No slowing down for USAID's nearly 30-year-old Farmer-to-Farmer program

Animal epidemiologist David Henzler visits a market at Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Photo by: David Henzler

Charles Mitchell doesn’t do vacations. He would rather go on a 60-mile bike ride than lounge on a beach. Mitchell inspects and certifies organic farms for his day job, runs his own 50-acre organic homestead on the side and recently returned from a three-week trip to Myanmar, where he chewed betel leaf for the first time and helped show fellow farmers how to make bio-fungicides with locally available ingredients.

David Henzler’s own children aren’t sure what he does for a living, though they know he flies to places like Kenya and Kyrgyzstan to help veterinarians prevent the spread of avian influenza and other animal-borne diseases.

“They call me ‘the chicken healer,’” said Henzler, a published research scientist who holds a doctorate in veterinary science.

Lisa Hammond lives in Northern California, works in Southern California and travels regularly to Mexico for her full-time job. In her spare time she heads to countries like Bangladesh and Mali, bringing with her an expertise in running global programs that combat human trafficking and children’s sex trade, to offer organizational and management expertise to women-led food production and income-generating enterprises.

Meet a few of Winrock International’s Farmer-to-Farmer — or F2F — volunteers: three accomplished, working professionals with diverse backgrounds, a wealth of knowledge and the desire to do a little more. The three participants in the F2F, a volunteer agriculture technical assistance program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have logged a combined 23 short-term assignments in 18 countries on three continents between them.

With F2F approaching its 30th year as a quietly effective mainstay of U.S. public diplomacy, Winrock International — an F2F implementer since 1991 — asked volunteers, the program’s founder and F2F managers at USAID what makes the program sustainable and why F2F participants do what they do.

Congress and F2F

Known officially as the “John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer” program, was originally funded in 1985, after former Congressman Bereuter returned from Central America, where he’d met with farmers struggling to modernize and adapt to the de-collectivization of arable land. Bereuter felt he might convince some of the experienced farmers from his heavily agricultural district in Nebraska to volunteer in Central America.

“I went back to D.C. and I found to my surprise that something called the Farmer-to-Farmer program had been authorized long ago but never funded,” Bereuter, who retired from Congress in 2004 after 26 years in office, told Winrock.

Eighteen months later, he had convinced USAID to give it a try.

Set to turn 30 next year, F2F has fielded 16,000 volunteers from across the U.S. to work in 112 different countries. It now draws upon a variety of experts ranging from organic farmers like Mitchell, veterinary scientists like Henzler, management professionals like Hammond, and successful agribusiness executives like Bill Wolfe — a Winrock volunteer from Iowa who focuses on microcredit and market access for farmers — and Jim Faber, another Winrock volunteer from Idaho with years of expertise running commercial farms.

Over the last 10 years alone, the program has provided an estimated $54.1 million worth of what would have been billable time and resources donated by experienced crop, livestock and poultry farmers, aquaculture specialists and established agribusiness consultants, as well as extension agents and staff from land grant universities.

Winrock, for example, has fielded 5,100 volunteers assigned to work in 55 different countries. The program covers travel, expenses and translation services for volunteer trips, which typically last two to three weeks and are structured around specific needs expressed by host organizations in developing countries.

People-to-people: Sharing expertise

Forging connections with people across continents on a personal, one-on-one level is at the crux of the program, and is one of many aspects that distinguish volunteering with F2F from a paid consultancy, said Demetria Arvanitis, Winrock’s director of volunteer technical assistance.

“The people-to-people aspect of it results in profound change,” Arvanitis said.

Arvanitis recalled an early Winrock F2F assignment involving a dairy farmer volunteer who traveled from Missouri to Russia in response to a request for technical advice on livestock and milk production. After the two weeks ended, the hosts and volunteers remained in touch, and the Russian farmers ended up visiting the Americans and maintaining the relationship.

“It opens up the conversation about development and changes people’s vision of the world,” Arvanitis said. “It’s pretty powerful.”

Lisa Hammond, a business and finance expert who has traveled to South Asia and North Africa for Winrock as an F2F volunteer, described her two F2F experiences as an eye-opening life memory.

“I think a lot of what we think about the world, and how we don’t understand why people aren’t more advanced — you can see it, understand that the people are smart and willing and friendly and hospitable, and I think it dispels, when you look at politics and the world, some of the stereotypes and racism that is out there.”

During trips, F2F volunteers have taken more than a few bucket showers, eaten unexpected foods, slept in yurts and occasionally tossed their scopes of work out the window after landing, learning about the most urgent challenges faced by local farmers, producers and cooperative members who requested their help.

