Magazine article World Watch

Home-Grown Farming Success

Magazine article World Watch

Home-Grown Farming Success

Article excerpt

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. …

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