Jordan helping peanut farmers from North Carolina to Ghana
By Allison Floyd
University of Georgia, Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab
If North Carolina State University had been looking for a cotton specialist, David Jordan’s career might have turned out very differently. In the late 1990s, the Edenton, N.C.-native was looking for a job that would bring him back home from Louisiana State University, where he was researching rice and soybean production.
“I grew up on a farm that had peanuts, but I didn’t really plan to make my career about peanuts,” Jordan said. “The reason I am here is that a position came open at NC State and I was interested in coming back home. If it had been cotton or wheat, I would have been interested in that job and things would have been a lot different.”
Jordan, North Carolina’s state peanut specialist, directs peanut production programs across the state, helping farmers fight pests and implement sustainable production practices, while coaxing the highest yield out of the ground.
But Jordan also leads the Ghana Value Chain Interventions project for the Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab, a multi-faceted undertaking that weaves together research and innovations from the farm to the processor to the market to increase food security and farm incomes in Ghana.
Jordan was exposed to international development as an undergraduate and then began to travel years ago through his church, which would do disaster-relief mission trips.
“I enjoy international projects, but started to look toward my area of specialty to do more, to have more of an impact. I got involved with the peanut research projects, but also have worked with some higher education projects in Africa. It’s a natural fit for me.”
And like many of the researchers who work with peanut, Jordan loves the complexity of the plant, as well as the nutrients it adds both to a farmer’s field and a consumer’s diet.
“It’s a really fascinating plant. It’s unique because what you are after is underground, but it doesn’t start underground,” he said. “It has a lot of issues that are unique. There are a lot of diseases and insects and weeds; harvesting is unique.
“It’s also a really important legume and good for nitrogen fixation. Peanuts are healthy and have a real directness to them. Most crops are harvested and then go through some sort of processing before they get to consumers, but peanuts can be pulled from the ground and sold immediately to consumers.”
Jordan has been involved with PMIL and its precursor, the Peanut Collaborative Research and Support Program, since 2001, but took charge of the Ghana project five years ago, when fellow NCSU researcher Rick Brandenburg took the lead on a similar value chain project in southern Africa.
The two men had worked together in Ghana for a few years and agreed that they should maintain the connections the program has made with Ghanaian researchers and institutions. As Brandenburg turned his focus to southern Africa, they expected to work together across that continent just as they do at home in North Carolina. But there just wasn’t enough time, leaving Jordan in charge of peanut research in western Africa, while Brandenburg focused on the southern part.
Since the current program started in 2012, the Ghana value chain project has made strides toward increasing yield, reducing post-harvest losses and making products in the marketplace safer for consumers.
Working with farmers in nine villages in northern and central Ghana, PMIL – including U.S. researchers and scientists with the CSIR-Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), the CSIR-Crops Research Institute (CRI) and other groups – runs field trials to find the best ways to increase yield and reduce the amount of crop lost to spoilage or contamination.
A group of those farmers from the Dagomba Village of central Ghana in 2016 were honored by their national government for their commitment to implementing those improved practices and for sharing that knowledge with other producers. Those farmers are spending more on their crops, but seeing a bigger yield that more than makes up for the investment.
Ghanaian graduate students – at the University of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and the University for Development Studies in Ghana, as well as Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia in the U.S. – have explored topics as diverse as the most effective techniques for drying peanuts, flaws in peanut processing that lead to contamination, composting to reduce aflatoxin from soil and using peanut butter to deliver probiotics to malnourished children.
Structuring a research project along the entire value chain of a commodity is complicated, involving a dozen disciplines, from agronomy to food science to economics, Jordan admits, but that’s why it’s important to have strong partners and good communication.
“It seems like the parts are coming together. We’ve been working in Ghana for over a decade, and I’m still learning aspects of farming in Ghana, how their markets work and villages are structured, how land rents … It’s complicated to go to another place and takes time to understand all the pieces.
“All these groups are working toward a common goal to make peanuts plentiful and safe for people to consume. There are different ways to get there,” he said.
One of the most interesting challenges for Jordan has been fighting aflatoxin, a carcinogenic chemical that can build up in peanut, corn, and other crops, and costs African producers $450 million in lost trade every year, according to the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, an initiative of the African Union Commission.
While aflatoxin, which is made by mold that grows on crops in the field and in storage, is a problem for farmers around the world, it’s not particularly bad in North Carolina.
“We are fortunate in that we just don’t have the climate for it,” Jordan said. “Even in our hottest, driest years, we may have only a few percent of the crop that gets flagged.” In the US, aflatoxin is monitored by the USDA and processors to protect consumers.
But helping Ghanaian farmers find the best combination of steps to control aflatoxin has also been one of the most rewarding aspects of the research, he said. Over time, the team has analyzed different combinations of interventions under different climate conditions in the production and storage process to create plans controlling mold growth and aflatoxin development.
“For me, it re-enforced some things that we already knew, but it also gave us a strong data set to know what works best in Ghana particularly. To disseminate information to farmers, the more local the results, the better.”
The scale of production in Ghana also is completely different than what he’s accustomed to at home. In North Carolina, 500-acre farms typically produce 4,000 pounds of peanuts per acre, while the typical one- or two-acre farm in Ghana may bring in 500 pounds an acre.
“When you are able to increase yields just 10 to 25 percent, that makes a huge difference. You are increasing value all along the value chain and giving that farmer options he didn’t have before.”
Working with PMIL has made him a better extension specialist at home, too, Jordan said.
“When you work with different groups and different problems with the same crop, you grow as a researcher and communicator. I definitely provide better service to the farmers of North Carolina because of my time working with farmers in Africa.”
– Published March 30, 2017