Reaching Out: Kansas State University Agricultural Economic Volunteers with Farmer-to-Farmer

| Mary Lou Peter

This article was originally posted by K-State Research and Extensions News and written by Mary Lou Peter here.

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Ask Brian Coffey how he started his summer and he can tell you about faraway lands and hard-working people.

For several weeks, the Kansas State University assistant professor used his expertise in agricultural economics as a volunteer in Tajikistan with the Farmer-to-Farmer Program, working with local fruit and vegetable growers to encourage strategic marketing and business planning.

The USAID-funded program provides technical assistance by U.S. volunteers to farmers, farm groups, agribusinesses and other agriculture-related entities in developing and transitional countries with the goal of promoting food security, agricultural processing, production and marketing in sustainable ways. Farmer-to-Farmer Tajikistan is implemented by ACDI/VOCA, an economic development organization with work in southern Tajikistan targeting development of producer organizations and rural enterprises.

“Many farmers grew up when present-day Tajikstan was a state of the Soviet Union. In those days, agricultural production was centrally planned. Farmers in the region produced crops and delivered the harvest to a set location at a particular time,” Coffey said.

In the 20-plus years since its independence, the country has been moving toward a market economy and now farmers have some flexibility about what they grow and where they sell. That freedom also brings risk, as there is no guaranteed outlet for their crops.

 “One of the main goals of my involvement,” Coffey said, “was to help farmers begin to think through production decisions by first thinking about what consumers want and are willing to pay for. Another goal was to encourage farmers to think in terms of profit and loss and not just yield.”

That comes pretty naturally to Coffey, who teaches production economics, a course required of all undergraduate students seeking a major or minor in agricultural economics or agribusiness at Kansas State University. His major areas of research are in livestock economics and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

“I enjoy learning more about how we can effectively teach undergraduates to appreciate, understand, and apply economic principles,” he said.

A particular challenge with his volunteer work in Tajikistan was that many working-age men have left to work in other countries, leaving women to raise the family and care for their crops. Some of the women manage commercial operations. Others are caring for small plots beside their homes and consider the crops a way to supplement their families’ diet. Those tending small plots often have surplus fruits or vegetables or excess land that is not being used.

“We were trying to find strategies that would convert these excesses into cash income. Even small amounts of cash could make a big difference,” Coffey said, adding that work in this area helps develop rural enterprises, plus empowers women by teaching them strategic marketing and business principles.

“I am always amazed at the role that culture plays in determining what economic strategies could be successful. It is so easy to assume that what works in one place should work everywhere. That is not how the world works,” he said, adding that even in short-term assignments, it is essential to start by understanding the local situation as best you can.

There are often good reasons why people are not doing some things that an outsider would think are obvious paths to success, he said. “It is always eye-opening to see that people around the world face so many challenges specific to their locations.”

Almost anyone can volunteer, said Coffey, adding that Farmer-to-Farmer is looking for volunteers with expertise in agriculture, agribusiness or business, including planting, crop care, harvest, storage, marketing, accounting and other areas. 

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