Tag Archives: food security

Compost: It’s More Than Just Dirt

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

fontaine portrait1

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.

Wow.

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…..

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Farming in Southern Haiti: The Uphill Battle

“Many people rely on their crops so when a hurricane comes it can take that away.  If you lose your crops, you have lost everything,” said Jean Sylvio Bernard, a World Concern supported farmer in southern Haiti.

Everything. 

His words have been ringing in my head ever since our conversation in late June.

I have been thinking about what exactly to share from our visit with Jean Sylvio and the other two farmers Martha and I met.  The more time I spend in Haiti and the more people I meet, the more serious I take my role as communicator and story-teller.  It can be intimidating to be the one responsible for sharing about this place and its’ people.  I am realizing this is no small task and requires much thought and genuine reflection.  Basically I want to get the story ‘right.’  The people of Haiti deserve it.

With that said, what I have decided to share is not as much about these farmers’ lack of wealth but about their vulnerability.  Poverty is much more complex than we would like to admit.  It is convenient to think of poverty in strictly economic terms but often times there is something deeper than simply a lack of money.  After our chat with Jean Sylvio and the others, their vulnerability is what stood out the most, not their financial situation.

In addition to meeting Jean Sylvio, we also had the opportunity to meet his brother Estimé Bernard and a neighbor named Lina Fidele.  All three are middle aged and have been farming in the area for 20 years.  They each are husbands and fathers, and all but Lina have grandchildren.  These men are considered ‘small’ farmers in Haiti, meaning they have a very small amount of land to work.  It depends on the season but common crops include tomatoes, beans, rice, okra, and corn.  Lots of corn.

3 Farmers at WC farm_Charlette Haiti_6-13

Estimé, Jean Sylvio and Lina (left to right) strike a pose for us at World Concern’s training center.

It should also be said that each of these men were familiar with World Concern long before the current project they are involved with.  Jean Sylvio had previously participated in an animal raising project and Estimé received a cow at some point.  This highlights how long World Concern has been working in these communities.

Pierre Duclona, World Concern’s regional coordinator for southern Haiti told me, “Although projects change, we try and work with the same people because relationships are important and we want to see long term change in people’s lives.”

We met the men at the World Concern agricultural training center near Charlette, a short drive outside of Les Cayes (the big town in southern Haiti and home to World Concern’s regional office).  I say ‘center’ because that is the easiest way to describe it; although it is basically a farm that has been turned into an outdoor classroom of sorts.  World Concern leases around 4 acres of land and uses it to conduct training’s for area farmers on a variety of topics—land conservation, tree grafting, reusing seeds, and preparing land for planting.  Here is a simple video of the land World Concern leases and uses to train farmers.  Currently papaya, peppers, watermelon, squash, and eggplant are growing here.

[vimeo 70191128]

“We received corn seeds and were trained on how to best plant,” shared Lina.  “We also learned about grafting and I’ve practiced that.  I have grafted mango and it is successful so far.”

Estimé also benefited from the tree grafting training.  “The grafting is something new.  Now I have a grafted mango tree at home growing,” he said.  “Grafting is important because it improves the quality of the mango.”

Estimé grafting pic small1

Estimé proudly tells us about his newly grafted mango tree.  A branch from a mango tree that is healthy and produces a variety quickly is connected to a normal variety.  The result is a mango tree that produces fruit quickly and at a high quality. 

A technician is employed by World Concern to conduct the trainings and manage the farm.  The food that is grown here is sold and the money used to cover some program costs.  This is one way that World Concern is attempting to incorporate sustainability into its’ programs.

This support and training for farmers in southern Haiti is crucial because of the challenges they face.

Like most farmers in southern Haiti the men we met have no irrigation and rely only on rainfall which is becoming more and more unpredictable due to climate change.  Lack of access to high quality seeds and knowledge of how to reuse seeds year after year is another challenge.  Insects can be devastating for crops.  The majority of farmers lack the resources to purchase pesticides to kill off the pesky creatures.  Therefore, crops in Haiti are almost entirely ‘organic’ by default (a plus I suppose).

