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Students/Faculty Participate in Exchange Program with University in South Africa

Farm Business Management Update, June 2002

By Dixie Watts Reaves

During the spring semester, Dr. Dixie Watts Reaves accompanied four students from Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences on their exchange program to the University of the Free State (UOFS) in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The students were Samantha Beach-Kimball, Agricultural and Applied Economics and Animal and Poultry Science; James Dixon, Agricultural and Applied Economics; Kathleen "Kay" Washington, Animal and Poultry Science; and Carl Weber, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences. During the four years of the formal exchange program, approximately 70 students from the two universities have participated, with Virginia Tech students traveling to South Africa in the spring semester and UOFS students traveling to the U.S. in the fall semester. Students pay their tuition and housing fees at their home institution and then spend the semester taking classes at the host site. Travel scholarships are offered to Virginia Tech students to assist with airfare expenses. Once in South Africa, the exchange rate works to the advantage of the U.S. students. For example, a full-course steak dinner could be purchased in the spring of 2002 for the equivalent of less than $3 U.S.

At UOFS, classes are taught in both English and Afrikaans. Therefore, Virginia Tech students are able to take all their classes in their native language. In consultation with their advisors, students are usually able to take a full set of courses that will transfer back to Virginia Tech so that they continue to make progress towards graduation. In addition to interesting and relevant coursework, the students also benefit from the tremendous cultural experience of living in another country. During the spring 2002 semester, VT students were given the opportunity to visit numerous farms, tour a game ranch, go on a safari, climb down into Gariep Dam, hike along Agrabies Falls, ride a cable car to the top of Table Mountain, and visit a number of bordering countries. They visited the homes of classmates and met students from numerous countries around the world. Language barriers were nearly non-existent, since almost everyone at the University and in the towns and cities spoke at least some English. However, South Africa is a country with many official languages, including Afrikaans and numerous tribal languages.

Although South Africa is a developing country, in many ways it looks much like the U.S. Driving through Bloemfontein is much like driving through Roanoke; negotiating rush hour traffic between Pretoria and Johannesburg is similar to Northern Virginia. The students' on-campus housing was a short walk to the mall, the multi-screen movie theater, and fast food restaurants. Thus, there are many similarities to life in the U.S.

However, there are drastic and visible disparities exist between income levels in the country. Only since 1994 has apartheid ended, and still some lasting effects of that system are felt. Lower income families continue to live in very poor housing in townships outside of the major city limits. AIDS remains a primary health concern in the region. The agricultural production sector is bimodal in nature, with some fairly prosperous commercial farmers and a very large number of subsistence farmers. Tobacco production in South Africa is quite similar to production in the U.S. Similar cultivation and pest management practices are used, and the leaf is cured in bulk barns. However, the heating is done with coal rather than propane or electricity, leaves are harvested two at a time so that there are many more passes through the field, and the cured leaf is graded into approximately eight different grades when it comes out of the barn. In a country with an unemployment rate nearing 40 percent, maintaining these labor-intensive practices is economically feasible.

Given the income disparities in the country and the bimodal nature of the farm sector, opportunities for further use of cooperative forms of business were considered as ways to assist some of those who are less well off. An article about the potential for cooperatives in South Africa, and a comparison to U.S. cooperatives, will be forthcoming later in the year.

The initial five-year student exchange agreement will end in 2003. Given the original goal of supporting 50 students from each university, Virginia Tech hopes to have 18 students participate in the spring 2003 exchange. For additional information about the Student Exchange program with the UOFS, contact Dixie Watts Reaves ( or 540-231-6153).

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