Dr. Steve Johnson
This article was originally written and published by Partners of the Americas.
Name: Dr. Steve Johnson
Current title/profession: Crop Specialist at University of Maine Cooperative Extension
Current hometown: Presque Isle, Maine
Areas of expertise: Potato storage, agriculture, higher education
Name of project: Farmer-to-Farmer Caribbean Region
Location of the project: Guatemala
Organization that sent the volunteer: Partners of the Americas
The distance between Maine and Sibinal, Guatemala is over 3,600 miles. Sibinal is a mountainous municipality found at the base of the Tacaná volcano in the department of San Marcos, Guatemala. It has a population of approximately 27,000 people, the majority of whom belong to the Mayan ethnic groups of Mam or Kaqchikel. For the past ten years, the Guatemalan National Potato Federation (FENAPAPA) has supported 2,000 small scale potato producers in the San Marcos region.
Like on some potato farms in Maine, potato producers in Sibinal save seeds. However, seed potatoes in Sibinal have recently developed bacterial and fungi infections. As producers save seeds from season to season, the diseases are transmitted each year, causing significantly smaller potatoes and consistently lower yields. While some producers wanted to explore using high-quality certified seed potatoes, they are expensive and FENAPAPA did not have access to information or technical assistance on how to maintain or produce certified seed potatoes.
In November 2015, Partners of the Americas connected with Dr. Steve Johnson, an expert in potato storage and production with almost 30 years of experience as a crop specialist at the University of Maine, and sent him to Guatemala as a Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer to work directly with FENAPAPA. During the first week of his assignment, Dr. Johnson visited several different plantations and storage buildings. He met with individual producers to assess their main storage and management issues, as well as addressed their production concerns. The following week, Dr. Johnson organzed a two-day training for FENAPAPA producers on how to produce certified seed potatoes. After the workshop, producers would not only be able to improve their potato production, but they also would offer a new product to sell to other producers. Dr. Johnson also conducted workshops on proper management and storage of seed potatoes.
As a result of Dr. Johnson’s visit, FENAPAPA improved their facilities by adding wind and temperature control. He also left a series of other recommendations to greatly improve storage areas. By February 2016, FENAPAPA had already adopted all the recommendations. FENAPAPA producers eagerly await the next potato harvest in October 2016 to see if, finally, their potatoes are disease-free and have increased yields. Dr. Johnson said:
“The trip had a dramatic effect on me. I have a passion for international agriculture, particularly helping people eat better and improve their life through better agricultural practices. Guatemala is a poor nation with half the people living below the poverty line and 15 percent at extreme poverty (various internet sites). The famers I met and hopefully helped were pleased beyond words that someone with knowledge would come to the Guatemala highlands and walk on their farm to help them. The less they had, the more they wanted to give. This would move anyone. More people need to see what I saw, feel what I felt, to realize how fortunate some people are, simply by where they were born. I look forward to returning to Guatemala for future assignments. The Farmer-to-Farmer program is terrific.”