Agriculture

A look back at Cambodia.

wowThe first time I was in Cambodia, in 2005, I disliked it intensely. It was the end of the dry season and the land was parched and brown, as if nothing had ever lived there. My friend Martha and I stayed in a fancy tourist hotel and went outside the resort only to visit the famous temples of Angkor Wat. The heat was so intense, and the beggars & cripples in the streets so aggressive, it sapped my interest in seeing the countryside or meeting the people. Despite the wonders of the temples, it was an unpleasant experience overall, and I never wanted to go back.

Pretty much my tourista view of Cambodia, the first time.

Pretty much my tourista view of Cambodia, the first time.

However, when I went to Cambodia with Heifer last year, it was an entirely different experience. (And this is why you should never hold on to prejudices about countries you’ve only visited briefly — or in an utterly touristy fashion.)

For starters, I met the people I really wanted to get to know.mother & childAnd then there was the fact that everything – and I mean EVERY single living thing– in the countryside was bathed in green. And water. greenCambodia is geographically shaped like a bowl, so in the rainy season, water collects in the center and seeps out everywhere. The rice paddies were swollen with their watery harvest…rice field

…and children everywhere along the road were splashing happily and joyfully in the ubiquitous ponds.picking lotusI got to really talk to the people I met in the villages, and understand some of their tragic history on a deeply personal level.

Pream Sui, survivor of a forced marriage to a Khmer Rouge soldier - and beautiful grandmother.

Pream Sui, survivor of a forced marriage to a Khmer Rouge soldier – and beautiful grandmother.

I saw the work Heifer was doing to mend communities, bring people together to work alongside each other, and heal ancient rivalries with the amazing gift of animals . water buffalo

mom & chickies

pigs

A brood of guinea fowls.

A flock of guinea fowl.

And I came to adore Heifer’s country director, Keo Keang, who traveled with me every day to the villages and towns where Heifer works – and had her own horrific tale of tragedy from the Khmer Rouge days, when her father and sister were murdered. Keo Keang

Despite the severe difficulties this country faces in overcoming its genocidal past, poverty-ridden present, and dubious future, I met so many people filled with a gorgeous spirit of optimism and hope.fisherman

Kuhl Samon, mother of 11, and wife of Chin Chhil, an amputee in the war.

Kuhl Samon, mother of 11, and wife of Chin Chhil, an amputee in the Khmer Rouge civil war.

girls in temple

sweet namasteAnd believe me when I tell you, nothing can make you love a country more than that.lotusFor a look back at my Cambodia posts (and they’re really GOOD!) ..

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/10/16/haunting-cambodia/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/10/22/a-song-of-reconciliation/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/10/25/under-water-but-not-overcome/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/10/29/i-was-married-to-the-khmer-rouge/

watery road

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Cambodia, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Holler back, Appalachia & The Delta.

hollerLast July I spent five rainy days in Appalachia, in the far west of North Carolina near Boone – and another two days in the Arkansas Delta in the town of Hughes, visiting new projects Heifer International is undertaking here in America. barn

This is pretty country.hydrangea

In the Delta, it’s awesomely fertile country (or at least it was before the advent of agribusiness with its soil-stripping, water-hogging monoculture of corn, cotton, rice and soybeans that requires only one person per 1,000 acres to farm). agribusinessBut this is also hardscrabble America … where poverty prevails, industry has fled, opportunity seems to have vanished, and hope is hard to find.shedIt’s important to see this America.

The only food store in Hughes burnt last year.

The only food store in Hughes burnt down last year.

It matters.Austin

Because 15% — or 46.2 million people– now live in poverty in America; and when I say poor, I mean a family of four earning less than $22,200 a year. And 36% of those poor people are children. The miracle of grapes

But to most of us, they’re invisible.waitressesWhen you’re in a place like Hughes or Ashe, N.C., (or just living with our heads in the sand), it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing that can be done. But Heifer’s crew of Jeffrey, Perry, Edward, Pastor Rob, Bubba, Duncan, Travis and a host of others have a different view.

Edward Rucker, Heifer's charismatic community organizer in Hughes.

Edward Rucker, Heifer’s charismatic community organizer in Hughes.

Biker/gardener Duncan and his wife

Biker/gardener Duncan and his wife tend a huge community garden in North Wilkesboro, NC

Carol Coulter, cheesemaker extraordinaire.

Carol Coulter, Appalachian cheesemaker extraordinaire.

