Vermont growers share their skills with farmers around the world
Written onNovember 25 , 2015
“These women came down—they call them ‘The Forest Women,’ women who plant on the edge of the mountain’s forests. Some walked for two hours! They’d never attended an educational workshop before…. It was pretty amazing.”
That’s Howard Prussack, owner of High Meadow Farm in Westminster, recalling his first assignment to Nepal with Winrock International as a “Farmer-to-Farmer” volunteer. It was in late 2006, just months after the cease-fire of a vicious civil war.
“When we got there the country was still traumatized,” he recalls. On that trip for a couple of weeks, Howard worked with a small wholesale nursery run by the Gautam family, who had labored for generations yet never made a decent profit. They were so impoverished that son Hari wouldn’t dare to even contemplate getting married and having his own family.
“All their techniques were from the 30s, 40s and 50s,” says Howard. “They did everything just as their elders had done and they were losing, like, 90 percent of their seeds. We showed them how they could make sterile seed-starting media with elements they had on hand, suggested some better procedures in propagation, and gave them marketing tips and general advice on doing business.”
Howard’s wife, Lisa, also volunteered that year, teaching basic book and record keeping, which was a big transition for the Gautams. “Their records were always ‘all in their head.’ Which is OK—to a point,” Howard says, “What’s really hard to do in your head is comparisons of methods, yields, and so forth. Learning how to keep records and draw comparisons was tremendous for them.
“But we had to learn some things ourselves…” he recalls, “We kept pointing out labor- and time-saving ideas and finally by the third day we understood that had no real meaning to them. They said: ‘Mr. Howard, we don’t have to worry about saving time.’ They wanted to create work for people, not to save labor and time! They knew that if the lowest among them prospered, it’s good for everyone.”
Within one year, the nursery’s income had doubled, it employed 23 people, and Hari Gautam won the designation of “Young Entrepreneur of the Year.” On Howard’s second trip to Nepal in 2011, Hari brought his wife to Kathmandu so the two could meet. With tears in his eyes, Hari said that Howard and Lisa’s visit was the turning point in his life. “This is what made my business a success,” he proclaimed.
Winrock International matches volunteers who have experience and skills in innovative approaches to agriculture with farmers, local organizations, and service providers in target countries who will benefit from their expertise. Howard, along with longtime Vermont farmer Mimi Arnstein, have been important figures in Winrock’s programs, many of which are funded in part by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
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In 2012, over the course of three weeks in Myanmar (Burma), Howard provided training and technical assistance to more than 900 men and women from 34 different villages. The level of interest surprised him. “My first morning there I had to give a talk to 200 people!” In village after village, the farmers were rapt; practices that seem simple and obvious to us, such as soil testing and integrated pest management, were entirely new concepts.
“In these small countries they’re using much more in the way of chemical inputs than anyone realizes—and almost indiscriminately,” Howard says. “In Burma, itinerant salesmen walk around with backpacks full of chemicals. The salesmen convince them that they need to use this stuff but they’re not given instructions; they’re not using protection; aren’t wearing rubber boots or masks—it’s too hot. They’re going out spraying poisons in their bare feet.”
Calling it his “Rural Agricultural Prosperity Tour”—planting new ideas and fresh hopes—Howard has now completed five assignments with Winrock. In addition to his two trips to Nepal and one to Burma, he’s gone to El Salvador and, most recently, to Cuba—where things were much different.
Cuba had been struggling under the United States embargo for nearly 30 years when its patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991. Both the agricultural and transportation systems were abruptly paralyzed as the country lost its primary supplier of fuel, pesticides, fertilizers—and food. Cuba’s agriculture—based upon extensive industrial mono-cropping—primarily of sugar cane for export, was entirely dependent on fossil fuels to operate.
Cubans refer to the time as “The Special Period”—more than a decade of serious hardship defined by widespread food shortages. Although genuine starvation was avoided, the average Cuban literally lost 20 pounds of body weight. Permaculturists, primarily from Australia, responded to the crisis by distributing aid and teaching their techniques to locals, who rushed to implement them on Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops.
Although international relationships prevented USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer project from involvement with Winrock in an exchange with Cuba, Mimi Arnstein, who had launched Northeast Organic Farming Association Vermont’s Farming Beyond Borders program, worked on the needs assessment and relationship-establishment necessary for Winrock itself to sponsor the trip. Mimi had previously gone on F2F assignments to Haiti and the Dominican Republic under the sponsorship of Partners of The Americas. Those experiences—plus three independent trips to Cuba attending agricultural conferences—also gave her insights that were crucial to the success of the effort.
The Vermont group that visited Cuba in March 2015 included Mimi, Howard Prussack, and former Vermonter Chuck Mitchell, who farmed in Elmore for many years. As they visited more than 20 farms, food cooperatives, and agricultural organizations, there were some surprises. Mimi, who ran Wellspring Farm in Marshfield until 2014, marveled at the Cuban farmers’ ability to produce food with very few inputs.
“Here in Vermont we strive to reduce outside inputs, but we always have the option of buying what we need,” she says. “In Cuba, farmers have to make do with what they have, which promotes sustainable agriculture, innovation, and sharing among producers.”
And Howard says, “In their society, they’re not poor. In fact farmers are held in very high esteem and generally earn a better living than doctors and other professionals. There was a critical need to feed everyone and the government instituted sweeping programs to entice people to farming. Many highly educated workers left white-collar careers and went into farming.”
“But they do need equipment,” he is quick to add. One of the damages left over from the sugar cane years is El Marabú—a large, thorny, invasive weed that is almost impossible to remove. Howard was shocked to see that “people are digging this awful weed out by hand. They need tractors and bulldozers to help get rid of this stuff! They need equipment of all types. A guy who seemed to do pretty well on a small fruit farm was selling juices near a local hospital. We asked him what he thought would help his enterprise do better and he said: ‘ICE! If I could have ice….’ Some of the simplest things, like a little ice machine, would make a big difference to so many farmers there.”
Howard was also surprised to see how much wealth and development there had been in Cuba before the revolution. “When you drive through these neighborhoods in Havana you can see this incredible architecture—the remnants of these gorgeous buildings. When the revolution hit, all that was abandoned. The rich fled and left everything behind.”
Since then Cuba has made astonishing progress. Vermont environmentalist Bill McKibben has written that Cuba today may be “the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture.” Still, one crucial area that some Cuban farmers want assistance with is achieving organic certification. Much of small-scale agriculture in Cuba is now organic. As Isis Salcines, co-founder of one of Havana’s largest cooperative gardens, insisted during an interview this past April with WDEV’s Mark Johnson in Stowe: “After 18 years we no longer farm organically out of necessity, but out of conviction.” Nonetheless, to export and reach the lucrative organic markets in the U.S. and Europe, Cuban farmers will need certification. Vermont’s experienced organic farmers offered advice on navigating that process.
Winrock’s programs work directly with the people who live in a place, allowing them to define the assistance they want and the scope of the work. Howard appreciates this simple but effective approach.
“Many NGOs go in with their own ideas, and they drop a boat load of money, do a bunch of window dressing, put photos on their website—and they’re gone….I only want to do assignments where I’m dealing directly with small famers, the ones who are really gonna get benefit out of it.
For her part, Mimi cherishes the personal exchanges that result from her ambassadorships.
“We can learn from each other because we all care about the same things,” she says. “Farming is a hard line of work, and as farmers we stand on common ground with common problems, even though we may come from very different cultures."