The elevator door slides open to a ninth-floor corridor tiled in black-and-white marble in a downtown Toronto office building. A sign on the receptionist’s desk announces that this is Varity Corporation, until two years ago known as Massey Ferguson. Behind the woman, on a cabinet, a miniature fleet of Massey-Ferguson tractors looks ready to harvest a field in Lilliput. There’s even a tiny bale of hay. On nearby walls hang pictures of gleaming tractors and combines, denoting a world of high-tech agro business.
But in a windowless room just down the hall hangs another picture: a photograph of an elderly peasant woman pulling a large cart on a dusty road in China. This is in one of the three offices Varity donates to the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network, a nine-year-old organization headed by George Atkins, a former CBC farm radio broadcaster. Atkins and his staff of a dozen prepare radio scripts that reach over 100 million subsistence farmers in the Third World-almost three per cent of the world’s population. Farmers like the Chinese woman in the picture. Farmers who can’t afford the gas for a tractor, much less the tractor itself.
The network’s goal is to increase food supplies and to improve heatlth and nutrition in developing countries. It presents simple, practical techniques for small scale farmers-most of whom have access to a radio. “Milking Your Goat,” “Keeping Farm Animals Healthy and Productive” and “Growing Chilies in Spite of Mountain Ground Frost” are among the more than 175 items produced to date.
These are recorded on cassettes in English, French and Spanish; the tapes and illustrated scripts are then sent to almost 800 rural broadcasters and writers, health and community workers, teachers and missionaries in more than 100 countries. The packages cost recipients nothing, but to continue receiving them, they must comment on the items and propose topics for future use. Listeners take this participatory aspect seriously. Last year, the DCFRN office in Toronto received a parcel from Ghana in response to the program “New Uses for Old Tires and Inner Tubes.” Inside were samples of uses not known to the network’s staff: a catapult, sandals with decorative rubber florets and a large, very sharp knife with a rubber handle guaranteed not to slip.
In some cases, the programs go directly on air with little alteration, but more often they are adapted for local use. In Ecuador, for example, an illiterate broadcaster listens to the tapes and studies the drawings on each script. She memorizes the information, interprets it and then repeats it over the radio to 100,000 Quechua Indians. Many participants speak one of the network’s three languages only as a second or third language, so the scripts must be simple. Helen Aitkin, who manages the network’s Guelph office, says when she started her job, she kept a picture of a woman she knew in Guatemala by her desk. “I’d look her in the eye and pretend I had to explain to her what we were doing. And if she couldn’t understand, I knew we were off track.” Programs must also be culturally appropriate. For example, certain religions prohibit the killing of animals; so instead of “How to Kill a Rat,” one item was more prudently titled “Methods of Rat Control.”
DCFRN’s word is not just spread over the airwaves. It has been incorporated into newspaper and magazine articles, cartoons and puppet shows. Some farmers in India even sing planting instructions in rice paddies as they prepare the ground for seed. An art teacher in Sudan asks his students to draw the lessons from the scripts on posters, which are then hung in surrounding villages. In Ghana, a preacher follows his sermon with the word according to DCFRN.
But as the network gives with one hand, it must beg with the other. Though supported in part by Varity and the University of Guelph, its single greatest source of funds has been the Canadian International Development Agency, which currently provides 50 per cent of the annual budget of just under $400,000. However, after 1989, CIDA will only match whatever funds the network is able to raise. Ironically, DCFRN must strive to become self sufficient – the same goal it promotes in the Third World.
The network’s executive director is confident it will be able to do this. “I’m an eternal optimist,” Atkins says. “If you’re not an optimist, you won’t survive.” An associate describes Atkins as the father, mother and godfather of the network. “Not only was it his idea and not only is it his enthusiasm that drives it, but he’s actually involved in the production,” says James Shute, a professor in rural extension studies at the University of Guelph. “He’s beating the bushes for ideas and putting them on tape. The language of DCFRN is the language of George Atkins.”