Heifer’s plan is to work within these communities using sustainable agriculture to improve the health, nutrition and income of the people – organizing smallholder farmers (providing land when necessary) to grow fruits, honey, nuts, meats, and vegetables that can be sold in local markets. hopeBasically, it’s about turning these food deserts and manufacturing graveyards into oases of growth. pepperThat endeavor requires education, support, counsel, supply chains, marketing and attitudinal changes – but Heifer and hundreds of activists in the community believe it can be done– and who am I to argue with hope?Angela, Chad and Pastor Rob BrooksAs Perry Jones, Heifer’s USA country director says, “Once an opportunity is given and people have a chance for a dignified, self-reliant life, they lunge into it.” secret

Have hope. Read more from Appalachia & The Delta here:

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/18/a-hard-rains-gonna-fall/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/24/seeds-of-changesprouts-of-hope-2/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/27/down-on-the-farm-sure-looks-like-up-to-me/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/01/bikers-for-broccoli/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/06/a-short-rant-about-food/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/09/despair-hope-in-the-delta/

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Remembering Romania…

Bringing milk to collectionA short 13 months ago, I was in Romania — a fact that was brought powerfully back to me when I opened my July National Geographic and saw a story titled “Hay. Beautiful.” about the incredibly bio-diverse, grass-growing meadows of Transylvania.meadows

Ahhhh, I spent a lot of lovely, fragrant time in those meadows…meadow

…because that’s exactly where Heifer International works: alongside the poor, hard-working, rural Romanians…shepherd3

..who generally own less than 6 acres, live on about $5,000 a year, and raise cows and water buffalo that each eat four or more tons of hay every winter. (And yeah, that’s a lot of hay.)farmer hay

Romanian cows and buffalo (and sheep & goats) raised on that transcendent Transylvania hay produce some of the most delicious, rich, soft, creamy milk, yogurt and cheeses imaginable…Cottage cheese

…but since communism fell in 1989, Romanian farmers have lacked the volume, organization and distribution to sell their dairy products on any viable scale. Dorica & goat

Yet as other economies of Europe stagger to regain their footing, more Romanians are returning home from jobs abroad to work their own hay fields, raise cows, and produce milk. Milk me

Heifer is there to help make that endeavor economically profitable with EU-approved milk collection centers, new storage and cooling equipment, and distribution channels that will hopefully save the meadows…meadow

hay stack

what a meadowsave the cows…Calf 3860

…and save the farms.hay stacksAnd personally, I think that’s a mission well worth supporting.In her garden..

Romania is romantic, lush, gloriously fertile… landscape

…and filled with people whose traditions and agricultural knowledge stretch back to medieval times. wise woman

Sarica-big sheep coat for shepherds

Lucretia It’s a country totally worth seeing – and worth saving for the next generation!Bunaziwa girl from Belin

Categories: Agriculture, Heifer International, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Cameroon, the Remix.

4 girls from Mordok, coming in from the fields.

5 girls from Mordok, coming in from the fields.

Cameroon was easily one of the most fascinating, diverse, disturbing and memorable countries I visited in 2012 with Heifer International…and that’s really saying something.red scarf

My visit started with a minor disaster – we missed our flight from the capital city of Yaoundé up north to Maroua, and there wasn’t another one for 3 days. But as so often happens (if only I had the equanimity to keep this in mind), that accident ended up fortuitously taking me on the road to Douala, where we were able to see 3 other projects that were totally unique to Cameroon: one with snails…

Tangue Jokelt Dieudonne, proud member of Heifer's  Melong GIC with his snails

Tangue Jokelt Dieudonne, proud member of Heifer’s Melong GIC with his snails.

one with pigs …

Cute pigs from the CIG Women's project in Douala

… and one project with cane rats, a rodent I fear with hysterical fervor.

(and don't say that he's more afraid of me than I am of him)

(and don’t try to say that he’s more afraid of me than I am of him)

The south of Cameroon, like Douala, is wet, fertile and steamy….

Banana country!

Banana country!

…unlike the sere, flat and unrelentingly dry L’Extreme Nord. Scorched earth, Maroua

In fact, Cameroon is known as “Africa in miniature” because it contains all the continent’s topography: coast, desert, mountains, rainforest and savanna.

The southerners tend to be short, chubby, affable and primarily Christian…President Emilienne Zikou and VP Denise Nannou, GIC Ndoungue

…while the northerners are tall, lean, reserved and often Muslim.muslim girl

And it is the North that I worry deeply about. Water has always been scarce here, but never more so than now, with climate change prolonging the dry season to almost 11 months a year.mother water

The women of Barza, where Heifer dug a  bore hole, still have to walk about 5 miles each way, every day to secure enough water for their households, and even though men now share the task (thanks to Heifer gender equity trainings!) it’s a grueling, maddening waste of time and energy.woman w water

The people of Cameroon, though, are lovely, particularly in the L’Extreme Nord. As I was watching them one day, I wrote this in my book:

“Poverty isn’t pretty. It’s messy, smelly, sweaty. Filthy water hangs in the gutters of the streets. Old, beat-up things are used to the point of extinction and well beyond.boy and toy

Children in tattered cast-off clothing run barefoot through the dust. holding on

But poor people in Africa are also often heart-wrenchingly beautiful. friends

They rise above the destitution of their surroundings, the women sailing like colorful jibs through the channels of a jumbled market… two beauties…splendid and serene.”

