Organic Broadcaster

Longtime organic farmer shares skills as volunteer in Africa

By Tony Ends

Hungry children fed me. Spare frames knelt with me on a reed mat covering a shack’s dirt floor. Thin fingers pushed the few bits of meat and vegetables to my side of the common
rice bowl.

They were Peular refugees from Guinea—hundreds of them, squatting along railroad tracks of a town to which they’d fled in Senegal. In the hot, dry region’s only secondary school, I was the young American Peace Corps teacher. I never forgot their profound signs of respect, the unfathomable depths of their kindness. From them, I learned food was more important than money. I learned dignity can thrive in the midst of poverty.

This winter, 63 years old, I’m going back to volunteer in Africa. My commitment this time is
6 months.

Tony Ends guides a primary school teacher’s use of an Earthway Seeder in the Republic of the Congo. He was there for six months in 2014-2015 in a USDA Food for Education national school lunch project. Photo submitted

Today, everything about my life and me is very different. I’ve had many other teachers, many important lessons across 40 years. I love my wife, Dela, my first mentor in organic agriculture. I love farming and the Wisconsin countryside I’ve shared with her for a quarter century. I love when our son, Joel, comes by for breakfast, or our daughter, Holly, meets us in town to talk over dinner. I love hearing my grandson, Charlie, age 3, call out, “I will help you, Papa!” as he attempts whatever I’m doing in garden or field.

It isn’t easy leaving all I deeply love here in southern Wisconsin. It’s as hard as letting go of crops we tend each growing season when Nature’s cycle runs its course.

Why should I volunteer overseas? Why should anyone who feels a great sense of purpose “in place” leave a full larder, a warm fireside, comfort of family and friends, for a distant land and uncertain purpose? Could my answers become your answers?

All my values for life regarding food and faith, community and vocation, drew from a well of volunteering. Fresh out of college, in a little Midwestern town where I grew up, I was thirsting for the experience the Peace Corps gave me.

It was the Senegalese people in North Africa, 250 students and many of their families, those refugees from Guinea, too, who changed me for life. Their waters of wisdom and social feeling, their noble character and joyful spirit, still refresh my soul—40 years later.

Such deep lessons await any U.S. farmer who thinks he or she must “feed the world.” What the “hungry” world profoundly knows can also enrich Community Supported Agriculture as it’s practiced across this nation.

Volunteering “in” the world re-oriented my thinking about realities of how anyone can truly help others, anywhere. Today, volunteering can broaden vital awareness as to what’s coming when fossil fuels powering every scale of production in American are gone.

I scrambled this summer, even as Dela and I tended our vegetable crops, to work through medical and security clearances for a Peace Corps Response assignment in Guinea. Around weekly fresh vegetable harvest and delivery, I worked in physical and dental exams, plus a long list of tests and vaccines.

Tony Ends shows farmers in Senegal how to build and use a solar food dryer. Photo submitted

Our Scotch Hill Farm is one of the four oldest CSA farms in a central Wisconsin coalition of more than 55 organic growers. The coalition honored all four of us in 2012 as “CSA Pioneers.” When Dela and I embarked on this journey in CSA infancy, however, we weren’t vying for recognition. We weren’t out to change the world. We simply wanted to raise four children in healthful ways. We wanted them to have safe and nutritious food. We wanted each of them to know how to grow that food by organic practices.

We didn’t realize all the practical skills we’d master along the way would one day become a resource needed in countries around the world. Farm life-skills and alternative practices, which conventional U.S. producers today call hobbies or niche marketing, can lift whole communities of people out of desperate circumstances in many parts of the world. We can share:

 How to layer organic matter in compost piles and speed their transformation into rich humus.

 How to employ first hand tools, then walk-behind tools, then tractors—or horses—and implements.

 How to tend families of vegetable crops in rotations with small grains and hay.

 How to add value to raw products by canning, dehydrating, or milling and get a higher price.

 How to carefully manage Nature’s resources that can perpetually sustain this world.

Most people across the globe realize non-renewable resources and fossil fuels, which make chemical fertilizer, petroleum-dependent inputs and conventional production possible, will eventually be depleted. Developing nations in particular know they need organic and sustainable farming techniques. I found this true in Senegal and the Republic of Congo when I started going back to Africa 5 years ago.

I found people everywhere eager to learn what I’ve learned alongside Dela and our children in organic farming. Sometimes we in the U.S. organic farming community don’t fully realize just how vital what we know is. At least, we don’t until we get a chance to share practical knowledge and skills with people who recognize their importance, utility, promise—nations where huge percentages of people are food insecure, malnourished, even starving.

Up until the time I began volunteering, I didn’t think I’d ever go abroad again. Going anywhere beyond where our subscribers, friends or family lived in the States had become out of the question. I devoted my life in marriage to making my children’s world a better place. Farm production expenses, old farm building renovations, a family of seven’s necessities all left no money or time for work or travel overseas.

Then I heard a young acquaintance was going to Senegal as a Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer. The sponsoring program was an international counterpart to the National Cooperative Business Association, America’s oldest cooperative business association. NCBA’s work extends globally through its counterpart called CLUSA.

NCBA CLUSA began supporting international communities in 1945, helping to found CARE, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe. CARE aided rebuilding of war-torn Europe during those years. I grew up in the 1960s seeing CARE public service TV announcements about providing tools and technical assistance the world over.

