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|Everette Woods, Edward Rucker, Alexis Cole and Antoine Burks help move a chicken pen at Heifer Ranch. The four were at the ranch for a weekend of training in eco-friendly farming practices.|
Arkansas learning center, Heifer International USA sow Seeds of Change with training for Delta farmers in profitable, sustainable agriculture.
PERRYVILLE, Ark.—The group of visitors to the Learning Center at Heifer Ranch treated the place as a wonderland, snapping cell-phone pictures of the camels and water buffalo and marveling at the lush, rolling landscape. They came from the Arkansas Delta, near the Mississippi River, where no hill or knoll breaks the horizon for miles. The ranch was only a three-hour drive away, but seemed utterly foreign.
This was no casual sightseeing trip, though. The visitors were potential participants in Heifer International's new Seeds of Change project, which is working in Arkansas and Appalachia to increase incomes in areas of need through sustainable agriculture. The Delta residents had come for a weekend of training in the kind of eco-friendly practices used at the ranch. The new training program taking root here represents the first time in years that Heifer Ranch has been engaged on the front lines of Heifer International's hunger-fighting work.
Heifer Ranch has been a part of Heifer International since 1971, when it was purchased for use as a holding area for livestock that would be given to families in poverty around the world. But Heifer learned in the 1980s that it was more effective to purchase animals in-country, where they would be properly acclimatized and their sale would support the local economy. The ranch has been used in recent decades mainly to demonstrate aspects of Heifer's work and to educate the public about hunger and poverty.
The new trainees, though, have already seen plenty of poverty. In the Arkansas Delta counties targeted by Seeds of Change, about 22 percent of the population was living in poverty in 2010. Nearly one in four people in the area are food insecure, which means they don't always know where their next meal will come from. For children, the rates are even worse—about 28 percent are food insecure.
In a Heifer Ranch yard, trainer Paul Casey showed participants how to flip a goat and trim its hooves. A few trainees volunteered to try their hand at it. The squirming goat, though, had little patience with their swipes at the tough, overgrown hoof. "Don't be shy," Casey said. "It's just like a fingernail. And you'll get a feel for it."
Some of the participants from the Delta have experience growing row crops like soybeans or rice. But they've never seen profitable agriculture done without extensive use of pesticides and big machinery. "This is hard work," affirmed Everette Woods, from Colt, Ark., noting that an organic farmer must stay attuned to every detail in order to keep the farm ecosystem in balance and forgo chemicals. The ranch trainers have encyclopedic knowledge of natural techniques to head off pests, weeds, and disease. In the coming years, new farmers could stay on the ranch for months at a time to learn the intensive agriculture on display here. Perry Jones, the director of Heifer's USA program, envisions a "farmer incubator" program that would take in novice farmers and, over the course of a few years, give them the skills to run their own family farm.
|Edward Rucker takes a chicken from Heifer livestock volunteer Sarah as specialty crops at Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Ark.|
Heifer's USA program is working to identify a demonstration farm in the other project area, Appalachia, for participants living there. But for those living in Arkansas, Heifer Ranch provides an ideal facility for learning. It has comfortable lodging, on-site dining, ample land and technical experts in holistic agriculture that Jones calls "best-in-class." Because the ranch is so close to the project area, its climate and vegetation are similar to the land the farmers will be using. Integrating the facility with the U.S. project work seemed a classic "win-win."
For Antoine Burks, one of the early attendees of weekend trainings at the ranch, the chance to see actual farm work made the concepts of sustainable agriculture come to life. "When we get hands-on, you get more out of it," Burks said. "It's real now."
Heifer Ranch has always provided some targeted training to participants in various smaller-scale Heifer projects in the United States. But leaders at the ranch and at the USA program say that with the launch of Seeds of Change, the time was ripe to take full advantage of the ranch.
The collaboration with the Seeds of Change project means new tasks for the ranch, and a slightly different layout. A sort of "farm-within-a-farm" will be set aside as a demonstration area, to work out how to make the best profit off of just a few acres of land.
That eye toward marketability will be a new approach. "Because we're under Heifer [as a learning center], we didn't really need to say, 'Is this [farming method] profitable?'" said Michelle Dusek Izaguirre, senior director of Learning Centers. The ranch's vegetables, fruit, eggs and meat have largely been used in the on-site cafeteria and in a Community-Supported Agriculture program. The demonstration plot will need to pay its own way, and more.
"That's the part that will be completely different, and extremely exciting," she said.
In the 2013 growing season, three to five acres will be carved out for the demonstration market farm. For the Seeds of Change project to be successful, it's vital that the farmers learn more than just how to grow vegetables and raise animals. They must also learn how to sell those products at a good price and how to manage their costs and their cash flow.
|Grower Everette Woods of Colt, Ark.|
The new training program won't detract from the ranch's current role as a learning center for the public. Izaguirre said that, if anything, the experience for visitors to Heifer Ranch will be enhanced.
"People who visit the ranch in the future could see Heifer International's real-life work against hunger and poverty in action. It won't be a re-creation," Izaguirre said. "That's priceless, as an opportunity to understand poverty in the U.S. and connect to Heifer."
The training program will bring Heifer Ranch fullcircle. The picturesque property was once central to Heifer International's project work, and by coordinating with Seeds of Change, it will be a crucial program element once again.
"It's an exciting time," said trainer Crimmins. "I just hope we can teach them well. These are real people, struggling to get by, and we have an opportunity to help make their life easier."