The Farmer-to-Farmer Program sends volunteers to underdeveloped countries to grow and improve agricultural businesses.

This is a story about a city girl on a dairy farm, and not just any ordinary dairy farm, but one in South Africa, and one in need of some friendly business support. It's about the journey from New Jersey to South Africa, about helping and sharing, and working and caring. And about the realization that running a little farm on another continent is not so different from managing a large business here in the United States.

A few months ago I didn't know which end of the cow got milked. Today I know more than I care to about mastitis and manure and teat dips. That bit of enlightenment was part of a bale of learning obtained through a volunteer project offered by Land O'Lakes Inc., Arden Hills, Minn.

About the program

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funds the Farmer-to-Farmer Program, which is administered by Land O'Lakes and other organizations. The program is responsible for sending experienced volunteers to farms in underdeveloped countries, to grow and improve agricultural businesses in a sustainable fashion.

Land O' Lakes operates in Jamaica, Mexico, South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria and the former Soviet Union. The projects are not just about dairy, though. They include alternative crops, environmental protection, cooperative development, genetics, processing, marketing, livestock, business development, aquaculture and financing.

How did I wind up on the Dark Continent? In late 2002, I'd been thinking about doing some volunteer work, and promised myself that after the first of the year I'd start scouting around. On December 30, an email from Land O'Lakes popped into my inbox, asking if I'd be interested in a volunteer assignment in South Africa (I'd contacted them earlier that year). It was a sign. It was fate. It was a really cold winter in New Jersey, and 80_F sounded pretty darned good.

I was so ready, but for what? I had no idea.

Getting acquainted

My assignment was in Umtata. Where is that? I located it in my atlas, about 175 miles south of Durban. At least it was on the map!

I was sent travel details, country information and background on Ikwezi Farm Enterprise. They needed general management support, planning and training. I could help with that, but I knew this would be unlike other jobs and consulting engagements I'd had previously. I asked for a sample report from another assignment and contacted its experienced volunteer. That was a good move, and I felt a lot more comfortable. After some immunizations and a very long flight, I found myself at the very bottom of Africa.

Mandisa Ntlabati, the smiling coordinator for the region, greeted me at the airport. The 80_F turned out to be more like 95_F, but at this point, it did not matter. There was no turning back, and the following day we set out for Umtata.

There I was introduced to the farm manager, Irvine Nyoka, and I was to spend the next two weeks working for him. I surveyed the 56-cow, 7-person, 70-hectare farm and wondered what the heck I was doing there. I jumped right in. Then I looked down at my fashionable gold (N.Y.C.-department store) sandals that were now caked in manure and figured I had a thing or two to learn.

This was the largest farm in the area, and it had onsite processing facilities. It had automatic milking machines, a pasteurizing line and a cold room to make amasi, or maas, a local cultured drink. Most of Ikwezi's 500 liter per day output was made from purchased milk.

The farm was recently purchased by the local municipality, with the intention of eventually transferring ownership to the workers and the community. It was a solid business, and Irvine was an entrepreneur in his soul. He had smarts, good instincts, the ability to run a farm and a deep, intense burning to make it work. He would do whatever it took, including asking for help --and that was me!

Where do I start?

Irvine had a lot going for him, including funding, a healthy herd, room for expansion, steadily growing production and plentiful raw material supply. The basics were there; all I had to do was fill in the holes so there would be a solid foundation.

It was like putting together a giant 3-D puzzle, and it wasn't easy to work on a laptop in scorching heat with dive-bomber flies landing on me. The records consisted of a pile of handwritten invoices, some bills and a payroll journal. No daily production records. No quality control testing, in or out, or any production costs. There were no monthly income or expense logs, and certainly no air freshener.

I set up some sales and expense spreadsheets in Irvine's newly acquired computer, in order for him to keep track of what's coming in and what's going out. I also made an invoice template that would calculate totals, and a payroll spreadsheet that streamlined the weekly payroll.

But there were bigger issues. The workers did not understand who owned the farm, who they worked for and that eventually they would be owners --facts that should make morale and productivity high, but unfortunately, they were low. And Irvine had no backup. As if that wasn't risky enough, he had only three customers, one of whom represented 98% of his business- --and it was very low margin. Even worse, that customer was a competitor --another dairy. This situation had to be handled carefully.

Luckily, there was another volunteer working in the area who had production and farming background. I asked him to come out to Ikwezi for a technical opinion, and his expertise proved quite valuable. He verified that the farm could easily produce value-added products such as yogurt and butter. He had a number of other terrific operational suggestions as well. Irvine originally planned to expand through addition of pigs, chickens and vegetables, but he liked our suggestion of further-processed dairy products much better.

The outcome

After just two weeks, Irvine had basic record keeping, a production/sales analysis, suggestions for a better organizational structure (an assistant), a new strategic direction, an understanding of the need to broaden the customer base and recommendations for follow-up volunteers to help with production, market development and labor issues. Efficiency improved dramatically. I could not address all the larger issues in the two weeks I was given, but more help in the form of additional volunteers would follow. My numbers indicated that he was close to breaking even, a remarkable feat after only four months of operation.

When the assignment was completed I felt as though I experienced South Africa, not just visited it. I got just as much out of it as the farm did. Now let me tell you about Latvia.