Adaptation and flexibility

Recalibrating plans and activities based on fluid needs, improvising and thinking on your feet is expected of F2F volunteers.

“Flexibility is the name of the game,” said Erin Baize, F2F program analyst at USAID.

Experts like Hammond, Mitchell, Henzler, Wolfe and Faber can — and do — regularly pull down consulting contracts that pay well, but that also come with a set agenda and firm deliverables. Volunteering through F2F is different, Baize said, because it enables technical experts an opportunity to closely interact, listen and, if necessary, customize their responses, activities and assistance to address the needs they discover after hitting the ground and connecting with their hosts.

“These are people who can do this work for a fee yet they choose to do it as volunteers,” said Baize, who managed F2F programs for five years at CNFA before moving to USAID. “It’s a much different experience. The program pays attention to making sure there is a real connection between the volunteer and the host organization that they’re supporting.”

As Charles Mitchell, a farmer with 26 years of experience who has done 10 F2F assignments: “You’ve got to look with your own eyes and see what the problems are.”

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Mitchell believes it’s important to first meet the farmers, listen and adapt as soon as he arrives. Once he gets the gist of what a host organization is looking for, “I burn the midnight oil and put a presentation together that responds to what they need and want,” he said.

Learning from other farmers

Mitchell recently traveled to Myanmar, where he met with rural rice farmers mired in debt to pesticide companies. After he learned that farmers’ plants were being affected by fungal diseases during the rainy season, Mitchell quickly designed a hands-on tutorial on how to make bio-fungicides out of relatively inexpensive and easy-to-find ingredients. A few farmers glued themselves to his elbow, asking him to clarify his fungicide recipes and taking copious notes, wanting to make sure they had the ratios right.

“Farmers learn from other farmers,” Mitchell said. “Out of those 200 farmers that participated in the [Myanmar] activity, if I can get just one of them to adopt something new, and they see successes over two or three years, that’s how this stuff grows. Everyone else will be watching how they do.”

Many F2F assignments are designed specifically to focus on supporting the needs of women-led growing and producing groups in countries where women and other smallholder farmers are marginalized. Program-wide over the past decade, about 40 percent of those receiving assistance through F2F are women; about 20 percent of F2F volunteers are women, according to USAID. Bangladesh is a case in point, said Hammond, who worked with Winrock on a unique, five-week F2F assignment in which she sought ways to support increased involvement of women in agricultural pursuits, with the goal of leveraging F2F volunteers to link to those groups in the future.

Women in Bangladesh must bribe more people with more money in order to sell or transport products, Hammond said.

“For women, just going out of the household is sometimes frowned upon, which is why Farmer-to-Farmer works a lot on small gardens and homestead gardening,” she said. “So women can participate at least in growing and getting a little … income.”

Strength in simplicity

One of the keys to its longevity is F2F’s simplicity, said Gary Alex, F2F program manager at USAID.

“It’s short-term volunteer technical assistance,” Alex said. “There are no subsidies or free giveaways that make hosts anxious to work with us. They asked for a volunteer because they really want to make change and can really see themselves doing it.”

The program’s original namesake, former U.S. Rep. Bereuter, who worked as president and chief executive officer of the Asia Foundation after leaving politics, and who remains actively involved in global food security issues as an advisor to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said he regards F2F as his greatest achievement in Congress.

On a dollar-for-dollar basis, the U.S. receives far more value from the Farmer-to-Farmer program than any of its other foreign assistance programs, Bereuter told Winrock.

“Our agricultural capacity in the U.S. is unmatched in the world,” he said. “We have this great pool of talent. Some of it is practical, on-the-farm experience; some come from our land grant institutions and agricultural extension programs. It is one of the things we can share with the world as people try to move to sustainable agriculture practices. Farmer-to-Farmer is a very practical way to do that and it costs us so very little.”

Hammond, Henzler and Mitchell represent a changing demographic among F2F volunteers over the past five years, as the program’s appeal expands among mid-career, working professionals. The transition stems in part from growing demand for increased technical expertise in the agriculture sector in developing countries, said USAID’s Baize, who monitors the program’s impact using 27 separate indicator criteria.

Alex said the program is poised to increase its average number of annual F2F assignments per year from around 600 currently to more than 700 per year over the next few years, thanks to continued funding, currently at approximately $15 million per year, through the Farm Bill, and the enthusiastic work of the agency’s implementing partners.

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Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

About the author

  • Timothy May

    Timothy D. May is a journalist who has worked for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times; his recent work has been published in Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor magazine and The Washington Post, among other news outlets. He has worked as a human rights researcher for the Enough Project and communications director and consultant for Winrock International in South Sudan.