Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Shaking Hands with 30

    To start talking about turning 30, I’m going to throw it back a few years. OK, not a few years, 13 years. Ouch, was it really that long ago? Anyway, in high school I was part of a youth organization called FFA; most people know it as the Future Farmers of America. During my senior year I served on the state-level officer team and got all kinds of neat training on professionalism, etiquette, and even how to properly shake a hand. My fellow officers and I were told that a proper handshake includes “webbage”, referring to good contact of the fleshy area between each person’s thumb and index finger. This is really important information to know because many great things start with a good handshake. Sometimes we need to approach events in our lives with a philosophical handshake.

    Today, February 18th, 2014, I turn 30 years old and I’m here to tell you I am meeting my thirties with webbage, a firm grip, eye contact, and furrowed brow that says, “Nice to meet you. I think we’ll make a good team. Let’s get to work.” And why not? I mean, I’ve spent thirty years getting ready to be 30. Heck, in the last decade I’ve gone to college, gone to war, gone to war again, gotten married, gone to college again, worked in restive South Sudan, and spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. If I am not ready to be thirty by now, I never will be. And if I spend my thirties getting ready to be thirty, I’ll really be in a fix when I get to 40. So I will do no lamenting of the passing of my twenties. I haven’t got time for that kind of self-indulgent nonsense. Oh no, instead I will indulge myself in writing my thoughts on this matter for unknown persons to read about on the internet.

    Sorry for the absence of a segue, but, I like country music. I like country music because I like the sound of acoustic and steel guitars and songs that reflect my affinity for agriculture, working outdoors, “real world issues”, and salt-of-the-earth people. Tim McGraw is a country music singer and he has a tune called My Next Thirty Years. It’s a song about celebrating who and what you are, focusing on what is to come, reflecting on what has passed, and asking the Lord’s blessing on the future. I hadn’t given the song too much thought before, but based on what you’ve read so far, I bet you can guess my choice for the national anthem of February 18, 2014?

    In My Next Thirty Years, Mr. McGraw vows to continue to have a little fun. Me too. I’ve been lucky to see enough of the world to know how much it has to offer and had a little fun along the way. Why would I stop now? My wife is a great traveling partner and we will presumably have a family before long; which I’ve heard adds a whole new dimension of fun to life’s experiences. Except for dirty diapers. I heard these are not fun. Anyway, yes, I intend to have fun after 30. It will just look and feel a little different compared to my former fun.

    Tim also sings about conquering adolescent fears. I heard a version of this line echoed by one of the first friends I made in Texas a few years back. Let’s call him Mark. Mark is older than me and I remember him telling me I was approaching a golden age; an age when youthful insecurities start to fade and make way for real personal growth and happiness in your own skin. (I guess you start having those kinds of conversations in grad school.) I think Mark and Tim's song are right and I have already felt those old fears and insecurities slipping away. Fears and insecurities are like a cold, wet blanket thrown on the fire we need to fuel our success. So good riddance. Don’t come back. Stupid fears.

   There is also a little bit of angst in the McGraw song as he says, "Find a world of happiness without the hate and fear. Figure out just what I’m doing here, in my next thirty years.” Well, that thar is a tall order. And no wonder he was a little anxious. I know a lot of people older than I who can’t let go of hate and fear. I see people on the left calling the people on the right names like bigot, as if that helps make anyone become as open-minded as the oh so tolerant name caller. I see people on the right questioning the patriotism of people on the left as though anything short of their narrow prescription of national loyalty is the highest form of treason. But I digress. Or, rather, we all tend to digress, drift, and degenerate. My goal is to do these things less than I used to. Not because I want to, but because I feel like I should. I mean, I’m 30 years old for crying out loud! (See, I’ve already gotten used to calling myself 30. *pats self on back*)

    And what of Tim’s search to find out just what he’s doing here? I’m not going to over-think this one. It’s not very complicated or at least I think it needn’t be. I’m here to be a good husband and try to improve at it. I’m here to do meaningful work in a career that makes a difference in people’s lives. I’m here to raise a healthy family that aspires to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. I’m here to get better at understanding first and arguing never more rarely. l’m here to find inner peace and assurance through the good Word. That’s it. Simple as this. No reason to overthink it. After all, I’m only 30. (Dang, that doesn’t seem as legitimate an argument for over-simplification as, “Hey, I’m only in my 20’s”.)

