Letters from the Bushveld

by Leonie Joubert

Driving through the bushveld (photo by Rodger Bosch)

Curtis Frederick drives as though he knows this stretch of road—fast enough to skim the corrugations scored into the dirt track by rain and traffic, slow enough to keep the Land Rover from skidding out from under him. A recent shower bedded down the rust-orange dust for the afternoon, but the pockmarked road in the southern African bushveld still hammers the steering column, so the young man’s hands seem to read its surface like Braille.

A recent shower bedded down the rust-orange dust for the afternoon, but the pockmarked road in the southern African bushveld still hammers the steering column, so the young man’s hands seem to read its surface like Braille.

“I have to stop at the workshop to drop off these corers,” he bellows above the cacophony as the vehicle rattles giddily over a particularly rutted stretch. “They’re spot welded, but when you hit them into the ground, the joints crack. They said they’ll redo them for me.”

The metal soil corers jiggle behind the 23-year-old’s seat as he handles the bucking vehicle through a corner and on to the nearby town of Modemole, about two hours north of Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial hub.

Curtis Frederick (photo by Rodger Bosch)A recent horticulture graduate, Frederick works as field agronomist and site manager on the South African farm where the college’s Ukulima Root Biology Center has a five-year research program. An initiative of plant nutritionist Jonathan Lynch, the South African center is funded by a $1.5-million grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, along with use of a 50-acre plot on a farm owned by Buffett in the South African bushveld.

Frederick arrived in August 2009 to set up and oversee the first phase of research scheduled for the austral summer: growing different types of maize and beans under conditions of drought and low-nutrient stress. The center’s focus is on roots. If they can identify which plants have root systems that allow them to thrive in low-input conditions, and if they can match those traits to specific genes, then plant breeders can use that knowledge to cultivate drought-resilient hybrids that don’t need much fertilizer input.

Lynch and his team see the benefits filtering through to poor farmers in developing countries.

Ukulima Center (photo by Robert Snyder)The Ukulima Center sits along the curved line of crops where an irrigation system will track around a central pivot point. Photo by Robert Snyder

During the first year, several college doctoral and postdoctoral researchers conducted stress experiments on a variety of maize and bean types, which swept across a field in a neat arc around a pivot irrigation system. By subjecting the plants to controlled water and nutrient stress and then mapping the root structure and genes of the plants, they can lift out plants on which breeders should focus to develop drought-resistant and nutrient-efficient crops. A team of nine agricultural technicians from Mozambique joined the college crew and were trained during the growing season so they could conduct similar work in their home country.

As station manager, Frederick arrived two-and-a-half months ahead of the researchers to make sure the farm was up and running and to prepare the fields for the experiments, ship in supplies, and get the irrigation system operational. Once the researchers arrived, he helped design the field experiments and ordered specialized equipment such as the pipes for taking soil core samples and tanks for washing roots custom made at the local metal workshop.

“Now that the experiments are underway, I spend less time procuring supplies and equipment, and more time on the farm,” he says.

Frederick’s day starts just after 6:00 a.m. with breakfast and a quick catch-up on e-mail and news. By 7:00 a.m. he takes the technicians out to the farm and does a field inspection, then he’s back in the office by 9:00 a.m. He’s responsible for day-to-day farm operations: procuring and paying labor, managing the budget, making sure the farm kitchen is stocked for the students and staff—and then there’s the lab to manage and keep fully equipped.

The researchers are responsible for their individual experiments, but Frederick oversees management of the fields: applying or withholding water and fertilizers, depending on the researchers’ requirements and the stage of the experiments.

“Many of the researchers are specialists—for instance, in plant biology—but they may not have agronomy experience in a field site. With so many researchers here, I provide the continuity in management of the plots,” he says.

Frederick at a local market (photo by Rodger Bosch)On one of those rare afternoons when he leaves the farm for a few hours to do chores in town, we talk. There’s a clipboard wedged between the driver’s seat and the stick shift. On it, a shopping list scribbled in blue ink: 1-mm screen, pruners, elec. tape, three rulers, cutting board, nail polish (clear), groceries, bank (3:00 p.m.), braai (Afrikaans for “barbeque”), sausage, and meat.

On the back of his suntanned hand, another reminder was added in haste: transistor!

The nail polish, it later transpires, is for a doctoral student who needs it to seal root samples into vials before they’re shipped Stateside for genetic analysis. The meat is for that evening’s barbeque.

Hoe gaan dit met jou? [How are you?]” he greets the men in the local hardware store. In a few short months, this farmer’s son from Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania, is finding his way around the local languages, Afrikaans and Sepedi. The shop assistants seem quite taken with the affable Yank (when he first arrived in town, people thought he was British, but he pointed out that the Yanks beat the British once, which seems to have endeared him to them even more) because there’s a bit of territoriality as they jostle to lend him a hand as he moves between the shelves of roofing nails and paint. They all know him by name and the banter is friendly.

“You couldn’t do this job if you didn’t interact with the neighbors,” he says back in the vehicle. He explains that he found out how to get most of his supplies and equipment simply by asking around and being friendly. His theory is put to the test that day when he and Lynch agree that additional labor needs to be brought in to deal with the growing weed problem in one of the maize beds. Within an hour, simply by phoning one of his contacts, Frederick has casual laborers organized to start work the following day.

“What prepared me for this job was the research and classwork I did as an undergraduate. My time in the plant pathology department helped in terms of field research and design. As for time and people management, I learned a huge part of that growing up on a farm.”

Field research shuts down on the plot for the winter, which means Frederick will head back to the United States until next September, when he’s pretty sure he’ll return to South Africa for another season as station manager. He admits the first few months were grueling and lonely, but now he’s a regular on the dance floor at the local tavern and has a date to a wedding a few days ahead.

Back at the farm, Frederick heads out to the plot to fire up the irrigation pump. He reflects on his situation a bit. It seems he still can’t quite believe he’s here, almost 9,000 miles from home, on a remote farm in the South African bushveld.

“A while back, I was driving down to the farm in the middle of the night to check the pivot. The Mozambiqueans were in the back chatting away in Portuguese. I wondered, how did I get here? If a year ago someone said I’d be here, I’d have said, ‘Yeah right, right.’”

The vehicle bumps to a gentle stop next to the center of the pivot, and Frederick hops out to flick the switch inside the control box. There’s a pause as the giant arches of the irrigation system lumber slowly into action, and then a gentle whoosh as the sprinklers open, releasing umbrellas of water. But one sprinkler is idle in the row of sprayers. Frederick marches across the field to inspect it. He unscrews the mechanism, peers inside, places it to his lips, and gives a sharp blast of air to clear it.

“There, that should do it,” he mumbles to no one in particular and tightens the piece back in place. After a second’s hesitation, the nozzle splutters before raining gently over its designated stretch of farmland. Another job done for the farmer’s son from Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania.