Conservation agriculture lessons help West African farmers maximize their resources

Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences Professor Ozzie Abaye said she sees a bigger purpose in her work with silage and animals — helping a country feed itself.

Abaye, an expert in crop production and grassland management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has worked in Senegal to set up a project in conservation agriculture. Conservation agriculture uses cover crops, crop rotation, and minimal tillage to improve soil health and increase crop production.

The project is part of a larger, Virginia Tech-led program called Education and Research in Agriculture in Senegal that is modernizing agriculture in the West African country.


Professor Ozzie Abaye, second from left, poses with farmers who are showing off good forage material. Professor Ozzie Abaye, second from left, poses with farmers who are showing off good forage material. Photo courtesy of Abaye.

“We noticed that the villagers’ practice was to move livestock out of the village during the growing season so that they don’t disturb the row crops,” Abaye said. “But during the rainy season, we discovered there’s lots of forage that wasn’t being used.”

Because Senegal has just one rainy period a year, Abaye said it was important to maximize forage production during the rainy season so livestock would have food in the dry season.

Of several techniques that Abaye introduced to farmers, the practice of using reusable plastic bags to compress and store chopped foliage proved to be the most popular. “The prospect of preserving forage for use during the dry period appeared very exciting to many of the farmers,” Abaye said. The technique protects the fodder from the elements, which can rob it of nutrients. The method is also easy and inexpensive to adopt.

Livestock is important in Senegal because cows, goats, sheep, and donkeys contribute milk, meat, and labor to the local economy, Abaye said. Donkeys are relied on for transportation. Yet villagers, who often have no more than an elementary school education, may not be aware of the most effective techniques of growing feed for their animals. “We all need to learn new tools,” Abaye said.

Originally from Ethiopia, Abaye came to the United States as a 17-year-old exchange student, landing on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. Like her new siblings, she was expected to get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows, go to school, come home and grab a snack, then head out to help with the afternoon milking. “It was hard at first,” Abaye said. “I used to cry about it. I thought life in the United States was supposed to be easy. But now I understand the value of hard work — the satisfaction it brings you.”

Abaye completed a doctoral degree in agronomy, now called crop and soil environmental sciences, at Virginia Tech in May 1992 and began teaching on the Blacksburg campus that July. She has been at Virginia Tech since then.


Village children accompany graduate student Patrick Trail as he surveys a field. Village children accompany graduate student Patrick Trail as he surveys a field. Photo courtesy of Trail.

Colleagues testify to her dedication and commitment. “Ozzie is one of those people with boundless energy,” said Wade Thomason, a fellow Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences professor. “She really cares about the students and seeing the light bulb come on with them. She has that gift, to stay with a student until they get it.”

Patrick Guilbaud, director of the Education and Research in Agriculture program based in Dakar, likewise acknowledges the value that Abaye brings to the table. “She is helping us extend the walls of the university, both back in the states and here in Senegal. She’s helping us train the next generation of leaders.”

Patrick Trail, a graduate student in crop and environmental sciences from Grand Gaube, Mauritius, works on the conservation agriculture project with Abaye. “She really encourages me to think about the needs of the farmer. It’s easy to suggest a certain practice for the farmer, but people often don’t think about the extra work it means for him and his family.”

Additionally, Trail said, “It’s always fun going out to the villages to meet farmers with Ozzie. They never know what to make of a woman showing them better ways to do things, but they soon get over it once they realize she has much to offer.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Miriam Rich at 540-231-4153.

About the project

Professor Ozzie Abaye’s project is one facet of a larger program, Education and Research in Agriculture in Senegal, that is part of a U.S. government initiative called Feed the Future. The latter works to ensure that developing countries around the world can feed themselves.

The program in Senegal is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and managed by Virginia Tech’s Office of International Research, Education, and Development

The program works with other American universities to modernize agriculture education in Senegal:

  • University of Connecticut
  • Michigan State University
  • Purdue University
  • Tuskegee University

Photos: Lessons in Senegal

    Abaye confers with plant pest expert

See pictures from Professor Ozzie Abaye’s visit to Senegal.

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    A farmer transports preserved hay that will feed his animals.

A farmer transports preserved hay that will feed his animals. Photo courtesy of Ozzie Abaye.

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