Retired Ohio State University soil scientist Warren Dick is pursuing his dream to train farmers in Ethiopia to improve agricultural productivity.

Ohioan at work training farmers to feed an African nation

By Matt Reese

Retired Ohio State University soil scientist Warren Dick has long been known for his research on soil amendments. He can still talk passionately about gypsum or phosphorus, but his eyes truly light up when he discusses his Bethel Agricultural Association, Inc. project.

Dick grew up in a Mennonite family with 13 children on a small farm in North Dakota. He attended Wheaton College in Illinois as a chemistry major with plans to become a medical doctor. 

“Between my junior and senior year, I went on a summer mission trip to South Sudan, which is one of the newer countries in the world right now,” Dick said. “I saw so much poverty and hunger. I was planning to go to med school but instead of med school, I decided I could do more good for this world in agriculture.”

After the trip, Dick went to Iowa State University for a PhD and was hired by Ohio State University in 1980 where he began his career teaching and researching the biochemistry and microbiology of soils.

“Through all this time after being there in South Sudan, I kept thinking someday I’d go back to Africa to start a university, which was really kind of naïve when you think about it. I had my career and I enjoyed it immensely. I did a lot of traveling and this idea always was in the back of my mind. In 2007, I had a visitor from Ethiopia come to my office and we started talking. At the end of the conversation, I just threw out this comment. I said, ‘Someday, I want to go back to Africa and start a university.’ He looked at the lady that he had come with from a non-profit in Cleveland and he said, ‘That’s what we were talking about on the way to your office.’ We exchanged a few emails, and in 2010 on my own, with no church or university funds, I went on an exploration trip to Ethiopia,” Dick said. “Then 2011, in December, a man came to my office from Ag Spectrum Company. I’d done quite a bit of research for them. He said, ‘Warren I know your dream. I know you’re a man of integrity. I believe in what you’re trying to do.’ He gave me an envelope. I took it home and it was a check for $25,000. I thought that was probably a good hint that I needed to move forward with this dream. I had nothing started, I couldn’t even give him a receipt for the check, but that was the start. I developed the board and things just went from there.”

Warren undertook the arduous task of setting up a non-profit in Ohio in 2017 and getting IRS approval to take donations in 2018. Bethel Agricultural Association, Inc. has also recently been approved by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Today, 32 acres of land has been acquired for the development of Bethel Environmental and Agricultural University and Training Center (BEAUTC) in the city of Woliso. The location is ideal because Woliso is in the center of Ethiopia, only 70 miles from the capital city of Addis Ababa, and also within a leading agricultural area in the country.

“Our motto for the organization is ‘Train a farmer feed a nation,’” Dick said. “When we would go there, we would see a lot of potential. One of our big supporters over there had a cow with a calf and he said, ‘I feed that cow and I give her water and she gives me 2 liters of milk a day.’ Well, that’s nothing because a Holstein cow in the U.S. can average around 9 gallons of milk per day or more, so the potential is really great to move up the production ladder. The other thing about Ethiopia that’s really key, I think, is that it is located in a prime area in the continent of Africa. It’s the second most populous country in Africa. It has the most animals of any country in Africa and it’s the headquarters of the African Union, so all of Africa comes to Ethiopia on a regular basis. The agricultural potential is great, but it’s not well developed, and Ethiopia is one of those countries continually facing food insecurity issues.”

Ethiopia has also been dealing with the ravages of war, with millions displaced, locust swarms destroying crops, and droughts.

“The soils where our project is located are very heavy clay, black soils, kind of like where I grew up in North Dakota. There are places where they have abundant water that comes in a rainy season. There is a lot of low hanging fruit to help move them up on a production scale,” Dick said. “For example, we have a project we’re getting started with poultry. Most poultry run free range, basically, and if you can get the people to keep their chickens in a little chicken coop and feed them instead of letting them run wild, they are much more productive in laying eggs and they grow faster. And the manure is all contained in one place, so they can harvest it to put on their gardens to grow better crops.”

Bethel Agricultural Association also puts a heavy emphasis on local input.

“We asked the local people about their priorities for us instead of just coming in and saying, ‘We’re Americans. We’re going to help you. Just listen to us.’ They asked us to do two things. One is they wanted us to develop a demonstration farm to use Extension concepts like we have here to extend information to the local farmers to advance their knowledge and their production,” he said. “The second one was really a surprise to us. They said, ‘We would like you to develop a chemistry analytical lab. We’re farming blindly. We don’t know when we buy a bag of fertilizer if we should apply it to the whole field, half the field or if we even need it. Is our soil pH too high? Too low? Do we need lime?’ The city people would like a lab because they face severe pollution problems due to urban crowding and lack of infrastructure. They don’t always know where the pollution is coming from or how bad it is. If they take remediation actions, will they be able to determine how well are they fixing the problem?”

With a site acquired, Bethel Agricultural Association is at work on both requests. Longer term plans are for the build out of BEAUTC.

“We have a container right now in Djibouti full of lab equipment, struggling like crazy to overcome the all the red tape that these countries have. You know, we complain about red tape in this country, and we have it, but it’s nothing like these countries,” Dick said. “Relationships are key — you have to build relationships in countries like this. It’s foundational. For me, I’ve gone there about 20 times now. We do workshops every year. That was one of the requirements for getting the land. And, by coming back and building those relationships, you begin to build trust. It begins with small steps, and you build from there, take the next step and the next step. We have buildings going up now to move toward our ultimate goal to develop a university — a four-year school for secondary education — but that’s a big task.”

Bethel Agricultural Association is collaborating with the agricultural industry to get surplus vegetable seeds for planting into Ethiopia and working with the University of Tennessee to potentially research how to improve yields and better market Ethiopian cabbage. There is also work being done on soil fertility, disease control and management of crops including wheat, barley and teff currently being grown in Ethiopia, and incorporating forage crops for livestock into existing crop rotations.

“Bethel Agricultural Association is certainly bathed in a lot of prayer by a lot of people, but when I talk to people from other faiths in Ethiopia — they have Islam, Orthodox, Evangelical Christian and then you have your traditional religion — I always say we’re going to operate based on the Golden Rule, do to others as you would have them do unto you. They all accept that because that’s a universal desire of people. That opens up a lot of doors without getting into this back and forth between different faiths,” Dick said. “And we operate on the principal — and it’s kind of a novel idea — that you go to a university not only to get a job and make a good living, but also to be able to better serve your community — that’s the ethic that we want to put into students.”

To learn more, plan a trip to visit BEAUTC or help with the effort, visit bethelagriculture.org or contact Warren Dick at: baa@bethelagriculture.org or 330-464-7126.

Land has been acquired for the development of this rendering of the Bethel Environmental and Agricultural University and Training Center (BEAUTC) in the city of Woliso.

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