- Author: Saoimanu Sope
Growing up in Ethiopia, Etaferahu Takele was faced with a dilemma: School or marriage? Those were the choices Takele's father gave her when she was 13 years old. Takele, UC Cooperative Extension farm management and agricultural economics advisor for Southern California, said her ultimate choice changed the trajectory of her life.
Takele has made a career of researching how farm products and farming practices translate into profitability for farmers. She works closely with UCCE farm advisors, helping them understand the factors that affect the economics of crop production, and enabling them to better support growers in the area.
Throughout her career, she has published many cost studies for growers that focus on crops like vegetables, citrus and avocados. In her role, she also analyzes new crop economics and potential profitability, and compares profitability and cost to alternative production practices.
In Ethiopia, it is common and expected for young women to marry before high school, sacrificing the opportunity to continue their education. Takele's father let his oldest daughter decide what her next steps would be. “I want to go to school,” Takele told him.
Takele was the only female student in her elementary school classes. Similarly, she was the only female graduate student when she began her studies at North Dakota State University.
“It was funny,” Takele said. “I remember in graduate school, the department chair wanted to introduce me to the rest of the students, and he took me upstairs. The students were surprised to see me. They were waiting for a man, and probably a white one.”
Takele was born in Dessie, about 250 miles north of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, but was raised in the country in a village called Kutaber. In addition to her father's business as a farmer, a visit to an agricultural school stimulated her interest in agriculture.
“I saw the milking of the cows and all the technology, and it was really fascinating,” said Takele, who also helped her father with accounting for his farm, which sparked her interest in the business side of agriculture.
In 1981, immediately following graduation from North Dakota State University with her master's degree in agricultural economics, Takele joined UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. “I'm one of the old timers,” she said.
“Extension was organized differently at the time that I started. Cooperative Extension was a separate unit with its own academics organized by discipline,” said Takele. “There weren't any women in the agricultural economics unit of Cooperative Extension at that time. I was the only one, until another woman, Karen Klonsky, joined six months later.”
Aside from her love for numbers, Takele says she truly enjoys the extension part of her job. “I like the applied aspect because I get to see my research and analysis help growers make profitable farm management decisions,” she explained.
Thirteen years into her career with UC ANR, Takele earned a master's degree in economics from UC Riverside. In 2008, Takele graduated from the prestigious California Agricultural Leadership Program, and served as UCCE director for Riverside County from 2007 to 2020.
With many years of UC ANR service, and counting, Takele said that being a role model to her siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, is her driving force.
“In my culture, there is an obligation to help those that come after you,” she said. Aligned with this value is her desire to open opportunities, just like her father did for her. “I have always been focused,” Takele said. “And it all started with that choice he gave me.”
- 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>