Heifer International begins new program close to home
By Doug Rich
If, like me, you thought Heifer International was focused just on the hungry and poor in other countries, then, like me, you would be wrong.
When Perry Jones took over as the director of U.S. Country Programs two years ago, Heifer International had 108 projects in 34 states. Jones said Heifer International, originally known as Heifers for Relief when it was started in 1944, has always had projects in the U.S.
Seeds of Change
Heifer recently kicked off a new $13.5 million program called "Seeds of Change" that will directly benefit the hungry and poor in central Appalachia and Arkansas. Perry said the program is designed to create jobs, improve health, and steward the environment through the use of locally produced food.
"We want to use local food and sustainable agriculture as an economic engine in persistent poverty regions," Jones said. "We do this in persistent poverty areas with limited access to land."
The Seeds of Change program will target a five-county area in central Appalachia and a nine-county area in the Delta region of Arkansas. Jones said they have already started working in Hughes, Ark., population 1,400, to develop the Hughes Producers Cooperative.
"This area is as rough as any inner city neighborhood you have even been in," Jones said. "There is absolutely no opportunity in a place like Hughes. When Heifer sets up camp in a place like Hughes, you can feel the ground shake because we have a lot of people working right besides us."
Generally the first challenge is to get beginning farmers access to land. Jones said they look for someone who will loan or lease a small plot of land and then they develop a marketing plan.
"There is plenty of land in the form of abandoned lots, but getting it cleared off is the challenge," Jones said.
Heifer has 10 people in the program now, but their goal is to have 65 members by the year 2020.
"We have everything there to do this new farmer incubator program," Jones said. "We have interest, we have land availability, we have markets--now we just need to fill in the gaps."
A group from Hughes has been to the Heifer Ranch outside Perryville, Ark., for their first intensive sustainable agriculture-training course. The 1,200-acre Heifer Ranch was originally a collection point for livestock going overseas as part of Heifer programs. Today the ranch is a premier educational center that attracts over 17,000 visitors every year.
Chuck Crimmins, agricultural educator at the ranch, said there are two aspects to their work at the ranch. The first is global education. School and church groups come to the ranch to learn about issues surrounding hunger and poverty not only overseas but also here in the U.S. There are educational programs for students of all ages from kindergarten to college. Students over 12 years of age can take part in overnight visits to the ranch.
"We expose kids to how the rest of the world lives like," Crimmins said. "It is not just a field trip but students get classroom credit for what they are doing."
Students who participate in the Global Gateway program at the ranch experience living without everyday conveniences like water from a sink, ingredients from a refrigerator, or cooking on a stove. Like people in many poor regions around the world, they learn to start a fire and cook a meal with simple ingredients like rice, vegetables, and eggs.
The second aspect is agricultural education, which has two main areas. Crimmins said the first is generic or basic agricultural education for school kids to teach them how food is grown. Children visiting the ranch might have the opportunity to pick produce from the garden and then eat that produce for lunch so they get a complete field-to-table experience. The second area is technical training similar to what they did for the Hughes group.
"In the past seven years we have done three to four of these technical training sessions every year," Crimmins said. "These were for Heifer project farmers, Extension agents, and others, all based around small scale and organic production."
When the group from Hughes came to the ranch they started them out with a course on marketing but discovered they probably needed more information about actual production. In the five-county area in Central Appalachia where they are working with another Seeds of Change groups there are at least 200 small-scale sustainable producers. Jones said they need a different kind of help such as access to capital and improved practices. Out of the nine-county Delta region that surrounds Hughes, Ark., there are only two intensive small-scale producers.
The ranch is also home to 14 of the 29 animals species that Heifer uses around the world. Heifer started out by shipping dairy heifers to poverty-stricken areas around the world but they have expanded that list to include llamas, alpacas, goats, chickens and honeybees. When Dan West founded Heifer his concept was to give them a cow, not a cup. That philosophy can still be seen in Heifer project today.
"We want to make strategic investments in agriculture and not prop it up on grants," Jones said. "We expect our projects to grow legs and walk on their own two feet."
Heifer projects, whether here in the U.S. or overseas, share four core program strategies. They are community organizing and coalition building; training and support in sustainable agriculture and social entrepreneurship; facilitating access to capital; and facilitating access to diverse markets.
Since 1944 Heifer International's common-sense approach to helping resource-poor communities has touched 13.6 million families in more than 125 countries. Now, like me, you know that number includes people right here in the U.S.
You can learn more about Heifer International by going to www.heifer.org.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by email at email@example.com.