SALINA, Kansas — Farmers and ranchers in the Salina Diocese are plowing the way on a new pilot project, connecting U.S. farmers to those in Africa.

The project, Missio Invest Farm Mentorship Program, is the brainchild and a collaboration between Father Steve Heina and Missio Invest, a project of the Pontifical Mission Societies.

“This is a form of stewardship for our farmers,” said Heina, director of the Propagation of the Faith Office for the Salina Diocese. “I believe our Kansas farmers are some of the best, most talented, most dedicated in the world. There’s something significant to anyone to being able to be a steward of a great gift. Part of stewardship is sharing gifts in love and justice with others.”

When Tom Benoit heard about the pilot program via his pastor, he jumped at the chance.

Benoit assumed responsibility for his family’s 200-head dairy operation at age 21 and in 2004, when his children moved away to college and into adulthood, he transitioned to growing hay, corn, milo and wheat on about 11,000 acres.

He is paired with Father Mark Kitili, who farms about 80 acres in Kenya.

“It’s a good fit with Father Mark, because he puts up a lot of hay,” Benoit told The Register, Salina’s diocesan newspaper.

When he was a dairy farmer, Benoit was on the Land O’Lakes cooperative’s board, and traveled to Rwanda and South Africa to visit the organization’s mentoring program for dairy farmers.

“I fell in love with Africa. I got involved with the Land O’Lakes board, which is huge helping people in Africa, so to me this is a natural fit for what I’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s not about wealth for Father Mark. He’s doing it so he can help others. He uses the money from the farm for the church, school and to help the locals.”

The duo communicate primarily through the WhatsApp smartphone app, which permits text messaging, photo sharing, and audio or video calls.

“Father Mark has a passion for farming. He puts his heart and soul in it,” Benoit said. “He will send me a fast WhatsApp and say, ‘I got six bags of beans done today.’ He’s upbeat and excited.”

In addition to talking about the daily tasks of farming, he said, they are developing a friendship.

“He knows I have a daughter getting married soon, and he is always asking about her and wants to know about our family,” Benoit said.

And Benoit said he hopes some of his professional connections can assist Kitili on the farm.

The idea to pair Kansas farmers with those in Africa took several years to develop. First, Heina enlisted the help of Tom Murphy, who retired after working in the agriculture industry for more than 30 years, and was concluding his tenure as the president of the Rural Life Commission for the Salina Diocese.

“We can’t relate to them about tractors, but we can talk about population of plants, the fields, rainfall and when to plant and what to plant,” Murphy said, “but we have to be cognizant of the fact that they have no mechanization at all.”

Murphy worked with Heina to develop the outline for the pilot program, and once approved by the Missio Invest board, began the process of implementing their plans.

While he was initially nervous about the cultural differences, they were able to find common ground.

“We’re developing a relationship (with the farmers in Africa) and seeing what comes from it,” Murphy said. “I was nervous to show them pictures of how we do things here, knowing some of their machines are similar to those our ancestors used.”

Joey and Matt Thielen were recruited to work with Sister Mary Chilengwe, of the Sisters of the Child Jesus, in the Archdiocese of Kasama, Zambia.

Chilengwe’s congregation takes care of three farms totaling about 1,900 acres. The farms produce and sell eggs, chicken, fish, beef, goat meat and corn. The farm provides food and income for local schools, orphanages and communities, and hires many local laborers.

The introduction to the farm mentors was made in February, and Chilengwe said she has gleaned new ideas from her mentors.

“Before, we had been using traditional means of farming,” she said. “Now we are thinking of farming as a business, since we have seen farms from outside. It is an eye-opener to me. I am learning a lot and trying to do some of these things at our farm.”

As with Chilengwe, Benoit said Kitili has been analyzing the farming operation with more of a business mind lately, and used a Missio Invest loan to purchase a bigger tractor and baler for his hay.

“He did a financial plan of what he could do with the bigger tractor and baler,” Benoit said. “He realized he could bale his own crop faster and would have time to custom-bale for other farmers.”

Heina said the mentoring relationship is enriching to the Kansas participants.

“I think our mentors are already experiencing a benefit from this relationship,” he said. “It’s a two-way street as they begin to get acquainted with the project managers and learn about their situations in Africa.

“There’s something inspiring about these people who are so dedicated with very little physical resource. Even recognizing faith in their farming, it’s different than we in America or Kansas experience it.”

The pilot program will continue, but Joelle Birge, vice president of lending for Missio Invest, said she hopes Missio Invest can build upon it.

“I think we want to expand more in the Salina Diocese, and also would love to expand this across the country,” she said. “I think what we’ve started here could really be a model for a way that all Catholics could get involved in this.”

Bonar is editor of The Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Salina.