Daniel Isner saved for years to buy a farm. He’s prepared now. With the help of friends, he’s found 10 acres of good ground. Farming is difficult. Still, Daniel hopes to do more than successfully grow food. He hopes to help people. It sounds like a lot. But talking with Daniel, it becomes clear that he has the spirit and the humanism to pull it off.
He’s moving to the farm in January. He’ll need his passport. His farm is in Ghana.
The soft-spoken twenty-something was resolute while matter-of-fact as he outlined his plans at the Dickinson College Farm this fall. He was nearing the completion of a season as Farm Crew Leader at the organic farm near Boiling Springs. Dickinson College farm provides food for college students, offers a CSA to the Dickinson College family and student internships.
The land in Ghana hasn’t been farmed so Daniel expects to be spending time, at first, clearing the brush. But that’s good. It means the ground will be fertile and free of chemicals. He’ll teach sustainable farming methods. He wants to practice permaculture and maintain biodiversity. Importantly, he wants to be a catalyst to bring farmers who use conventional methods together with farmers who farm organically.
This is a carefully planned move. He’s not doing it alone. Three years ago, Daniel and his good friend, Colin James Baker started an organization, Amandla Awethu Africa. They’ve gathered education and assistance. Goals for the organization are many, including starting Crimson Dawn center on the farm. The center will offer basic services to the community and celebrate arts and music.
“I want to bring culture back into the agriculture” said Daniel.
His unique journey to farming and education in Ghana started after graduating from high school. He’d grown up in the US and pretty much chose to go to Ghana by accident. He said he clicked on the wrong link while investigating volunteer opportunities, and came upon an ad for a teacher for a school in Ghana. The school did not require much experience, so he thought it might be a good fit for him.
His first day at the school, he’d expected some training, but instead was simply escorted to his class room and left in charge of 30 children.
“They said, ‘See you at lunch’ and left me there,” said Daniel. With the help of a soccer ball and his own deep optimism, Daniel made it work.
While teaching with International Neo Humanist School in the Ashanti Region during his first trip, Daniel observed a direct relationship between the quality of education and farming. In rural areas of Ghana, farmers can only pay their school fees during harvest times. Teachers go for months without payment, so schools struggle to keep teachers. He returned to Ghana in ’05.
“That’s when I began to realize that agriculture and community building are the two primary passions fueling my life,” said Daniel.
Ghana is in West Africa on the Gulf of Guinea. Previously known as the Gold Coast during British occupation, Ghana won independence in 1957 but remains an English speaking country. It’s not a large country. The land is roughly the size of Oregon.
Daniel is often asked, “Why Ghana?”
“Ghana is home to a beautiful people endowed with a rich cultural heritage. The land is fertile and teeming with natural resources,” he says. “To be honest, the answer to that question has yet to be fully realized.”
Fast forward to winter 2009. Daniel’s spent years training with organic farms and doing research about incubator farms. He’s spent more time in Ghana and made deep connections with people who he is now partnering with at Amandla Awethu Africa. A man named Hope is a mentor farmer assisting them in Ghana. Amandla Awethu Africa is becoming a larger family committed to their goals.
On top of Daniel’s love of Ghana, his reasons for wanting to be a part of farming reform in Africa are Ghana’s need for food security and the increasing problem of soil infertility.
As with much of the world, farmers in Ghana have been hurt economically by the importation of cheap food from far away. The government plays lip service to their farmers by tepidly encouraging consumption of local food while simultaneously taking away subsidies that allowed Ghana’s farmers to price compete with cheap imports.
At the same time, Ghana’s farmers are finding that their land is increasingly infertile. After decades of using fertilizers and chemicals on their farms, the ground will no-longer produce good harvests without constantly increasing the amount of expensive fertilizers. Chemicals have also disrupted natural cycles which break down organic matter into nutrients that plants need.
Hoping to offer solutions, Daniel and Amandla Awethu Africa are beginning their initiative to teach sustainable farming methods. Elders, who still use traditional methods of farming that are easier on the environment, will work together with farmers currently using conventional methods on the Amandla Awethu Africa farm. Sustainable methods will be taught and the cultural memory of traditional farming in Ghana preserved.
Recognizing that farmers have difficulty making the transition to organic farming because of an initial drop in yield as the soil is re-built, Amandla Awethu Africa will provide land at their farm to those farmers.
Key to food security, permaculture will be an important teaching at Crimson Dawn. Briefly, permaculture is farming with a set of earth and humanity centered values. Farmers who practice permaculture tend to grow naturally and grow many different crops. They include many crops that don’t have to be replanted each year like fruits and nuts. The goal is to produce enough food to be self-sufficient while having enough left over to market locally.
The farm is one of many projects Amandla Awethu Africa has underway. They have a lovely site you can check out to find out more about, for example, their initiative to help a school in Togo become self sufficient through farming.
Farmers provide our physical sustenance. The farmers with Amandla Awethu Africa are working hard to help others have a better life. Meeting one of them, Daniel Isner, provided sustenance to my belief in humanity. Maybe if I’m lucky, he’ll let me visit him in Ghana and update his progress here and with photos.