Atkins was born in 1917 and grew up on his family’s mixed farm near Oakville. He studied agriculture at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph and at the universities of Wisconsin and Colorado State. He farmed for 15 years on his father’s land but was not content just to toil in the fields. During World War II, he was approached by the provincial department of agriculture to teach farmers how to get along with less machinery. Later, he became part-time farm director at CHCH- TV in Hamilton and also worked in local radio, developing programs for rural youth. In 1955, the CBC offered Atkins a job as a farm broadcaster, and so he began his 25-year career with the network.
In his time there, Atkins demonstrated that radio could unite people separated by great distances. On one program, he combined an interview recorded on the most easterly farm in the country with another from the most westerly. He also regularly participated in the National Farm Radio Forum. Listeners were encouraged to gather in small groups and listen to weekly half-hour broadcasts on such subjects as family farming, rural health and marketing boards. After the program, the group members discussed the week’s topic and mailed in their comments, which were broadcast on a later show.
At the CBC, Atkins became known as the “commentator with the smile in his voice.” In person, that smile frequently reaches up into his grey eyes behind his bifocals. His face is relatively unlined; even with his thatch of silver hair, it’s hard to believe that Atkins is 70. He has the air of a gentleman farmer, with the attire to match: sturdy shoes, grey tweed jacket, red handkerchief poking up jauntily from the breast pocket.
As Atkins talks about DCFRN, his excitement is visible. He energetically swings his leg over the chair as he tells a favorite story. He jumps up from his desk to point at posters and awards on the walls. He pulls old scripts from the files and paces about the office, acting out an interview he conducted in India on how to store cow feed in a simple hole in the ground.
He also likes to gesture at a map of the world that hangs behind him. On it are thickly clustered black dots, each representing the location of a DCFRN participant. The first dot was placed on Zambia, where the idea for DCFRN came to Atkins back in 1975. The Commonwealth Broadcasters’ Association had invited him to Lusaka to participate in a workshop designed to help African broadcasters better communicate agricultural information. At the time, many were telling their audiences about chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides-products that were either inappropriate or too expensive for local use. So Atkins volunteered to find and send information about simpler, lower-cost practices better suited to small scale farmers on the continent.
But CBC’s mandate did not include the sort of service Atkins envisaged, and it was not until 1977 that he was able to act on his idea. In that year he was seconded to Massey-Ferguson to examine the impact of the greenhouse effect on the world’s climates-a project of little value to subsistence farmers. It was Massey-Ferguson’s public relations director, Peter Lowry, who asked Atkins how the company could better serve this group. Lowry had met Atkins in the mid-1970s at an international plowing match and later asked the broadcaster to work on the climate study project. Lowry says Massey-Ferguson liked the idea of financing a farm network because of the company’s history of philanthropy. Enlightened self-interest also played a part in the decision. “When people begin to prosper,” he says, “then they’ll think of getting some machinery.”
So in 1978 Massey-Ferguson gave Atkins $5,500 for a seven-week, round-the-world feasibility study. He returned with ideas for programs and lists of contacts. In 1979, with Massey-Ferguson underwriting the cost of producing the scripts and cassettes, he mailed the first package to 34 people in 26 countries. That initial tape carried nine items, including “Fuel for Cooking in Developing Countries” and “Food for Your Whole Family from a Small Fish Pond.”
Atkins officially retired from CBC the following year and enthusiastically planned the growth of DCFRN. Massey-Ferguson, which had already given Atkins an estimated $75,000 towards both the climate study project and DCFRN, agreed to donate an additional $25,600 in cash and kind for 1980-81. At the same time Mark Waldron, a former CBC colleague of Atkins’s and now the director of part-time and continuing education at the University of Guelph, helped negotiate an agreement between DCFRN and the university that enabled the network to establish a French and Spanish language division. The university also gave DCFRN another office and additional administrative support, but more importantly, the relationship enabled DCFRN to qualify for CIDA funding, through a program that supports universities’ international development work.
