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Field Notes

Thierno Diallo at work at Gamou Organic Farms. Photos courtesy of Thierno Diallo

A native of Mali, Thierno Diallo takes great pride in his Fulani heritage. The West African ethnic group is well known for its tradition of raising livestock. Diallo’s family didn’t own cattle, but being immersed in the Fulani people’s pastoral ways made him long for a life in agriculture.

That’s precisely the life Diallo pursued. He studied agronomy for six years in Russia (an experience about which he wrote and published a book) and interned on three farms in Normandy, France, before working for 12 years at three dairies in Wisconsin. In 2007, he took on his current role as a corn researcher with professor Joe Lauer in the CALS Department of Agronomy and decided shortly after that he wanted to use his skills and knowledge to give back to the agricultural community in Mali. To that end, in 2012, just outside Mali’s capital city of Bamako, he founded Gamou Organic Farms.

According to Diallo, you can learn about farming from books and lectures, but you can’t truly appreciate it until you’ve done the manual labor. Gamou Farms tries to bridge this gap between knowledge and experience for Malian students by immersing them in both the research and day-to-day operations associated with agriculture.

“When I worked on farms, you would get up and do just about the same thing every day,” Diallo says. “So even if you don’t want to learn, something is going to stick. And if you really want to, and you love what you’re doing, there’s no limit to how much you can learn.”

Abai Mounkoro (right), a cattle herder at Gamou Organic Farms, teaches trainee Seydou Doucoure how to use a wire stretcher to rebuild and repair fences. Photos courtesy of Thierno Diallo
Abai Mounkoro (right), a cattle herder at Gamou Organic Farms, teaches trainee Seydou Doucoure how to use a wire stretcher to rebuild and repair fences.

Diallo manages Gamou Farms largely from abroad and returns to Mali for a month every summer. At any given time, local students can be found on the farm driving tractors, feeding cows, repairing fences, and administering vaccines to livestock, among other tasks. Also, by serving as a platform for Diallo’s research with the agronomy department, the farm provides scientific training for students while advancing agriculture in Mali.

Today, Gamou Farms is pursuing two major projects. The first involves fonio (Digitaria exilis), a common West African grain crop that is adapted to dry areas and resistant to weeds. Fonio is drought tolerant, doesn’t require much fertilizer, and is one of the world’s fastest growing cereals, so it could play a vital role in enhancing food security and nutrition in Mali. However, at the end of the season, the seeds shatter, causing a 30–50 percent yield loss.

Sara Patterson PhD’98, a professor in the CALS Department of Horticulture, is working with researchers from the University of Bamako, the Institut d’Economie Rurale Cinzana, and the University of Georgia to find a solution to the seed shattering. Their aim is to develop better fonio varieties that won’t bend at the stem (lodge) and will retain seeds at maturity. The resulting bump in yield would mean an enhanced food source for West African people and more income for fonio producers.

Gamou Farms provides a place for crossbreeding and selection among the collected samples, followed by the multiplication and dissemination of the new and better varieties to the local population. Diallo has extracted DNA samples in Mali and brought them to a CALS lab for further study. Students assist with DNA extraction, sequencing, and field data collection.

The farms’ second project focuses on dairy. The goal is to create a new breed of cattle by crossbreeding local, disease-resistant N’Dama with “super milker” Holsteins. For that purpose, Diallo took 13 Holstein embryos with him on his July 2018 trip to the farm.

“When those embryos get transferred into my cattle back home, many vets, technicians, and students will be involved, so they can see and learn about this technology,” Diallo says. “Gamou Farms is like an incubator, a place where students will come to learn and transfer technologies I’ve learned throughout my career and all that I have available to me here in the U.S. today. These students are future leaders, farmers, researchers, and decision makers. If we consistently train many of them each and every year, we will raise the production level across the board.”