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Home-grown farming success.

In the small Dominican Republic town of Rio Limpio, Jesus rises early every morning to spread his message throughout the countryside. As he works his way up the dirt road that connects the modest homes of this poor mountain village located just miles from the Haitian border, he listens to his neighbors' concerns and offers them simple advice. At first skeptical of his new ideas, many have followed Jesus' teachings and have seen their lives improve. Jesus' gospel isn't religious, though.

Jesus Ventura is a "barefoot agronomist," a farmer who has been educated in sustainable agriculture methods and trained to pass that knowledge to fellow farmers.

Where government projects and agricultural extension agents have repeatedly failed in Rio Limpio, Jesus has succeeded, training many of his poor neighbors to use low-cost, high-yield farming and gardening methods. He learned his trade at the Regional Rural Alternatives, a 15-acre training and demonstration farm in Rio Limpio. In the past decade, CREAR ("to create" in Spanish), as the program is known, has produced a small cadre of young women and men, like Jesus, with the training and leadership skills to teach in a way that poor farmers can understand and will follow. To date, CREAKS 15 graduates, who now work for local development organizations, have spread the word about sustainable agriculture to hundreds of families in and around Rio Limpio.

Former Peace Corps volunteer Marcos Feedman and several local farmers founded the center 10 years ago with a mission: to prove that it was possible to hold soil erosion at bay and sustain high yields of fruits and vegetables on small hillside farms without the use of expensive machinery or dangerous chemicals.

While the center's programs have been applied mainly in the Rio Limpio area, its message has begun to spread to other corners of the Dominican Republic. CREAKS staff believes that its techniques and teaching philosophy are appropriate for small-scale farmers throughout the highlands of the Third World.

Rio Limpio suffers from many of the problems typical of rural communities in developing countries. It is isolated and fast-growing. "Good" land in these mountains, which would hardly be classified as arable by geographers, is becoming scarce. The productivity of farms has declined over the years, and most farmers have gone further and further into the mountains, where they burn virgin forests in their search for fertile soil. Out of desperation, many young farmers have given up and fled to urban areas as far away as New York City.

But Jesus Ventura and his fellow CREAR graduates have begun to work some minor miracles in Rio Limpio. Area farmers are winning the war against soil erosion - a problem typical of mountain lands - by building terraces and planting trees. Many now use organic methods to fertilize crops and control pests instead of costly and dangerous chemicals, and they've seen their yields increase.

"Poor families have started organic gardens and are, for the first time, growing enough fruits and vegetables to sell at nearby markets," says Marcos Feedman. But the biggest miracle of all, he says, is that "young people are beginning to see a future in farming - they have hope, a scarce commodity among young Dominicans, and fewer of them are leaving our community.

CREAR has been successful because its barefoot program is by definition tailored to local conditions and draws on the ranks of local farmers - who know their community and its problems best - to make up its corps of agronomists. Their government counterparts-agricultural extension agents - are usually trained at big, urban universities and then assigned to rural areas they may never have laid eyes on.

The chances of these agents getting to know their communities are slim. Whereas each CREAR graduate works with less than 25 of his or her neighbors, one government extension agent has been assigned to the more than 1,000 farmers in and around Rio Limpio. His visits are few and far between, and are frequently interrupted by bad weather and vehicle breakdowns.

Before CREAR, many farmers in Rio Limpio had no choice but to turn to agro-chemical salesmen for advice. With their obvious interest in turning a profit, these salesmen were eager to offer advice on seed varieties, pesticide applications, and chemical fertilizers.

Farmers around the Third World find themselves in similar predicaments. "In my 18 years of experience overseas," explains Mark Walker, senior director of fund development for World Neighbors, "I've found that farmers rarely receive reliable assistance from their governments and many rely solely on pesticide dealers for advice."

Walker's Tulsa, Oklahoma-based organization is one of the best known and biggest international farmer-to-farmer programs, with 91 projects in 20 countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia. World Neighbors' operating philosophy, that farmers will inevitably want to experiment with successful techniques they see on neighboring farms, has proven to be true.

The International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) also relies on the farmer-to-farmer approach. It has worked with more than 30,000 families in the Philippines in the past 15 years and has related programs in Ghana, India, Guatemala, Colombia, and Thailand.

Jesus' approach is a bit more aggressive than World Neighbors' or IIRR's, but his neighbors welcome his visits and suggestions. Not only is he always available to help his neighbors, free of charge, but farmers trust him. Most have known him since he was a child. They know he will be with them through thick and thin - suffering the same setbacks and sharing in their successes.

"Because farmers trust |barefoot' teachers, they are more willing to take risks and experiment with new farming methods," says Norman Uphoff, a professor t Cornell University and an expert in small-scale farming and sustainable agriculture. Often farming programs fail rural communities because farmers don't trust the people introducing new technologies, observes Uphoff, not because farmers are incapable of carrying them out. CREAR, graduates are well aware of this, having been at the receiving end of government programs themselves.

For CREAR graduates like Jesus Ventura and the 25 students currently enrolled in the agronomy program, the center provides a golden opportunity to continue an education that otherwise would have ended after the fourth grade. And CREAR students' luck doesn't end after graduation. With their five years of training, these graduates are in high demand. In an area of extreme job scarcity, CREAR's barefoot agronomists have all found paid positions with community development organizations. In fact, Marcos Feedman exclaims, "Our students are getting job offers before they even graduate!"

While there is some classroom work at CREAR, most of the training takes place on the center's 15-acre demonstration farm, which is a living testimony to its belief that no land is unproductive or marginal.

CREAR students have coaxed coffee beans, squash, vegetables, and tropical fruits from a severely eroded hillside typical of farmland in the area. Using organic and bio-intensive farming techniques that are cheap and environmentally sound, the students have gradually increased the farm's annual productivity from $170 to $520 an acre. These techniques rely on natural methods for increasing soil fertility, maximizing crop yields, and controlling pests. Instead of using chemicals for fertilizer, for example, CREAR applies manure and compost.

To control pests and weeds, CREAR farmers plant a variety of fruits and vegetables together so they are more resistant to insects and disease - a practice known as intercropping. To prevent soil erosion, the center levels off fields by farming along the contour of the hillside and building terraces.

Along with these farming techniques, the center trains its students and visiting farmers in bio-intensive gardening, a non- chemical approach to cultivating small patches of land. CREAR, students plant as many as 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables together, producing enough food to supply up to 100 percent of a family's vitamin C and iron requirements and 30 percent of its protein. More than 3,000 families in the Dominican town of San Jose de Ocoa have home gardens as a result of CREAR's bio-intensive training program.

Despite their impressive results, barefoot agronomist programs like CREAR's continually struggle for funding. CREAR must constantly submit grant proposals to national and foreign development agencies to cover both training costs and student expenses. The program spends about $30 a day on training and room and board for its students.

"But development organizations and government agencies arc beginning to see the value of investing in farmers like Jesus Ventura," says Wilbur Wright of the Virginia-based Inter-American Foundation, which began funding CREAR in 1989. Besides, the whole idea behind the barefoot agronomist program, says Marcos Feedman, is that a modest investment in a single individual will have a multiplier effect: Jesus' neighbors will eventually spread his teachings to other farmers across the mountains.
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Author:Elkin, Vicki
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:1448
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