A Colombian farmer and FRB program participant loads cacao seedlings for transport. Photo by Phil Eicher.
By Marv Baldwin
Why would U.S. farmers want to participate in an effort to help poor farm families in the developing world? And how would they go about doing that?
These were questions put to Foods Resource Bank (FRB) recently, and staff immediately agreed on the answers. "Why?" Because farmers in this country know they’ve been blessed with overall good farming conditions and markets, and want to "give back" by reaching out to their counterparts in the developing world who are less fortunate. "How?" By volunteering their time, farming expertise, land, and equipment to raise crops, sell them in this country, and donate the proceeds to FRB for food security programs in some of the world’s most challenging environments. That is, helping those in need to grow their own food and break the cycle of poverty and dependence.
Farmers find joy in producing the food that nourishes the rest of us. That holds true for farmers everywhere. But when poverty, war, natural disasters, and changing climates reduce the ability of farmers overseas to feed even their own families, U.S. farmers feel called to do what they can to help. Farmers understand risk, and know that the weather and other variables beyond their control can change their fortunes overnight. When these factors have reduced their across-the-seas-neighbor farmers to poverty, hunger, chronic malnutrition and worse, they feel it personally. As one of our volunteer farmers put it, "I've never been hungry, and my kids and grandkids have never been hungry. I got to a point in my life when I started wondering, "How much is enough?" for me and my family, and whether we could help someone else."
Our country’s farmers want to do something about world hunger, but they don’t always have ready cash to write a check to international relief and development organizations. Foods Resource Bank offers them a way to help just by doing what they do best: farming.
FRB’s signature community "growing projects" — farmers and church or civic organizations all over the U.S. — produce and monetize a commodity together. Most growing projects grow field crops, but communities are encouraged to be creative and design a project around what makes sense for them. This could be apples, dairy, beef, olives, pies, quilts, or popcorn. Sending money instead of shipping food satisfies many other concerns farmers have expressed:
- The money is used for grassroots, hands-on training rather than shipping, so a lot more people can be reached, and what they learn stays with them long after a program is completed.
- We don’t squash the efforts of farmers overseas by flooding the market with free grain; rather, FRB’s programs purchase seeds, tools, animals, inputs and training from local businesses.
- Just as U.S. farmers in the 19th and 20th centuries improved their farm operations thanks to extension services, FRB’s programs are a kind of extension service in countries which don’t have the infrastructure to be able to offer them to their citizens.
- The training is a hand up, not a handout, and honors the dignity of program participants who want to be self-sufficient and only need some support to get started.
We all agree that the entire world needs to find ways to feed our growing population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. In areas too remote to be served by the global market (75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas), the idea of smallholder ag development makes real sense to farmers everywhere.
Often, the traditional farming methods used by a community are no longer effective because of a changing climate, displacement, or lack of money to buy farm inputs. FRB’s programs build on a community’s strengths and find ways to improve yields sustainably. Dryland farming techniques like planting in holes, drought-resistant crops like amaranth, improved breeds of livestock and small animals, and farm management skills may be emphasized. Training also includes village savings and loan methods, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition education, numeracy, literacy, gender equality, and more. Perhaps most importantly, small farmers are able to take the calculated risk of trying these new techniques because they have the support, backing and encouragement of the program and the U.S. farm communities that reach out to them through FRB.
So, how many FRB farmers can now say, "It just feels good to be able to do something about world hunger?" FRB is grateful to over 1,000 U.S. farmers who participate in 221 growing projects in 29 U.S. states, for their significant role in funding 60 current ag development programs in 34 countries. In 2012 alone, their efforts literally made it possible for more than 410,000 individuals, their extended families, and their neighbors to produce enough food year-round. Program participants — often women and child-headed households — are leading healthier, more productive lives. They are able to overcome the exhaustion of trying to live on insufficient calories by eating nutritious food, have the energy to carry out the hard work of farming, sell excess produce for income, save money for farm and home improvements, and get all their children in school.
Phil Eicher, a landowner and growing project leader from Berne, Ind., who has been involved in his community’s project for 7 years, recently visited FRB’s program in Chocó, Colombia, with an FRB delegation. Participant farmers there have chosen to get out of the dangerous business of growing illicit coca to return to traditional agriculture — rice, cacao (cocoa) — and heal their communities and the environment. A recent progress report from Chocó noted that, "Contact with people in this type of transformational program is important. These are long-term processes. People can become discouraged, and this makes it necessary to stand with them continuously, and design strategies that allow those who have the desire to advance towards the accomplishment of their life-changing goals. The dreams that really generate transformation require patience, faith and hope."
Phil saw for himself the efficiency of FRB’s programming model of carrying out the program through local partners. When farmers know that they are being supported by people who understand them and their issues, they feel confident in working alongside them to find solutions to their own local challenges. No two communities are the same, so there is no "one size fits all" approach to FRB’s smallholder ag development. Most programs, however, address issues with water, soil, crops appropriate to the climate, and ways to go beyond producing enough food to actually earning income.
During his visit, Phil reconfirmed that, "No matter where they’re from, farmers always have a common bond and something to talk about – where you’re from, what you’re growing, what your season is like. It felt very good to be there representing FRB. Not to be thanked, but to convey the message that there are farmers and communities from far away who care about them, that they’re not alone. One of the farmers told us, "Your presence demonstrates that you are committed to us, and that raises my morale."
Phil said he and his growing project team are involved in FRB for the same reason as other farmers all across the country. "Whether you do it because of your faith or a deep moral commitment to justice and fairness, it’s a good feeling to know that, at the end of your life, you can say ‘I did something to help people help themselves.’"
Marv Baldwin has been President and CEO of Foods Resource Bank since 2005. He is also Chair of the Alliance to End Hunger, and is convinced that networking and sharing innovation and ideas with many different organizations is mobilizing more people at the grassroots level to find ways to reduce hunger through ag development. He lives in Western Springs IL with his wife, Amy, and their three children.