- Author: Saoimanu Sope
A celebration of culture and diversity in honor of Black History Month
Agriculture makes up over 85% of Ethiopia's workforce and the journey into the field is not for the faint of heart, according to Oli Bachie, UC Cooperative Extension director for San Diego and Imperial counties. In addition to managing the research and program teams in these regions, Bachie provides research-based technical and educational assistance to producers, growers, farm operators and pest control advisors in agronomy and weed management
Bachie was born to two farmers of the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia. As the oldest of 12, his training to become a farmer was the most comprehensive and rigorous since he would set an example for his siblings to follow. At the age of six, Bachie was given his first test of responsibility: raising chickens in the backyard.
“Chickens is what everyone starts off with as a child,” Bachie said. “We then grow into specialization as we age, but it starts with raising chickens.”
Eventually, Bachie's parents sold the chickens on his behalf and used the money to purchase goats. When he mastered goat herding, Bachie worked his way up to managing oxen and farming.
“If you have a lot of oxen, you can do more for longer periods of time during the day,” he said. “You can start early in the morning with a few, then switch them out so they can break. That way you don't tire all your oxen out and the work will still go on.”
While Bachie's exposure to agriculture was inevitable, it required sacrifice.
In Ethiopia, if you are serious about a career in agriculture, high school is where you first make it evident. Because high schools were scarce and far away, academic performance was used as an indication of whether you were worth investing more time and resources into.
For Bachie, the nearest high school was a long way from home. “It was maybe as far as San Diego to Los Angeles,” he said.
Among thousands of high school students, Bachie was one of very few to be admitted to Addis Ababa University, the only university in Ethiopia at the time, where he earned a bachelor's degree in plant sciences.
When reminiscing about his childhood, Bachie couldn't help but acknowledge how special his homeland is to him. He described its rugged terrain but lush vegetation. He acknowledged the lack of transportation including paved roads in his area, and how traveling by foot prepared him for the experiences he has endured over the years.
“You ever see those skinny Ethiopians winning the Olympics as runners?” he asked. “Do you know why they win? Because they are prepared. You know why? Because they run for a living!”
In Ethiopia, most schools are located far away from residential communities, forcing students to run to and from school if they want to get there on time. “When I was younger, the nearest elementary school was a two-hour walk away,” said Bachie. “Running is connected to survival, and everyone runs.”
Oromo communities truly embody the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child” – another aspect of Bachie's culture and upbringing that makes him proud. “Children belong to the community,” he said. “There is no hurting of children. Anyone who passes or sees a child will take care of them, will take them back to their house, or they will feed them.”
The values he grew up with like education, independence and discipline, have made it possible for Bachie to work in additional fields like computer network administrations and forestry, and in places like the Philippines and Canada. Eventually, he made his way to the United States and earned a doctorate degree in biological sciences from UC Riverside.
When asked about his experience as an African man working in agriculture in California compared to Ethiopia, Bachie acknowledged the everyday struggles that come with being Black in America, like navigating unwelcoming or unpleasant assumptions and biases of who he is based on his skin color.
“I remember when I was a professor, a student asked me if I was qualified to teach the class,” said Bachie. “I responded to the student and asked, ‘Are you qualified to be my student?'”
Since it was the first class of the year, Bachie said that he did not understand what prompted the student to ask such a question. If it was his physical appearance, he wanted the student to know that skin color does not correlate with qualification.
“It's frustrating,” he said. “But what they think about me has more to do with them than it does me.”
Today, Bachie continues to help growers improve crop productivity and yield with minimal impact to the environment. He is also focused on opportunities for innovation in Southern California. Last October, the City of Escondido proclaimed October 21 as “Dr. Oli G. Bachie Day” in recognition of his vision to explore the future of agriculture and technology.
Bachie wholeheartedly believes that growing up in Oromia, Ethiopia prepared him for the leadership role he now has, and he hopes that his story is an example of how strength will take you farther than you can ever imagine./span>/h3>