The changing face of agriculture: 'I feel like I belong here.'
Jasper Teboh: 'I feel I belong here"
JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Deron Teboh has just asked yet another question. Bright, curious and 10 years old, he asks a lot of them. This one is complicated, involving technology and political systems.
Jasper Teboh, his father, who has answered many such questions, thinks for a second. Then — patiently, succinctly and wisely — he gives an answer emphasizing the value of education and responsible government.
Jasper Teboh shrugs when complimented on his answer. "My family has always believed in education. And I believe in the goodness of people," he says.
Teboh, a native of Cameroon in central Africa, is a soil scientist at North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center. Carrington is roughly in the middle of North Dakota, so the center works with projects of statewide interest and Teboh works with agricultural producers across the state.
He and his three children—Ariel, 13, and Jesse, 7, are the other two — live in Jamestown, N.D., population about 15,000, roughly 50 miles from Carrington, population about 2,100.
Agweek visited with Jasper Teboh first at the Carrington research center and later with his entire family, including his mother Christiana, at their Jamestown home.
Teboh took the Carrington position in 2012, and his family decided to live in Jamestown, in part because it offered more job opportunities for his former wife. Jamestown has been a good fit for him and his children and so the family has stayed there after his divorce.
The children say they like Jamestown and the activities in which they're involved.
Aerial enjoys volleyball, orchestra and singing.
Deron enjoys soccer and orchestra.
Jesse — remember, he's 7 — smiles impishly and says, "I like doing two subjects: they're reading and sleeping."
Christiana, who like Jasper is a U.S. citizen, came to live with Jasper and his children after the divorce. "She's been the backbone of everything I've been able to accomplish in North Dakota," Jasper says.
'Almost everyone's dream'
Jasper grew up on a subsistence farm in Cameroon. Farms there "aren't like in the U.S. They're small-sized farms to help provide more food for the family," he says.
His family — he has six siblings — raised a number of crops including cocoa yams, corn, pinto beans and black beans, the last three of which are raised in North Dakota.
"My parents did a great job educating the seven of us," Jasper says. Three of his siblings are in the United States, and they all have at least five years of post high school education.
Jasper speaks English, French and what he calls "pidgeon or broken English," and understands some of his native dialect.
When he was growing up in Cameroon, "Almost everyone's dream was to come to the United States or western Europe. Not only for economic reasons, but also to have access for good health care," he says. "We all dream of coming to the United States."
He earned agricultural degrees in Cameroon before coming to NDSU in Fargo, where he did his Ph.D. in soil science from 2003 to 2007. He went to work in ag research in Louisiana before returning to North Dakota in 2012.
"When I came to NDSU in 2003, my experience was wonderful. People were wonderful. I enjoyed my stay," he says. "When I came back in 2012 for the first time since leaving — when I saw the Fargodome (Fargo's largest arena), truly, tears came down my eyes because I was so nostalgic."
Skin color, acceptance
Skin color and birthplace have been never a problem for him in North Dakota, Jasper says.
"I don't remember receiving anything since coming to North Dakota to be negative, to be racially motivated," he says. He also says, "I believe in the goodness of people. When you believe that, it's hard for you to misinterpret something. You can't be judgmental."
Teboh says he realizes some members of minority groups have had negative experiences. To them he says, "Some people act based on their experiences. Some of the challenges we have faced as minorities — sometimes that comes from people who didn't grow in the environment we have today."
"You have to understand there are a lot of good people. And you just have to have confidence that people won't judge other people by their skin color," he says.
When Teboh first came to Jamestown, "I did some work as a janitor just to expose myself to the community, to get myself known. I encourage other families (who belong to minority groups) to get involved in activities in their communities," he says.
He mentions school events and church as two possibilities to consider.
"We have our church, the Presbyterian Church. We were born Presbyterian, and it's nice to continue that (in North Dakota)," he says.
Teboh says he hasn't thought seriously about moving.
"I'm happy at work. And safety for my children has been paramount, and this is a very safe state," he says.
"I love working for farmers across the state. I'm enjoying my stay here. The two oldest (children) were born in North Dakota, so I feel I belong here. I'm ready to be here for a very long time," he says.
To read Paulo Flores's story, click here.
The face of agriculture is changing. Literally. By gender, ethnicity and birthplace, the people who live and work in area ag are increasingly diverse.
The gender change is sweeping and obvious. Yes, women have been essential to area agriculture since the first homesteaders began planting crops and raising livestock. But reflecting transition in society overall, women are playing a broader, more varied role in agriculture — frequently serving in positions once held almost exclusively by men.
One example: About 55 percent of U.S. veterinarians are women. That rate will continue to rise since more than 80 percent of veterinary medicine students are female.
The changes in ethnicity and place of origin aren’t as widespread or noticeable. People of Northern European descent, primarily but not exclusively Scandinavians and Germans, still dominate area ag. The Upper Midwest was settled primarily by people from Northern Europe, and their descendents still handle front-line crop and livestock production in rural areas, where local economies typically offer few non-ag jobs to attract people from outside.
“Go back to the 1920s, and in the rural areas we’ve had outmigration (more people leaving than coming in),” says Kevin Iverson, North Dakota state demographer. “When you have that, the (remaining) population doesn’t tend to mix. You stay pretty much the way you were. There isn’t new coming in.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau 2017 estimates of ethnic origin, “white alone” accounts for
86.2 percent of Montanans, 84.6 percent of North Dakotans, 82.2 percent of South Dakotans and 79.9 percent of Minnesotans.
Keep in mind that those are statewide averages and that the percentages are much higher in rural countries. For instance, “white residents” account for 96.2 percent of the roughly 3,000 residents of Nelson County in north-central North Dakota.
But that’s changing, says Iverson, who notes that North Dakota’s black population has tripled since 2010.
Most minorities who come to North Dakota move to cities, not rural areas, so the change isn’t always visible in rural areas, Iverson says.
Even so, and though firm statistics are tough to come by, people born outside the region and whose ethnicity isn’t Northern European are playing a larger ag role here, typically in positions that support farmers and ranchers.
This edition of Agweek — which kicks off a three-week series on the changing face of Upper Midwest agriculture — features two agriculture scientists, one born in Brazil and the other in Cameroon, who are working and raising their families in North Dakota.
Week two will look at an eastern Minnesota woman with close personal and professional ties to the cattle industry.
Week three will cover a northwest Minnesota farm woman who’s carrying on the family farm after the death of her husband.