In CLUSA’s history since World War II, it has worked with more than 85 countries to carry out more than 400 programs. These programs with many partners have helped transform rural communities in need, build democratic institutions, and provide technical assistance.

NCBA CLUSA’s website succinctly describes its international development work. That work “centers on building resilient communities, promoting economic opportunities and strengthening community groups through cooperative principles.” The group has pioneered climate-smart farming techniques in Niger. It has connected coffee co-ops in El Salvador to international buyers. It has trained farmers to cultivate new high-value crops in East Timor.

When CLUSA sent Dela and me to Senegal in January 2012 as Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers, we found lead farmers and technicians all across the country eager to learn composting techniques. Yet everywhere we went, farmers and cooperative gardeners lacked forks to turn beds to speed the composting process.

CLUSA with USAID staff asked me to return on a commercial-grade tool demonstration project with cooperative gardens and village artisans in July 2012. Artisans adapted, duplicated and bettered the production of tools I brought with me.

When Dela and I returned a third time to Senegal on organic pest management and solar food drying assignments respectively in 2014, we found 100 copies of a tool kit had been made and distributed to cooperative gardens in a central region of Senegal. Artisans had even innovatively addressed scarcity of wood and metal in sub-Saharan Africa, adapting a single long-handled metal tube to fit multiple tool heads.

“The core of sustainable development is providing people access to the skills and tools that empower them to articulate, promote and manage sustainable, locally generated solutions,” according to NCBA CLUSA. Dela and I found this expressed over and over in three and four Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer assignments with the organization in Senegal.

Details about CLUSA’s Farmer-to-Farmer program are online at ncba.coop/volunteer-for-farmer-to-farmer. Other programs that welcome skilled and knowledgeable farmer-volunteers include:

VEGA – Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance with the USAID program has sponsored 16,000 volunteer assignments in more than 110 countries over the past 30 years. See farmer-to-farmer.org/content/farmer-farmer-volunteer-interest-form.

Land O’Lakes International Development since 1987 has fielded more than 1,300 volunteers, including nearly 150 of our own staff and cooperative members, to 27 countries. Their John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer Program sends volunteers who are U.S. citizens and green-card holders on short-term assignments to address the needs of agribusinesses, farmers and support organizations.
See lol.avature.net/Careers/SearchJobs/Farmer.

Catholic Relief Services also operates a Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer program, focused mainly in East African nations. Volunteers usually take on 2- to 4-week assignments in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, or Tanzania. Prospective volunteers must first enter their skill and experience information into a data base at farmertofarmer.crs.org/volunteer.

Each time I took Farmer-to-Farmer assignments in Senegal since 2012, I’ve wanted to keep serving African farming people. Village and country life was surprisingly not much changed from my first Peace Corps experience in Senegal in the 1970s.

Implications of one big change, though, hit me hard. Senegal back in 1977 had a population of less than 5.2 million people. Today, it has nearly 16 million people.

Guinea is little different. The 1977 population there of 4.4 million people has ballooned to 12.8 million. An estimated 84 percent of these people are still deriving income from farming, yet little more than 1 in 10 of the people in rural areas has access to electricity.

From an electronic Peace Corps bulletin sent to returned volunteers back in July, I learned of a need in Guinea to help 100,000 school children. The United Nations World Food Program has been helping these primary grade children stay in school and improve attendance through a hot lunch program.

A 2012 UN and government analysis showed that 27.2 percent of households in Guinea are food insecure, with 3.3 percent severely food insecure. The nationwide chronic malnutrition rate among children that same year was 34.5 percent, well above the global emergency level of 15 percent.

Peace Corps Response recruits former volunteers and professionals for high impact, short-term assignments abroad. This summer, they selected me to serve as a field officer with the UN program in Guinea, monitoring and evaluating food and nutrition needs.

I’m taking what I’ve always taken on volunteer assignments to Senegal and the Republic of the Congo in recent years: organic seeds, commercial-grade tools, books and resources, teaching aids and patterns. I hope to encourage school gardens and farms to develop, as well as ongoing curriculum development through parent-teachers associations.

Peace Corps, which marked its 55th anniversary last year, presently is fielding and training more than 7,200 volunteers in 65 countries. They serve as educators and health care volunteers, environmental and economic specialists. About 7 percent work in
agricultural projects.

Average age of volunteers today is 28, but 7 percent are 50 years of age or older. Only about 4 percent are, as I am, a returned volunteer or professional taking a shorter term, high-impact assignment in Peace Corps Response.

Nearly half the Peace Corps volunteers America sends abroad today go to African nations. Hopefully, they learn, as I have, vital lessons from their service. They learn how we’re all connected and depend upon one another.

Guinea, for instance, holds the largest reserves of Earth’s bauxite aluminum ore. Every can of beer or soft drink, every automobile and airplane, countless kitchen and household items in the United States, depend on aluminum mining and manufacture. Alcoa Corporation, based in Pittsburg and the 6th largest manufacturer of aluminum, has operations in Guinea.

As a volunteer with UN partners for 6 months this winter, I am grateful for this chance to give something back for all the ways African people have enriched my life. Volunteering to teach others organic and sustainable agriculture skills has changed my life. It could change yours, too, and positively impact our world.

Tony Ends and his wife, Dela, own and run Scotch Hill Farm, a certified organic farm near Madison, Wis. He is currently teaching farmers in Guinea.

 

From the November | December 2017 Issue

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