ROCHESTER, Minn. — A Minnesota group has recruited a Rochester farmer to help bring better farming practices to an impoverished area of Africa.

Andy Hart is the director of agricultural development for Operation Dignity International. Hart, a third-generation farmer in Rochester, said he was approached by Operation Dignity about a year ago, as the organization was looking for a farmer who'd be willing to go to Ghana in West Africa to help them with a farming project there.

"I've enjoyed farming all my life, and was willing to teach others about farming," said Hart. "And give back what I've learned to the country of Ghana."

Hart, who farms about 4,500 acres of corn and soybeans, said he was on board after hearing the details of the project, to help communities in Ghana access better farming technology so they can grow more crops.

The farming project is still in its beginning phase as Operation Dignity has rented 100 acres of land in Ghana to be used as a demonstration farm. The plan was to travel to Ghana this spring, but the country closed its borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Hart said they plan to make the trip sometime this summer.

The demonstration farm will show local villagers what exactly Operation Dignity envisions for their agricultural future, said Hart, as the site will be farmed by tractor, planter and with modern seed and fertilizer.

"We're going to use modern farming technology and equipment, as if we were farming here in the United States," said Hart.

To pay for those things, Hart said ODI is looking for donations but also getting support for equipment dealers such and John Deere and AGCO. And a representative from the family-owned iconic maker of grain bins and dryers, Sukup Manufacturing Co., will be included in the next trip to Ghana to see the site and plan for how the company could build some grain bins.

The agricultural landscape in Ghana is similar to the one in North Dakota, said Hart, as in it's pretty flat with not a lot of trees. But the climate in Ghana allows for more growing time for crops.

"It's similar to like Louisiana for eight months out of the year, and like Arizona for four months," said Hart of the climate in Ghana. "It hardly ever gets below 60 degrees at night."

He said that means two crops would be able to be grown in Ghana, and possibly a third if drip-irrigation is used.

"You could literally be farming year-round," said Hart.

A typical farm in Ghana is about 2-3 acres, and Hart said their goal is to set up 200-300 acre farms to be operated by villagers. After three years managing that land, Hart said those farmers would be responsible for teaching the rest of their village the practices they used.

"Our goal is to transplant that system across the whole country," said Hart. "And in 10-15 years we could literally change the country of Ghana."

Hart said that his first year working with Operation Dignity on the farming project has been a gratifying experience.

"Our goal is to get them out of poverty, and some more disposable income and revenue," said Hart. "So they can send their children through not only high school but college, and be able to develop and pay for more healthcare services."

The group's mission stemmed from a friendship that began 10 years ago between Jim Sullivan and a native of Ghana simply known as Martin, who now serves as Operation Dignity director in the country. The relationship has "erupted into this enormous opportunity," said Kathy Sullivan.

Kathy Sullivan, executive director of Operation Dignity International, said she's in charge of organizing efforts in the U.S., but her husband, Jim Sullivan, was the "diplomat" of the operation.

"He's the one that started the development of everything we are doing," said Sullivan of Hart. "He sat in the villages, talked with the people, ate their food, drank their water and slept on their porches."

Jim was a pastor for more than 30 years and both him and Kathy have business backgrounds. Kathy Sullivan said Operation Dignity strives to be more than just a provider to communities in need.

"Development is not just giving the people something, but helping them lift themselves up so they can take care of themselves," said Sullivan. "That's where the dignity comes from, and there's dignity in work."