Archibald MacKinnon, now head of the Centre for International Programs at Guelph, was a special-education advisor at CIDA when DCFRN funding was first approved in 1980. He said the network appealed to CIDA because it directly helped “the small farmers who feed the world and who cannot use the mechanization and high technologies of the West.”
And in its use of radio, MacKinnon says, DCFRN “addressed issues and problems at the local level using a medium that didn’t require literacy for its success.”
The CIDA funding allowed Atkins to hire two assistants-one to work in Guelph and the other in Toronto. Over the next few years, as the number of Third World participants grew, so did DCFRN’s staff. By 1983, it had eight full-time employees and it now also has several part time workers and volunteers.
DCFRN would like to hire more people. It wants to send material in additional languages, including Portuguese and Arabic, and it is also exploring the possibility of establishing a sister network that would distribute information on health and nutrition. The network’s funding problems, however, threaten these plans. Currently, about half its $400,000 budget is devoted to salaries; the rest pays for materials, administrative expenses, travel and postage. For 1986-87, Massey-Ferguson provided $68,000 in cash and in kind and Guelph contributed $121,000 in kind; CIDA made up the remainder. But two years ago, the agency said it could no longer give DCFRN special-projects funding because the program was intended only for short-term financing. Instead, it agreed to make an annual contribution of $200,000 for the next three years, during which time the network had to establish itself as a nongovernmental organization and acquire charitable status. At the end of 1989, CIDA will only match whatever money DCFRN is able to raise on its own. It might seem contradictory that a successful and cost-efficient development project does not have full funding from CIDA. But CIDA says it is important that the network be tapped into a variety of financial sources. Peggy Florida works in the nongovernmental organization division of CIDA and she is DCFRN’s link with the agency. She says: “The government doesn’t want to get into a situation where it’s keeping an organization alive. If parliament does not vote CIDA any more funds, it means the death of that organization.” Most DCFRN staff and associates agree with CIDA that the network should become more independent. Archibald MacKinnon says the network needs the “greater freedom of movement” and a wider base of public support than its status as a nongovernmental organization would bring. “The objective of the whole exercise is self-dependence,” says MacKinnon. This has not proved easy. The first year of the CIDA agreement is over and the fundraising campaign has netted only a fraction of the $400,000 target. One reason is that the organization is relatively new; it just doesn’t have the same high profile as such well-established charities as Oxfam or Cansave. Moreover, in its fundraising it eschews the skeletal-child-with-outstretched-hands approach. Instead, DCFRN supporters soliciting money at Rotary clubs and farmers’ groups prefer to talk about the successes of Third World farmers-those who feed their families using rudimentary equipment on tiny plots of land or even on floating rafts covered with leaves and soil.
Next year, CIDA will evaluate DCFRN’s financial status and its effectiveness in reaching the people of the Third World. At that point, if the network is having difficulties raising money, Florida says there is a “possibility” CIDA might extend ad hoc funding. She thinks DCFRN is doing a good job, and adds that it’s the only organization in the world providing such a service. But a true measure of DCFRN’s success is found half a world away from the offices where its fate may be decided.
On a darkening March evening in Sierra Leone, Prince Nallo is traveling on a bus from Freetown to the village of Funkiah. Nallo is a technical assistant in DCFRN’s Guelph office and he’s back in his native country on a visit. It’s a hot and sticky ride; about 50 people crowd a bus made for 25. The driver tunes in to the country’s only radio station. Suddenly, Nallo hears the name “George Atkins,” followed by a DCFRN item on how to transport pigs, narrated in Mende, a local language. “Can you crank that up, please?” asks an excited Nallo. He tells the driver about DCFRN. And the driver’s reaction highlights the very principle underlying the organization’s work: “It’s good people aren’t just coming here and telling us what to do. At least we can contribute something and influence people’s lives in other parts of the world.”