Neyens learns while teaching in Africa
Hank Neyens will officially become an Agriculture teacher in Mountain Lake on July 1, but his "spring training" began in Africa in March. Neyens, a 2014 Minneota graduate, is a senior at South Dakota State University where he is majoring in Agriculture Education. "I'm student teaching now in Clear Lake (SD) and have one week left," said Neyens. While at lunch one day with a friend, Neyens heard his friend and another man talking about a new charity organization called "Tractors for Africa" based in Wayzata, MN. "I asked them about it and they were looking for some people to fix up old tractors and ship them to Africa for farmers there to use," Neyens explained. "The man asked me if I would be interested in going to Africa for a few days to help teach the farmers there and I said 'no' because I'm not much of a traveler." But Neyens, who had some experience working on tractors and equipment while growing up on a farm nine miles southwest of Minneota, said he would be interested in helping them fix up some of the old tractors. "We bought and sold a lot of tractors on the farm," said Neyens.
"And I helped restore International tractors growing up, so I figured I could help them." Once involved with the "Tractors for Africa" program, Neyens asked what the tractors will be used for and the conversation centered around a need for plowing because farmers there currently dig up the soil by hand. Because Neyens has experience and knowledge with plows, and because he is a future Ag teacher, he again was asked if he was interested in going to Africa. And again, his answer was "no".
"So they asked if I would draw up a plan on paper on how to properly plow,” Neyens said. "I told them developing curriculums is what I will be doing as an ag teacher and I would be happy to help them with that."
After that, Neyens was asked to write up more curriculums. "Finally, I just told them I would go to Africa," he laughed.
"I figured it was better to show them in person rather than writing it all down on paper." So Neyens and other "Tractors for Africa" volunteers embarked on a trip to Ghana from March 16-24.
"There are people in Ghana who wanted help and wanted to learn," Neyens said. "And I had knowledge to share.” "I taught farmers and equipment operators how to maintain and operate farm equipment, such as plows, discs and tractors; and some basic agronomy."Neyens not only taught others, but he learned a lot himself while being in Africa. "It was a life-changing experience," he said. "I learned about cyclical poverty, and I also gained a very great appreciation for the blessing that we have here in our country and specifically, our area."
While the weather is ideal for growing crops, in that region, Neyens said, the soil is very sandy and needs to be worked hard in order to produce corn.
"Americans that were there in the 70s were getting 100 bushels an acre," said Neyens. "But that was with better equipment, hybrid seed corn, fertilizer and an irrigation system. They have little of that there now and are getting around 10 bushels an acre."
So Neyens and those involved on this trip were in the beginning stages of setting up nine cooperatives in three cities of Ghana. "Because the farmers there can't afford their own tractors and equipment, there are two men in each cooperative that run the equipment for the other farmers," he explained. "When we saw how they were tilling, it was the worst job I've ever seen. It was actually making things worse.”
"So when we were over there, we taught the two guys in each of the cooperatives the best ways to plow and a lot of other things."
Neyens said the farmers in Ghana work hard with little to show for it. "I've never seen harder working people," he said. "They aren't poor because they don't work hard." Neyens was surprised to see how the people in that region have to fix everything that is broken, as opposed to just going to a store to buy a new item.
"I watched a young man use a metal lathe that some Americans had given the Ag college there in the 1960s," he explained.
"He had no high-speed steel or carbide tooling, so he would cut up old files to make cutting tools.” "I watched him bore out the end of a hydraulic cylinder and he did a very good job, too. The people there are the most resourceful people I've ever seen. Their whole world is held together with old wire and hope." Another example of making something out of nothing was a little shy girl that Neyens and the other American volunteers met. The girl, around seven years old, was hiding behind her mother's leg and stuck her leg out to show off her "new" shoes.
"They were flip flops made out of nylon rope and an old car tire," Neyens told. "But she was so happy and proud to have them."
When asked if he would ever like to go back to Africa and teach again, Neyens wasted little time answering. "I certainly would," he responded. "Theodore Roosevelt said that far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. And I believe that this is one of those opportunities."
Note: The Tractors for Africa charity program is looking for donated 3020 Diesel John Deere tractors or monetary donations. Visit their website at www.tractorsforafrica.org.