Also, without proper mechanization these farmers are often forced to work their land by hand which is slow, tedious and less efficient.  World Concern staff in the south estimated that 80-90% of farmers in Haiti still farm manually.  And inefficiency means that less land is plowed and prepared for planting which effects the amount of food produced and therefore the income of the farmer.

“I mostly only eat what I harvest because often it is not enough to sell,” commented Lina.

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Lina reaches for a papaya at the training center as he explains the growing process. These men are sharp and know the land well.

And it doesn’t end there.  Possibly the biggest threat these farmers face is to severe weather; namely hurricanes.  In 2012 two hurricanes, Isaac and Sandy, wreaked havoc on farmers across Haiti including in the south.  Following Sandy approximately 70% of all crops in the country were destroyed.

“Almost every farmer was impacted at that time.  Everyone has lost some of their crop which means you and your children may become hungry,” said Estimé.

“The hurricane destroyed so much.  I lost much of my corn because the water was so high.  The corn became spoiled,” piped in Lina.  “Every year [italics my own] the hurricanes come and often your crops will be destroyed.”

“This has repercussion on kids’ education too because when you have no crops you have no money and cannot pay school fees,” explained Jean Sylvio.

Jean Sylvio Bernard_Charlette Haiti_6-13

One of our light moments with Jean Sylvio. Perhaps the biggest smile in all of southern Haiti right here.

Jean Sylvio’s words that I shared at the beginning of this post summarize what all this means best; “If you have lost your crops you have lost everything.”

Aside from family and friends, there is no safety net in Haiti.  No crop insurance, no subsidies and limited alternative employment opportunities (especially outside heavily centralized Port-au-Prince).

They are vulnerable.

These men are fighting an uphill battle.  It is both equally frustrating and hopeful to know that it doesn’t have to be this way.

There is a river near Charlotte that will perhaps one day provide irrigation for these farmers if resources become available and if there is willingness on the part of the community to maintain and manage it (I think there would be).

Trainings given by World Concern to Jean Sylvio, Estimé and Lina helped them understand how to reuse seeds from year to year instead of buying new ones each season.

“Now I know how to conserve the seeds and how to protect the seed and cover it, and how to take care of the seed,” stated a confident Estimé.

Estimé Bernard with kenep (fruit)_Charlette Haiti_6-13

Estimé shows off a fruit he is growing called kenèp in Haitian Creole or quenêpe in French. Kenèp is a rare tropical fruit that grows all over Haiti. It is usually sweet and a bit sour at the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A World Concern tractor is shared among area farmers, allowing them to plow faster and more efficiently.  This is especially helpful and welcomed by the farmers we spoke with.  If there is some money, a farmer may rent oxen to help plow but this is not always possible.

“If you use oxen it will take four days to plow the land but with the tractor it may only take one day,” shared Lina.

“The tractor service is good but more tractors are needed to satisfy the needs of farmers in the area,” added Jean Sylvio.  “This area has fertile land and people are busy working but we need resources.”

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Jean Sylvio letting us know all about peppers at the training center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food insecurity is a very real concern right now in rural Haiti due to a disastrous hurricane season in 2012.  The UN estimates that 1.5 million people are not able to access enough food.

For Jean Sylvio, Estimé and Lina there are always uncertainties however they are hopeful for a good harvest this summer thanks to support from World Concern and recent rain.

“I want to thank World Concern for the work it is doing.  If other organizations helped farmers like World Concern does, then they can move forward,” said Estimé as we were finishing our visit.

I wish I could say that these men and their families are no longer vulnerable, but they are.  Their situation cannot be improved overnight.  However I can say that World Concern is working diligently to strengthen and equip them.  This is encouraging.  World Concern has been serving farmers in Haiti for over 15 years and is committed to doing so for many more to come.

Food insecurity and the silent crisis in Haiti

Quietly, a crisis is brewing in Haiti.  You likely have not heard about it.  It rarely makes headlines or even surfaces in mainstream media.  It currently affects 6.7 million people, or about two thirds of the country’s population.  And it is getting worse.

fastfoodAt the center of this crisis is one of humanity’s most basic needs—food.  In Haiti, as of March of this year, 6.7 million people face food insecurity.  Simply put, food insecurity refers to a limited supply of food and the inability to access it.  This means families in Haiti, already stretched financially, are forced to make hard decisions.  Where will we get food today?  How much food can we afford?  Will we eat two meals, one, or even none today?  Can I afford my children’s school fees when there are more pressing needs?  These are questions no one should have to ask and wrestle with on a daily basis.

