The Best Ways To Help A Small Farm: Become acquainted with what people do, diagnose first, select alternatives, try them out in small experiments-first under your control and then progressively with farmers. Promote that which proves to be better. Never give up, because improvement is always possible.
THE CHALLENGE OF AGRICULTURAL MISSIONS: Notes from ECHO's staff. Doing agricultural missions is not an easy task. Many mission agencies with projects in evangelism, health, education, water, sanitation etc. hesitate to add agricultural projects to their program. Why? Because it is often much less clear what they should do to have a major impact in agriculture than it is in these other areas. It has been said that if you can provide clean drinking water and build latrines you take care of up to 80% of a village's health problems. Likewise, medicines already exist to treat most of the diseases in the developing world. But, if a community is "sick" due to the poverty of farmers, it is much less clear what should be done.
Requirements for a satisfactory agricultural project include the following: It must involve only minimal risk to local farmers who are already living on the edge. It must be something they are not already doing. The plants or innovations should be suited for local conditions, culturally appropriate, and address a felt need among the people. It should not exceed realistic labor and time investments for the users. It should make such a major difference that farmers will readily adapt the innovation on their own. And, it must have a ready market (or be liked as food locally) if it involves sale of a product.
It is almost impossible to meet all of these criteria and some projects have failed miserably. But, there have been successes and well-prepared agricultural missionaries are still needed. Below are a few ideas to keep in mind for designing a successful agricultural project. The list is not all-inclusive, but these are points that come up over and over again.
Be committed to the people and the work. Effective change takes time. Get to know the people and understand their needs. Live with them, learn their language and culture. Earn the right to help them. Cultivate your powers of observation; keep your eyes open. Go as a learner, see why people do things the way they do (most things are done for a reason, even if it seems foolish to you at first). Practice humility and listening. Admit when you are wrong, and expect good ideas to come from local counterparts. Be flexible, as you may become involved in more than you expected. You may find yourself involved in agriculture, regardless of your background in food production or skills and responsibilities in other areas.
Nationals, the people from the communities, must own the project. If they are not involved in every aspect from start to finish, your work will not effect lasting improvements. Use local resources and technologies which are appropriate. Do not do for the farmers what they can do for themselves. As far as possible, they should provide the labor and materials needed. Teach folks to teach others and do not make yourself indispensable. You will not be there forever. All this helps people keep their dignity, avoid dependency, and assure sustainability. Whenever possible work with the government and leadership, not against it.
Identify a few important technologies and test them. There are a lot of technologies which have already been proven in a particular setting. These are well worth a trial in similar circumstances, but nearly everything will require some adaptations to the local situation. A good approach might be to start by promoting a good idea from one area of the country or world in a new area, and work with it until it is recognized as an improvement. Be patient. We visited missionary Bob Ekblad in Honduras who rented the worst piece of land on a very visible hillside along a well-travelled road. People thought he was crazy to try to farm such poor, steep land, but after watching the contour ditches and other soil improvement processes work effectively, they adapted and adopted these practices and soon enjoyed reduced soil erosion and much-improved yields. Even some abandoned fields were brought back into production.
Sometimes you may be called upon to develop a new technology from scratch. If so, be prepared and committed to adapting and promoting the idea over the long term. Joshua Tsujimoto, who developed a raised bed mini-greenhouse system for out-of-season vegetable production in Bangladesh, tells how farmers laughed at him and suggested that they would benefit more if he were sent home and his missionary support divided among the people. But after many years of trials and errors, he developed a very workable system for people to produce vegetables in the rainy season when no one else can, thus greatly increasing their incomes. Persevere.
Expect frustration. We once read that a farmer in the Philippines was able to multiply his cash income 15 times by planting disease-resistant tomatoes. But he declined to plant them again because of social pressures from his less successful family and neighbors. Resist the temptation to become cynical or overly critical when reactions to your efforts are not as you had hoped. We have also heard over and over of plants which succeed brilliantly in one area or season but fail miserably in another. Anticipate such problems.
Start small and be an experimenter. Identify naturally innovative farmers in your area and work with them. Do not be overeager to convince many farmers to implement ideas you have not tried personally or locally; in doing so, you may inadvertently do more damage than good and lose respect in the community. Keep things simple. Truly good ideas will often spread themselves without elaborate promotion.
ECHO's role is to help you find technical ideas to try. You must evaluate which innovations hold potential for your area, and weigh the risks and benefits of introducing these ideas in your community. This book will not teach you the process of community development; it is meant as a resource for people seeking ideas with potential to improve the life of small farming families. But this process of development is essential, and we encourage you to consider the social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of your work alongside the technical part. A few books which deal with the development process are highlighted below.
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