Yes, I loved Cameroon. In fact, I love the energy, faith, colors, strength and smiles of Africa as much as any place I’ve ever been. kids

Who wouldn’t?

~~~~~~~~~~

To read more about the inspiring Heifer projects I visited in Cameroon (including the rats), click below:

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/01/bienvenue-cameroon/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/06/poverty-slimed/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/08/hunger-no-games/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/11/dead-hen-walking/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/13/just-add-water/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/15/one-womans-nightmare-is-another-mans-dinner/

Categories: Africa, Agriculture, Animals, Cameroon, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, Water, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Improbable Campesino

a man on his farmShad Qudsi didn’t exactly set out on a career path to start an organic farm in rural Guatemala. He grew up in the farmlands of New Jersey (yeah, they do exist) and got a big scholarship to Johns Hopkins, majoring in math and business, the first person in his family to graduate from college. He spent a bit of time in the corporate world, working in emerging tech companies because his brain works in that wondrous way, but farming was in his heart. collen & shad

Luckily, he chose a good partner in his wife Colleen, who went along with his agricultural dreams, and after two years running a hotel in Belize, they bought a farm in October 2009 in the steep, rocky highlands above Tzununa, a miniscule town on the lovely banks of Lake Atitlan.

Beautiful Lake Atitlan

Beautiful Lake Atitlan

To say Shad’s Atitlan Organics farm is difficult to access is an understatement. The journey requires a boat ride, followed by a truck ride, followed by a long walk up – but once you get to Shad’s place, it’s a lush green, oasis-y marvel to behold.the farm

However, Shad’s first year of farming was hard – and the second was worse. Last year was his first profitable year, but clearly, Shad and Colleen measure success in a different way. My fab friend Bonnie O’Neill took us on a tour of the farm, and in one short hour, I was convinced I desperately need to start a compost pile, was seriously considering raising chickens, and wondered why the heck I’ve never bought chia and amaranth seeds to sprinkle on my oatmeal.

Chia... no pets.

Chia… no pets.

Shad is a huge fan of chia and amaranth, two traditional grains grown by the Incas and native to Guatemala. These seeds are trendy and popular in the States (meaning they command a price 25 times higher than corn) but they also represent a great possibility for enhanced nutrition for Guatemala’s perennially undernourished indigenous population. Kiddies

A one-ounce serving of chia seeds contains 9 grams of fat, 5 milligrams of sodium, 11 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein (and that’s not even counting how they stimulated sales of Chia Pets). Amaranth seeds contain 30% more protein than rice and are unusually rich in lysine, an essential amino acid missing in many other plants. Best of all, both chia and amaranth are easy to grow and easy to harvest, with flowers that produce millions of seeds for further cultivation.seedlings

It’s stuff like this that fascinates Shad – and he’s a walking fountain of agricultural knowledge, experimentation and irrepressible enthusiasm. He’s teaching Guatemalan farmers to throw down some chia seed when they mound up soil around their knee-high corn plants in August, so the fast-growing salvia will be ready to harvest with the corn in October. But this is just the tip of the trowel on Shad’s farm, because he’s a master of biodiversity, with at least 200 species of plants, animals, and fungi on his small acreage. In fact, his goal is to take a traditionally-sized plot of land (about one-sixth of an acre) and demonstrate to Guatemalan farmers how to make it both profitable and a source of good nutrition for their families – and to that end, he’ll try anything!

The tipico plot size in Guatemala.

The tipico plot size in Guatemala… one-sixth of an acre.

Shad waxes rhapsodic about esoteric scientific facts and chemistry – the soil as the placenta of chickensthe earth; how wind, water, and sun act on soil’s abiding intention to make more of itself; the beautifully complex interaction of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which is why he raises clean herbivore rabbits in the same house with dirty greens-eating chickens) – until my brain was swimming in farm facts. But the bottom line is this is a man with a passionate love for farming who believes that to plant a seed is a sacred deed and who is utterly devoted to working with local communities to share his knowledge. In addition to all the work he’s done on his own land, he’s also started 4 community gardens in neighboring Santa Cruz, with local women choosing a youth to organize and run their market (thus educating the next generation).

Papayas

Papayas– a money crop!

Of course, my unspoken question was – how does your wife feel about living way up here, with no electricity (but a rocking sauna) and a 5-mile round-trip walk to her daily work as a teacher?

So pretty --( but their previous "house" was an 8' x 8' shed)

Such a pretty house( but their previous abode was an 8′ x 8′ shed).

Colleen wasn’t there to answer, but I suspect she’s just as dazzled by Shad’s incandescent energy as we were….and by the simple truth of his philosophy:

A quick lesson in grafting avocado trees (Shad's grows 5 varieties).

A quick lesson in grafting avocado trees (Shad grows 5 varieties that ripen at different times).

Growing and selling good food can heal people and heal the earth.

Tree tomatoes

Tree tomatoes

Unlike any other form of “development,” there is no moral ambiguity to clean farming.

A pomegranate grows in Tzununa.

A pomegranate grows in Tzununa.

You plant a seed. You nurture your plants, trees, animals and soil. You feed other people good food.baby lamb

That’s what drives Shad Qudsi, International Farmer and owner of Atitlan Organics

sunflowerIt’s Farming for the Future (And p.s. that’s exactly what Heifer has been about for the past 69 years…)

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Environment, Farming, Guatemala, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

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