Where have I been?
Astute readers will notice that this blog has been logjammed in limbo for exactly two years. Well, I’m back. Back to work, back to the US, back to Thused. Back in 2011, I began another blog named ‘Jon in Haiti’ to chronicle my activities as an agricultural development worker in post-earthquake Haiti. Though that blog picked up some decent posts, it fell by the wayside as the emotional burden of working in Haiti made reflection and recollection too exhausting. I did write some poems (which I will eventually post to the sister poetics blog), but all blogging/journaling/reporting was halted. For the curious, I am reposting an entry from my Haiti blog below.
Now, things have changed. I not only left Haiti, but also left Israel. Who knows when I will return. I took a job working on algae-based wastewater treatment with a biotech startup, and the general outlines of my life have blurred and shifted somewhat. You may notice some changes in my topics of choice. I hope you remain interested. I look forward to updating the site with improved regularity. Now, without further ado,
Spaghetti For Breakfast
(reposted from joninhaiti.wordpress.com March 3rd, 2011)
If you were a Haitian farmer, you’d be smelling the air for rain. You’d be counting up your cash, watching the price of seeds crest to its yearly peak. Maybe you’d be checking the few buckets of beans you have leftover from the meager December harvest, tossing out the rotten losses and pulverizing the fat little grain borers you find crawling through your stores, preparing for the planting. Probably you’d sit down and sharpen the blade of your hoe, imagining its broad face slicing through the wet muck under the measured force of your own arms. Now, as all year round, you wait for rain to grow your food.
Haitians farm as they have farmed, more or less, for the last three hundred years. Not much has changed. Some farmers have access to modern inputs such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, but these are largely misused (sometimes dangerously) for lack of training. Tractors are available sparsely, mainly for hire, at high prices and steered by often unscrupulous operators. With no access to credit or modern seed and crop storage systems, risk-averse farmers follow the tide of the market like flotsam, and find themselves smashed thin between the rocks of supply and demand. The formula is to buy the seeds that others buy, when others buy, plant what others plant, when others plant, to harvest when others harvest and to sell when others sell. As the rains of the wet season vanish through thinning soils, the markets flood with cheap manioc and maize. Buy high and sell low. This is not a formula to farm by.
Yields are not really the problem, at least not directly. Haitians, for the most part, have enough to eat, mainly because their first concern is to grow enough to get their families through the year. Moreover, cheap food is available aplenty; foreign food. This, of course, is the rub. When you are a small country with an anachronistic economy, you cannot compete with foreign farmers. While the developed world enjoys the spoils of such wonders as mechanization, agronomic research, economies of scale, public water projects, farm subsidies and agribusiness, you are left to fend for yourself, heir to centuries of now-irrelevant farming tradition. You are, in effect, a blacksmith’s stand inside a hardware store.
So, you eat spaghetti for breakfast. American spaghetti. Middle-class farmers in Iowa can outcompete you on your own land. Bill Clinton offers his apology. The Dominican Republic imports 1 million eggs per day into Haiti (that’s almost one egg per person per week), despite the fact that nearly every Haitian wakes up to the sound of squabbling hens. When there is no cheap chicken feed, the hens don’t eat. When they don’t eat, they don’t lay eggs. In the DR, massive commercial coops produce cheap eggs by the ton. Haiti simply cannot compete, and thanks to NAFTA, there is no recourse.
What’s the solution? Cuban-style revolution? Isolationism? Pass the throne back to Baby Doc? Easier. Learn to play the game. Modernize. Develop water catchments that store water year-round. Invest in drip irrigation. Grow three crops a year instead of one. Grow cash crops to boost revenue. Purchase pest-resistant varieties bred by first-world agronomists. Learn to stabilize and enrich your soil. Reforest. Organize. Learn to make compost and seed storage systems. Build cool storage facilities and learn to prevent post-harvest losses. Diversify. Develop credit systems. Invest wisely. Export. In short, get with the program. This is not easy. You have to take risks.
This model demands a solid foundation: massive capital investment, training and professional experience. On a large scale, it requires a functional government. These are all things that are hard to come by in Haiti. Nevertheless, the international community has committed to Haiti, at least for now. Let’s put the money in the right place.
This is what Tevel B’Tzedek/IsraAID has begun working on, with the help of the Arava R&D. This is the project which I have been given the privilege to implement. We will try to build carefully, step by step. For now, it’s a small project, but it’s part of the greater Haitian project. My hope is that we (and Haiti) will get the help that we need.