Sauvie Island farmer travels to Africa to teach agricultural techniques

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SAUVIE ISLAND PUMPKIN PATCH - Bob Egger, owner of The Sauvie Island Pumpkin Patch, provides instructions to students in Rwanda about how to operate their newly-installed drip irrigation lines.Farmers from The Pumpkin Patch on Sauvie Island have been spending their winters in Africa for the past four years with the purpose of teaching refugees in Rwanda sustainable farming practices.

Bob Egger — who has owned The Pumpkin Patch since 1992 with his wife, Kari — said this year the group’s major effort was to install drip irrigation lines on the farm of an orphanage in Rwanda. The group left for Rwanda Jan. 31 and worked with the orphanage for 10 days.

Over the years, Egger, his family and crew from The Pumpkin Patch have transformed a plot of land at the orphanage from a marsh into a thriving farm.

“The first year it was a swamp. We came up with the idea of building raised beds in the swamp,” he said, adding that the group used the swamp to both fill and irrigate the beds while planting seed on higher ground.

April Frankamp, also with The Pumpkin Patch, said the orphanage started out with only four garden beds, but within the span of four years, increased that number to 66. The beds, as well as the fields, Egger said, are mostly planted with red and green cabbage, carrots, red beets, green zucchini, cucumbers, and broccoli. He added that the climate in Rwanda has multiple planting seasons.

Egger said one roadblock to the effort has been a cultural barrier that exists between the Rwandan people and agriculture.

“It’s fertile ground, but it’s beneath them to be farmers. They were herdsmen by trade,” Egger said, adding that the group was instructed to bring with them pictures of their farmland and their homes in order to break the paradigm. Frankamp said there is a generational gap among the people of Rwanda wherein many would-be farmers instead moved to the cattle business, causing a loss of agricultural knowledge.

Of the group’s focuses on agricultural education at the orphanage, Egger said there is an emphasis on teaching students to plant in rows and to weed them regularly. Typically, he said, locals would scatter seeds and not weed the areas in which they sprouted, which he indicated was ineffective. Egger said he explained to students the weeds were stealing water and nutrients from the desired plants.

Egger said the idea for the annual effort stems from his son Colton — now a sophomore high school student in Portland — who was asked in fifth-grade about what he wanted to do when he grew up. Egger said his son’s teacher was surprised to hear he wanted to be a farmer, and years later remembered the comment and connected the Egger family with Africa New Life.

Egger said the teacher’s husband works for the faith-based organization, which had been seeking farmers to instruct students within its orphanage schools in Rwanda.

Egger said the Rwandan government requested Africa New Life build the orphanage school and, about five years ago, he said, the organization built a school around a church.

The school, Egger and Frankamp said, is doing well after being established, and now boasts solar electricity, six wells — four of which were added over the past two years — and a few computers.

Frankamp said the school’s test scores are some of the highest in the area, attracting non-traditional students to attend.

“People are trying to get kids in the orphan school because their test scores are so good,” she said.

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