Of all the challenges farmers in Haiti face—poor infrastructure, inconsistent rainfall, and limited access to modern farming tools just to name a few—a lack of affordable fertilizer was not the first obstacle that came to my mind. However in fact this is a huge hindrance for farmers.
“In Haiti we don’t produce chemical fertilizer so small farmers, even poor farmers, when they are poor they cannot afford to buy a sack or a bag of chemical fertilizer. That’s too expensive for them,” explains Pierre, World Concern’s regional coordinator in southern Haiti and an agronomist by trade.
An alternative to expensive and imported chemical fertilizer is organic compost. Compost is not commonly used currently in rural Haiti but the benefits are numerous which is why World Concern is introducing it to small farmers.
“There are many advantages to compost. First compost provides nutrients for the plants, helps to rebuild the soil, reduce soil erosion, and compost helps in the structure of the soil. Also when we plant it can last more; it can improve the soil longer than with chemical fertilizer,” according to Pierre.
Perhaps most importantly, the materials needed to make compost—animal manure, straw, moisture, ash—are common things that even poor farmers have access to.
On a warm Friday morning in September, twenty-four small farmers and agronomy students from two local universities gathered together on a farm outside the city of Les Cayes in southern Haiti. This four acre farm is leased by World Concern and serves as a training center; a place to educate and teach agricultural techniques. On this particular day this group was gathered to learn about organic compost.
Huddled under a simple tin covering, the group listened carefully as Pierre began sharing about organic compost—the definition and theory, and especially the process of making it. It took a bit of improvisation but eventually a makeshift screen was erected to display images on a projector. Several participants raised their hands to ask questions which sometimes produced a lively debate. The teaching and discussion was rich.
It was obvious these farmers and students were eager to learn. As I was observing, a thought arose; although most definitely poor and vulnerable to uncontrollable forces, the people in this group are not passive. They chose to spend their precious time, one whole day, coming to this training to glean new insight and to discover a new technique. This is encouraging and challenges the notion that the poor are only waiting for the next handout.
After a couple hours of teaching and discussion, everyone piled into World Concern vehicles and drove to the nearby Université Notre Dame d’Haïti (UNDH), one of two local agronomy universities World Concern partners with.
Here a demonstration took place, putting into practice what was taught that morning. Pierre and the other World Concern staff put emphasis on actually doing the work of making a compost pile. So before long, farmers and students were moving compost bins and digging in the dirt to the tune of instructions.
Pierre, far right in striped shirt, and others getting dirty.
Later in the day Pierre summarized the process of making compost. “There are different ways we can make compost but this is one of the ways. We make compost in bins. In the piles we make some straw first, we add animal manure, we may add also some ash. And again repeat the same layer of straw, layer of animal manure, layer of ash and so on until we get it high and then we stop.”
“Usually it takes 3 months but in the process we have to turn it perhaps one month, second month and third month. After the third month, it is usually ready to use.”
Brunelle, 30-year-old husband and father of one, was quiet but attentive during the demonstration. He is trained in administrative management and was formerly a teacher before beginning to farm full time.
Brunelle, all smiles
“From November we will start to plant tomato. Now we are getting ready for the new season. We are making nurseries and preparing seeds,” he shared. “The harvest is very useful because we eat it and we sell it as well.”
“This is my first time to work with compost,” continued Brunelle, “But the training is really good and I am learning a lot and I will try and implement what I have learned.”
21-year-old Fontaine (pictured below) is a third year student at UNDH and was equally interested in what was being taught.
“I had some knowledge about compost but today I went deeper. Today I had a better understanding of compost because they taught us the theory and now we are getting the experience,” she said. “Compost helps the plant to grow better and also it ventilates the soil more and brings more nutrients.”
This young woman was inspiring. Our conversation moved beyond compost to her interest in agriculture and her dreams.
“First of all, I decided to study agronomy because I like it very much. Secondly, because of the situation in the country. Haiti is not even able to feed itself so we would like to produce more because we are an agricultural country. This is how I would like to help Haiti,” she shared.
Continuing Fontaine said, “We would like to feed our own population. I am not saying importation will be over but we can decrease it. We just want to feed the population and produce more so everyone can eat better.”
It was an honor meeting Brunelle, Fontaine and the others at the training that day. You begin to see how incredible of a resource the country of Haiti has in its people. Although they may lack material wealth, they possess sharp and eager minds, gifting’s, and a desire to improve their lives and their country.
With an estimated 60% of the population—nearly six million people—in Haiti engaged in agricultural activities, supporting small farmers and Haiti’s future agronomists is crucial in moving the country forward and helping people feed themselves and earn an income.
“If they can make their own compost with the residues from their crop they only need a little technique to do that so when they get this technique they can produce their own natural fertilizer and improve their soil, increase their production and also protect the environment,” said Pierre.
World Concern is walking with individuals like Brunelle and Fontaine; encouraging them and providing them with skills and resources. Conducting a compost training in one example of what this looks like. Who knew a pile of dirt could be the source of transformation?
Oh and according to Pierre, another thing Haiti has going for it is that there is no snow…..