Jul 15, 2014

Dr. Leon Young: A Volunteer’s Lifestyle

This article is a contribution to a week-long blog carnival on USAID’s John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program. From July 14-18, F2F program partners and American volunteers are sharing their knowledge and experience of providing technical assistance to farmers, farm groups, agribusinesses, service providers, and other agriculture sector institutions in developing and transitional countries. This blog carnival aims to capture and share this program experience. You can find all contributions on Agrilinks.

Leon Young finally arrives in Soyo, Angola after patiently traveling on a four day trip. This type of travel isn’t unusual for Leon who’s on his seventh trip to Africa for volunteer work, and he alights with a positive attitude, eager to begin his journey: experiencing a new culture, working with young farmers, and making lasting friendships.

Leon is in Soyo to work with a local cooperative on improving the quality of their soil for vegetable cultivation using sustainable practices and resources easily accessible to the farmers. Leon is familiar with the lack of quality agricultural inputs in many African countries, so he came prepared with a training plan focused on using organic materials readily available to the group.

On the first day of training, Leon can barely contain his excitement. The cooperative members arrive at the training site, initially wary of Leon’s strong presence, but they soon relax as Leon opens the floor with questions about each of their farms. He smiles as the farmers open up and eagerly describe how they prepare their soil for planting, the challenges they face, and the types of crops they grow, which are primarily spinach, kale, cabbage, eggplants, tomatoes, okra, green peppers, and bok choy. As they finish introductions, an excited Leon exclaims, “Muito Bom!” (Very good!), in his best Portuguese, eliciting laughter from all in attendance.

The following day, Leon leaves even earlier than the day before, because the farmers want to get started at 8:30 am sharp. He understands the busy farmers only have a few precious hours every day to dedicate to training before they hasten back to the fields and work their land – a time-consuming task for farmers who have no machinery to help them with their daily toil. It takes three hours alone to water their plots that are under a quarter-hectare in size before they can even start the daily tasks of weeding and caring for their growing vegetables.

By engaging with the participants, Leon discovered that their level of aptitude was far above what he’d expected, which both encouraged Leon and necessitated a change in curriculum and an afternoon reworking his plans. Changing his planned training is all part of the Farmer-to-Farmer experience. In the F2F field, there is no set curriculum, and the farmers did not take any prerequisites to understand the type of higher-level science Leon now wants to convey. Volunteers have to be flexible and ready to adapt their training to fit both the literacy level and scientific background of the group: a welcome challenge to brave instructors.

When training ends around lunch time, Leon’s day isn’t over. He spends the afternoon searching town for an ag-input store to check on the prices of fertilizer. To his dismay, the one and only ag-input supplier has a limited inventory of prohibitively expensive fertilizer and limited supplies. He makes a mental note to spend time in Luanda, the capital of Angola, on his way out of the country to search for better inputs that can be shipped up to the remote town of Soyo. Leon understands that creating these types of linkages is one way to ensure the development of the agriculture sector in isolated areas of the country.

The working day is nearly over, but not for Leon. He spends the rest of his evening running soil tests on samples he took from each of the participants’ plots. To fully understand what types of inputs are required to improve the quality of the soil, Leon needs to test for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as well as pH levels for each soil sample. Running soil tests on about twenty samples is no easy task without his lab equipment at home, but he’s glad to take on this challenge knowing this data will benefit the farmers’ understanding of their land.

While on a F2F assignment, the weekends are no time to lie about, there’s far too much to see and do. On his day off, Leon tags along with the local in-country staff to visit a potential host organization. Wasting no time when arriving at the farm, Leon gets right in the dirt to take soil samples, inspecting the water source, and applauding the farmers for their technique of pulling weeds and immediately returning the weed residue to the soil. Leon pulls up the roots of the farm’s bean plots and explains that if you cut open the nodules on those roots, a pink or red color will tell you that nitrogen is being fixed into the soil by the legume crop. Leon nearly jumps for joy when he cuts open the nodule to see the vibrant pink color. His excitement upon this discovery spreads to the farmers who now understand the importance of planting legumes and what to look for in the future. “Face it” he says, “I’m a certified nerd.”

Leon Young’s assignment took place from June 12 – July 3, 2014. The improved soil practices Leon taught have been put in place and the farmers are eagerly awaiting the results. CNFA’s local Angola staff already has plans to follow-up on Leon’s training periodically throughout the year. F2F assistance won’t stop here – this cooperative will receive management and financial training so they can understand how to allocate their precious resources to implementing the recommendations left by Leon and commercialize their improved products. This package of F2F assistance will lead to increased production, sales, and inevitably income for the cooperative, improving the livelihoods of its farmers and surrounding community.

F2F volunteers are a different breed of international volunteers. Every environment is a classroom: whether it’s the farm, the bush, a construction site, or the open-air market and input supply stores. The life of an F2F volunteer is an ongoing assessment of dynamic challenges, creative implementation of problem solving, and the sharing of information that enriches its recipients. Their passion in sharing their expertise with those in need results in real rewards not only for the program’s beneficiaries, but for the volunteers themselves.

For more information on the Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer experience, please view CNFA’s Farmer-to-Farmer recruitment video.

As aligned with Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, F2F works to support inclusive agriculture sector growth, facilitate private sector engagement in the agriculture sector, enhance development of local capacity and promote climate-smart development. Volunteer assignments address host-led priorities to expand economic growth that increases incomes and improves access to nutritious food.  Read more articles on this topic on Agrilinks. Also, make sure to subscribe to receive a daily digest in your inbox, for one week only!