News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 21, 2013
Surry nonprofit connects Central American farmers to healthier rainforest, healthier lives

Sustainable Harvest International president and founder Florence Reed

Florence Reed, president and founder of Sustainable Harvest International, helps improve the lives of Central American farmers and the health of the rainforest. She spoke at Witherle Memorial Library in Castine on October 29.

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Harvest International

by Anne Berleant

At the cost of $1,000 per family per year, Sustainable Harvest International, headquartered in Surry, has helped nearly 1,700 families in Central America transform their farms, and their lives, through sustainable and organic farming techniques.

And with each farm that switches from traditional slash-and-burn farming, another piece of the rainforest is preserved.

Half of the world’s tropical rainforests—which produce oxygen, stabilize climates, and provide a home for half the world’s animal and plant species—is lost, in large part to slash-and-burn farming, said Florence Reed, founder and president of SHI during a recent talk held at Castine’s Witherle Library. “There is a viable alternative.”

Slash-and-burn farming is “pretty much what it sounds like,” she said. Farmers clear a forest area, burn what’s left, and then grow crops for one or two seasons before the soil is used up. They then move on to a new forest area.

“The ash acts as a quick burst of nutrients,” Reed said, then washes away.

When populations were smaller, slash-and-burn farming didn’t cause the devastation it does today, because forests had time to repopulate. Now, after repeating the cycle a number of times, “a lush tropical forest becomes a desert,” Reed said.

The slash-and-burn method of farming also does not produce enough food to feed families. Of the 53 million who suffer from hunger in Central America, 80 percent live in rural areas, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Families face the choice of sending an adult member to the United States to earn money, to move to a city where their average third-grade education may net them a “sweat shop” job and a slum dwelling, or to move into virgin forests and “start the whole slash-and-burn process” over again while earning $25 a month working on large farms, Reed said. Government assistance for family farmers usually consists of being handed a sack of chemicals.

A five-year program to a sustainable farm

Reed started SHI 16 years ago out of a bedroom at her parents’ home. In the nonprofit’s income statement for the year ending in June 2012, it had received $1,658,557 in contributions, gifts and non-government grants, and spent $1,331,510 on program expenses.

“I have the good fortune of working for the survival of family farms and tropical forests,” said Reed.

Reed and SHI staff—six in Surry and 40 in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama—sign up family farmers for a four-step, five-year program that turns small family farms in Central America from producing one or two crops of corn or beans into land that grows a diverse array of vegetables, fruits and protein sources, and lifts families out of poverty.

For families who graduate from the SHI program—and most do, although it’s not “quick and simple,” Reed said—their farms, varying in size from five to 10 acres to up to 1,100 in Nicaragua, boast vegetables from bok choy to tomatoes, multi-story tree plantations with shade, and fruit trees and shrubs, rice paddies, fish pools, iguana populations, and chicken coops that save eggs and poultry from predators, and spices like ginger, vanilla and black pepper. In high altitudes, farmers also grow cacao and coffee beans.

Farmers feed their families, sell and trade with neighbors and at markets, and use micro-financing to grow small businesses tied to the farms. Graduates of the program see their annual income increase up to tenfold.

However, “our first focus is making sure they have enough to feed themselves,” Reed said.

The five steps are:

Introduce the program and sign up to 10 families in a community. Create a plan based on what will grow and the cost and benefits of each crop.

Use organic, sustainable techniques first on staple crops of corn, beans and cassava, then introduce new crops that provide a balanced diet.

Continue to diversify crops, and introduce the idea of “treating the farm as a business.”

Help farmers connect to markets and develop “small businesses tied to the farms,” like bakeries.

The easiest step of all: graduation.

The first two years are the most difficult, before the soil is “built up.” Pests, which nearly vanish after five years, are treated with natural pesticides. One woman, ready to quit, stuck with the program, Reed said, because her children stopped getting sick from exposure to farm chemicals and grew healthier from a nutritionally balanced diet.

In a survey of the first eight families to graduate from the program, the entire community no longer burned their fields, and each family had trained seven more families. “There had been a tremendous ripple effect,” Reed said.

Reed estimates the overall ripple effect of the 1,700 families graduated or active in the program will spread to 100,000 Central Americans becoming more efficient farmers—out of 2 billion poor people.

“How do we get to the next 2 billion?” she asked.