Friday, July 31, 2009

Learning to Farm in the DR

by Doug Satre

This summer I had the opportunity to visit Floresta’s DR program with a team of high school students from Village Church. We came to the DR to work alongside farmers and their families, to gain a better understanding of their joys and struggles and to share the love of Christ, to pray and learn together and to gain a better understanding of Floresta’s work of community transformation.

Our first morning consisted of working on the 6-acre farm of Dario and Trini Baez in the village of Gajo las Flores. Dario and Trini have worked with Floresta for over 10 years and have seen their lives improve dramatically as a result; their children are pursuing higher education and they are less vulnerable to the effects of poor weather and crop failures.

Dario explained to us some of the challenges local farmers have faced: “When I first started farming here, most of the farmers in the area couldn’t get the loans they needed to get their farms established, to pay for the seeds, trees and animals they needed. As a result, they were forced, out of desperation, to sell their land and look for work in the city.”

In contrast, Dario and Trini were able to receive a loan from Floresta, which enabled them to plant an orchard of citrus trees. Today those trees are producing well, and they are just one component of an amazingly productive farm, which includes dairy cows, mango and banana, cassava and long beans.

Our task was to work in Dario and Trini’s bean field, a one-acre field filled with trellises for stringing long beans. Dario showed us the proper technique for training the beans up the trellis, and the 12 of us got to work. We worked steadily, despite the heat, and enjoyed talking with each other, with Dario, and with the Floresta staff as we looked after the beans.

These beans don’t look like much - and there were not any beans on the plants yet - but are actually one of the great success stories of Floresta’s work in the DR. Dario reported that the beans grow quickly and then produce for 9 months out of the year. At peak season, he harvests 900 pounds a week and employs six local workers. The beans are sold locally and for export to Europe. “We can produce a lot more food on a smaller farm,” Dario explains, “It helps us improves ourselves and preserves the surrounding environment, allowing the land to heal.”

Organic crops such as these beans are a great boon for farmers- they command a higher price and reward the farmers financially for protecting their health, land and crops from dangerous pesticides. Not only is Dario’s income raised, but additional jobs are created for local workers, and Dario can easily repay the occasional loan that he takes out from Floresta.

The idea of growing more food in less space became something of a theme for the week. Combining the right kinds of high-yield, marketable crops with the right techniques is a powerful combination. Although I had visited several Floresta programs before, including programs in the DR, I learned a ton about the importance of encouraging farmers to grow profitable crops. As Carlos Disla, Floresta’s Dominican Director puts it, “There needs to be an economic incentive for farmers to try new crops. When they see that they can make more money and take better care of their families, they are anxious to listen to us.”

Carlos also addressed the spiritual component of Floresta’s work. “We help the farmers increase their incomes, but we also teach them how to live in a way that pleases the Lord, and not to spend their money on the wrong things. Economic development has to go hand in hand with spiritual growth, in order for people’s lives to truly be changed.”

This dynamic was at work the next day in the village of Juan Adrian, when we helped do some work on Floresta’s first-ever greenhouse in the DR, a hydroponic greenhouse with room for over 1,000 plants. Pastor Hilario, who put us to work moving dirt and cutting plastic for the beds, could hardly contain his excitement. “The greenhouse has so many benefits,” he explained, “Less weeding, fewer pests, no need for pesticides, higher yields, less need to clear the forest for land, and higher income!”

It was hot, dusty work, and there was a fair amount of confusion, between our limited Spanish and the fact that this was the first time any of us had set up the special beds a hydroponic greenhouse requires. But everyone managed to keep working well as a team, and by the end of the afternoon we had the first bed laid out.

Our next day of farm work had us doing something different, filling small bags with soil to transplant thousands of seedling, which would then be used to reforest the surrounding community. After our introductions and a prayer to bless our morning, we worked alongside the men of the farmers cooperative, filling bags together while we got to know each other.

I was especially interested in learning how the cooperative works- how each farmer has his own field, but how they take turns assisting each other, depending on whose farm needs the most work. Here was a group of farmers who had really learned to work together for the good of the community, and who were reaping the benefits of their cooperation.

Once again, we planted special crops that would be a blessing to the community on multiple levels: Cacao trees, which grow quickly and are the source of chocolate. They are great for restoring damaged hillsides and produce substantial income. Passion fruit Vines- grow and fruit like crazy, resist disease and pests, and can be both used by families and sold. Eucalyptus- grows like a weed (six feet a year!) and regrows from the stump after it’s harvested. It’s used in all kinds of poles for construction. And on and on. By the end of the morning we had planted over 6,000 seeds and seedlings and felt that we had made a small contribution to the farmers’ work.



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