Why is Haiti on the verge of a food crisis?  Like many things in Haiti, there is not one answer.  However a series of brutal storms and droughts in the past year has been a big player.  There is a brilliant infographic published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) that provides an overview of the natural disasters Haiti has faced since May 2012 and how these events have exacerbated the food situation.

Haiti-hurricane-sandy---Web

The destruction Tropical Storm Isaac and ‘Superstorm Sandy’ left behind in 2012 meant combined agricultural losses totaling $174 million.  This is an incredible amount of money when you consider that the average Haitian only earns $700 per year.  There is no safety net in Haiti, aside from the support one has from their family and others in the community.  Though Haitian culture is very communal and it is almost expected that you will help out someone when they are in trouble, there is only so much support that can be given.

For poor farmers, the most valuable thing they have is the land they work.  Their entire income may be dependent upon a successful harvest.  Following Hurricane Sandy, 70% of Haiti’s crops were destroyed.  This means a loss of income for many farmers and less food available on the market, which drives up prices.  These two outcomes, due to a rough year of consecutive natural disasters, are why so many people are currently facing food insecurity.  

Even in normal conditions, Haitians spend a huge portion of their income on food.  Rural households spend almost 60% of their income on food and the poorest groups spend more than 70%.  Compare that to the average American who spends 11% of their income on food.  It doesn’t take much to imagine how drastically different your life would be if it took the majority of your income just to feed yourself.

The cost of living here in Haiti is actually quite high and is not something widely known.  It has definitely surprised Martha and I since we moved here to work with World Concern.  To put things in perspective, currently our monthly food budget is the same as it was in Seattle (and we’re not buying imported wines and cheeses).  We often eat rice twice a day because it is cheap, a good filler, and we like it.  Martha and I have the resources to feed ourselves even if the cost steadily rises.  Unfortunately, this is not true for many in Haiti especially as food insecurity worsens.

So what can be done?

A priority must be to get farmers producing again.  Productive farmers mean increased income for families and also a needed boost to local production.  This is why supporting farmers and helping them become successful is important and positively impacts both farmers and consumers alike.

World Concern’s food security project is one way we are attempting to support rural farmers.  In 2013 alone, this project aims to improve food security for 2,000 people.  This is a really cool project and one that I am happy to share about.  World Concern leases three hectares of land in three different departments and uses the space as an outdoor classroom.  Here, local smallholder farmers are taught how to produce high quality seed that they can use season after season.  Other trainings geared towards youth interns, the next generation of farmers, teach best practices.  Another important piece of this project is the introduction of mechanized equipment to local farmers.  Many farmers in Haiti work the land manually which is tedious and difficult work.  The project uses small tractors to help farmers increase productivity.

Row of okra at World Concern's agricultural training center (outdoor classroom) in southern Haiti.

Row of okra at World Concern’s agricultural training center (outdoor classroom) in southern Haiti.

Youth interns at the training center enjoying some watermelon.

Youth interns at the training center enjoying some watermelon.

A training about how to protect the soil and prevent erosion.

A training about how to protect the soil and prevent erosion.

Getting some hands on experience.

Getting some hands on experience.

 

One of the project's tractor hard at work.  The tractor's are used to help local farmers during planting.

One of the project’s tractors hard at work. The tractors are used to help local farmers during planting.

Food insecurity remains a real threat to families in Haiti.  This is a big issue and cannot be dealt with quickly.  However it is exciting to see World Concern take important steps to support rural farmers and strengthen their capacity to become productive.

This is definitely a silent crisis.  My goal is to, at the very least; make people aware of the current situation and how it is affecting millions of people in Haiti.  So please check out the links you see throughout this post and become informed.  Even do a little research on your own if you feel compelled.  In order to effectively engage we must understand what is going on and why.  Thanks for reading!