Laura Alexander, Senior Program Manager and Director of the Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Special Program Support Project at the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA), recently visited the F2F program in the Orinoquía region of Colombia. The purpose of her visit was to provide guidance and oversight as this successful program is winding down. While there, she had an opportunity to get to know some of the farmers who have been honing their agricultural skills by working with the F2F volunteers sent by Purdue University in Indiana to Universidad de los Llanos in Villavicencio. This is what she learned from Eloisa Aguirre in the shade of young trees on Eloisa’s farm.
Eloisa Aguirre is proud to be a campesina. Her family owned and worked a farm in the Colombian countryside until they were displaced by the guerrilla warfare plaguing the country for more than 50 years. Eloisa was only seven years old when they sold their home and moved to the city. She and her family had no land of their own until 10 years ago when the Colombian government gave Eloisa a piece of land that had been confiscated from a narco-trafficker in the Altillanura region.
Eloisa enthusiastically led her family’s efforts to create a productive, working farm. But the soil quality was poor, and like so many others, the armed conflict in Colombia had deprived Eloisa of the knowledge and training she needed to make the farm thrive. After eight years of toiling, her land remained unproductive.
But Eloisa was determined to turn her land into a flourishing farm. When she heard about a F2F workshop in town, she jumped at the opportunity to learn from successful farmers and other experts in agriculture.
Over the past three years, Purdue University (in collaboration with local partner the Universidad de los Llanos in Villavicencio, Colombia) has fielded 35 volunteers, trained 1,169 people and directly assisted 1,822 people. The goal of the program has been to promote rural development to support a sustainable and economically equitable peace in the Orinoquía region of Colombia. As the program draws to a close, this has been accomplished through trainings on sustainable practices and natural resource management, leading to improved agricultural productivity. Skilled volunteers have provided technical assistance to smallholder farmers in agricultural processing, product innovation, and marketing and creating networks that support small farms and markets for local food systems. The recommendations made by F2F volunteers have the potential to strengthen the regional agricultural economy and enable farmers to increase their profit by selling more directly to consumers.
Eloisa has been involved with F2F from the beginning. She worked with volunteers like Carmen DeRusha, who held a training session on organization management and taught the farmers to create and improve local farmers’ groups. Fresh from a scholarship on water management at Cornell University, another F2F Volunteer Tallal Hassan Khan trained locals on harvesting water in their particularly dry region.
A crucial aspect to the F2F program is the ability of volunteers to tailor their trainings to best address the specific challenges and needs of the Colombian people. For Eloisa, the toughest challenge had been her acidic soil. That is, until F2F Volunteer Matilde Paino D’urzo came to Colombia and led workshops on how to create and use a biodigester. Biodigesters are able to recycle manure to create organic fertilizer and compost. As a direct result of these trainings, Eloisa created her own biodigester and within two and a half years Eloisa’s farm was producing plantains, corn, coffee, squash, passion fruit and 85 other crops. Eloisa credits 90% of development on her farm to the F2F program. Eloisa is now entering the next stage of expanding her farm, as she plans to produce chicken, eggs and pork for sale at the local farmers market. By selling her products at this market, Eloisa will engage with customers directly, have more control over her prices and earn more income.
Reflecting on her first F2F training, Eloisa said, “That was the best thing that could happen to us, teaching us how to work the land, how to raise crops and produce food. So ever since that moment, we learned how to make the farm productive.”
The program’s Country Director, Professor Alvaro Campo, remarked on his experience with the consistent high quality of F2F volunteers coming to Colombia, “…we are strict on whom we agree on to come down to Colombia. It’s not a tourist activity, it is a really important issue so we are very strong on that but it has been really amazing the human quality of the volunteers.”
After years of partnering with and learning from F2F volunteers, Eloisa now has the confidence and knowledge to test and implement strategies that will continue to help her farm and her family prosper. Professor Campo continued, “Knowledge is the way to change. No one can take away knowledge from you, once you get the knowledge you get the power, you can make big transformations in your life—that is [the] F2F program.”
The F2F in Colombia's Orinoquía Region is funded by USAID through the F2F Special Program Support Project supported by the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and implemented by Purdue University.