, has been hired, and another manager will also sign on.

"We have quite a long history in training people abroad," Miller said, noting that Chancellor Robert Easter, a former ag dean, and current ACES Dean Robert Hauser just returned from India, where they are helping to set up satellite operations.

She said that from the 1960s to the early 1990s there was an office for overseas agricultural training, and it has been reopened.

"Most of those projects were soft money (one-time) projects, designed to do institution building," he said. "This is one of our first major efforts abroad college-wide, and we hope to really make a difference."

The project is especially tuned to help women farmers, who may have been neglected in earlier efforts.

The UI-led consortium includes Cornell University, Michigan State University, University of California-Davis, University of Florida, North Carolina A&T University, Catholic Relief Services, Cultural Practices LLC, the International Food Policy Research Institute, Winrock International, Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education, Sasakawa Africa Association, and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

"Extension systems in the poor countries of Africa, Asia and Central America need to undergo a significant change to effectively serve the needs of small-scale male and female farmers. Our goal is to transform these Extension systems so they can play a key role in both increasing farm incomes and improving the livelihoods of the rural poor, especially farm women," Swanson, who was unreachable because he was attending a consortium meeting, said in a press release.

The project's goal is to help farmers with limited resources in 20 of the world's poorest countries identify emerging market opportunities while using their land and labor resources to more efficiently serve these markets. In addition, they will utilize sustainable natural resource management practices.

The MEAS team will focus on three key areas: developing training materials for development specialists, policy makers, Extension directors and Extension field staff; conducting in-depth assessments of the Extension systems in the target countries; and recommending investments to be developed that can help strengthen the Extension systems. Then plans will be submitted to the USAID Mission in each country for additional funding and implementation.

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