    In case you hadn’t noticed, I am entering my next 30 years with a bit of confidence and purpose. This is because, generally speaking, I have learned to understand why I do what I do and why I don’t do what I don’t do. You only get so many chances to make yourself and the world better. Here’s to making the most of all of them. 

I close this essay with words from the final stanza from Mr. McGraw’s former #1 hit.

My next thirty years will be the best years of my life
Raise a little family and hang out with my wife
Spend precious moments with the ones that I hold dear
Make up for lost time here, in my next thirty years

Thursday, February 13, 2014

10 Months in 5 Paragraphs

Slowly But Surely
Day One at Demo Farm
Hello? Is anybody still there? It has been nearly a year since I have blogged, so I surely understand if you have stopped checking in for updates. I don’t know exactly why I stopped chronicling this Peace Corps experience. I guess with blogging you don’t really get much feedback about what you are sharing and I don’t care to feel like I am talking to myself (except for when I am intentionally talking to myself). However, I do recall being taught that reflecting on experiences is an important part of internalizing the lessons learned from them. So…I’m back.
Food Afield

Last I shared a blog, I was about to embark on helping the farmers’ group implement a climate change adaptation and alternative livelihoods grant project; one for which I helped them earn the funding. We wrapped up that project back in October and wow what a hectic seven months. You see, there was also a commercial-scale aquaponics project in the works for the group prior to my arrival and the donor finally got around to starting it at the exact time the funds were awarded for our grant. It is taxing enough to coax people with low incomes into volunteering time to a project when they could/should be using that time toward their regular livelihood activities. It is doubly difficult to do this when there are two projects that need lots of attention. But, we did it. After months of digging holes, slashing weeds, mixing and carrying concrete, procuring equipment, setting up an office, and hosting Farmer Field Schools, we have much to show for our sore muscles and strained household finances.
Clearing Brush from the Farm
Because of the efforts over the last ten months, the group now has a one-acre organic demonstration farm equipped with water catchment and drip irrigation. With the improved equipment we purchased they are also able to more efficiently manufacture value-added products. Several members of the community attended our Farmer Field Schools and learned about the impact climate change is having on local rainfall and some practical on-farm mitigation strategies. Here are some photos that may help you visualize this project.

The farmers’ group was responsible for implementing the climate change adaptation and alternative livelihoods grant, but the aquaponics project is being managed by a sub-contractor of the donor. One of the conditions for receiving the system was that we provide an in-kind contribution of labor to construct the unit. I have never seen so many 40, 50, and 60+ year old men and women work like I saw these Jamaicans work on this project. We dug holes with pick axes and shovels and inside the holes we built forms and poured concrete for tilapia fish tanks. Since we could only afford occasional help from a backhoe operator, we also leveled land with farming hoes, shovels, and wheel barrows. When it was time to pour concrete, it was men and women sweating in the sun until clothes were soaked and biceps were burning. Finally, the laborious part is over and yesterday a few thousand tilapia fingerlings were delivered and soon hundreds of seedlings will be planted and then transplanted into the grow beds. The system takes up less than a quarter acre, but can produce as much lettuce as 2 acres under regular terrestrial cultivation. With ideal conditions, the group should be able to sell 2400 tilapia fish per year in addition to the vegetables.

The aquaponics system will become an important source of income generation for the group, but it will be some time before members receive benefits commensurate with the level of effort they put into this project. It has definitely caused me to adopt a more nuanced view on the mandatory in-kind contributions demanded of low-income persons in developing countries. I think donors need to be careful that they don't mistake local cash and in-kind contributions for real beneficiary buy-in or ownership. After all, these are people whose livelihoods are fragile enough that one unexpected event can send them reeling. What if this project fails because of an error the donor made or a design flaw in this rather experimental aquaponics system? Will these men and women be reimbursed for all the valuable time donated to a failure they are not responsible for? Remember, they could have been using that time to work their farm or do day labor. This is definitely something I will consider as I proceed with my career in international agricultural development. Just one of many lessons learned from my time here in Jamaica. 

Putting on the Roof
That's all for now. Sorry for the hiatus and that this blog is so long yet too short to adequately describe the last ten months. Tune in again soon as I describe my philosophy on hitting the milestone of 30 years on this funny planet.

Brian Taking in the View
Had to Finish Roof by Sundown

Brian (left) teaching at Farmer Field School
Going over the Basics of Composting
Another Farmer Field School
Practicing a Crop Rotation Plan
The Happy Participants

Well of course we carried concrete ingredients up the hill
One bag at a time...again and again and...
Carry 94lb bags of cement up that hill earns instant credibility

Lining out the concrete pad
Mixing it up into a slurry
I sometimes wonder if we do anything good for our backs
Brining up a 1000 gal tank
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..."

One of four
Setting up the drip irrigation

Connecting the tanks

Connecting the main lines
Mainlines and sub-mains running down the farm

Our First Crop of Sorrel
Lining out the aquaponics system
Lots of digging
Pick axes, flat shovels, and lots of rocks
An air conditioned ride home from the work site
I will forever be impressed by these women

Lots of tasty meals came from this kitchen

Brian and I digging tilapia tanks
Yes They Can

The Concrete Line
Forms for the tilapia tanks
Things are looking pretty serious now
Cooking and waiting for the baby fish
Brian using his field expedient grater to prep some pumpkin

I think Brian was on there before the truck came to a halt

Opton and the Tilapia

Grow babies, grow!
Soon to be a protein and vegetable producing machine!
It rained a bit, but couldn't dampen any spirits

Taking refuge in the new nursery house

Sunday, April 28, 2013

When Preparation Meets Opportunity

Me (left), Farmers (the gentlemen), and NEPA representatives presenting the check. We clean up good!

I have alluded a few times in previous posts about a project in the works or good news I hope to reveal in the near future. Well, that time has finally come. It is a long process that started three months after I arrived in Bluefields, Jamaica. Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013 marked the beginning of the Bluefields Climate Adaptation Technology for Organic Agro-business Development project. This is the first grant won by the Westmoreland Organic Farmers Society (WOFS) and I have taken great pleasure in facilitating the process from the conceptualization phase to now.

Back in August I led a needs assessment and priority ranking exercise with WOFS. It was an eye opening experience for me and the farmers. Through the process we all learned that the collective needs and priorities were not exactly what we assumed they may be. The greatest of these needs were water, seeds, fencing, what they call farm houses (sturdy sheds), and agro-processing capacity. This new knowledge allowed us to come to a consensus about what we would like to accomplish over the next two years.

As if providentially ordained, two months later the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) of Jamaica approached the Bluefields community to participate in an alternative livelihoods grant program. During a workshop NEPA explained that coastal communities like Bluefields will be the first to suffer the effects of climate change and alternatives to marine livelihoods will be necessary to adapt to these changes. Among the list of alternatives proffered were organic farming and agro-processing…cha ching! The workshop also informed community groups and organizations of the application process and some of the characteristics of a good proposal. Here was an opportunity to capture what we wanted to work toward in much less time.

The NEPA workshop occurred while I was in the U.S. for my sister’s wedding, so I got all this information second-hand. Then, I got dengue fever from a mosquito and was pretty much useless for two weeks. However, because of that handy-dandy needs assessment we did so recently, it was easy for the group to coalesce around a concept for the proposal. It wasn’t long before I had a first draft and a budget prepared. After a few rounds of revisions, the key leadership of WOFS approved and then we presented the proposal to the entire organization. With their consent, we then sent the proposal in to NEPA and let the waiting game begin.

More members of the group on the day our project began
In late February, we finally got a letter from NEPA congratulating us on being selected as a successful applicant. Two months later (last Tuesday), we got the first check.

I am skipping over a lot of little administrative hurdles we had to cross in the meantime: budget reduction and revisions, amending indicators, negotiating a letter of agreement, and more. In the end we are getting about $12,000USD to install a demonstration farm with rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation, purchase quality seeds, build a fence and a shed, and purchase materials and equipment to boost the agro-processing enterprise of the group. We will also be conducting a series of Farmer Field Schools to reach out to other farmers and fisher folk in the community. Don’t worry; I will devote another blog post to getting more descriptive about the objectives and activities of the project.

Ultimately, this is what I took a 90% pay cut to join Peace Corps to do. I wanted to experience development work absent the six-figure experts. Where goals and objectives and activities are generated from the ground up rather than through the aims of a hulking bilateral or multilateral development organization. The amount of funds I have helped WOFS win could easily be lost as a rounding error in many development projects; I have worked on such projects. However, every dime in this one is going where the beneficiaries want it to go and you certainly can’t say that about a lot of projects around the world.

I am really blessed to have been sent to live and work in this little corner of Jamaica with the great people of WOFS. I can’t wait to share more about this and other projects we are undertaking.