Scholar is hopeful for sustainable farming

Elizabeth Stoeger, Staff Writer

Tropical forests are being destroyed at the rate of one acre per second and biodiversity is similarly affected with seven species going extinct every day.

On the eve of Earth Day, Florence Reed presented her lecture, “Making a Real Difference on Earth Day and Every Day,” in Ice Auditorium.

Reed is the 2016 Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, a program that brings together non-academic specialists in various fields with colleges across the nation.

In 1997, Reed founded Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), an organization that aims to save the forests and foster biodiversity by teaching farmers in Belize, Honduras, and Panama to practice organic, eco-friendly farming rather than slash-and-burn farming.

Reed said, “When we talk about shifting cultivation, in many cases we’re talking about slash-and-burn farming.”

Slash-and-burn farming is a method widely used by farmers and consists of cutting down an area of forest, burning it, and using the ash that is left as fertilizer. When that is washed away, so is the soil and the farmer repeats the cycle in another area of forest until eventually the soil is completely depleted and the forest can never be revived.

In addition to the destructive slash-and-burn method, the pesticides and chemical fertilizers typically used in farming can cause various forms of cancer in the farmers and birth defects in their children.

Using these chemicals can also cause devastation of the topsoil, death of the microorganisms that live in the soil, and reduction in the overall viability of the soil. This often leads to drought, flooding, and other disasters that further denigrate the environment.
Despite this, Reed believes there is still hope.

“I think that we still can turn things around and get back to having a healthy planet that will support all of us,” said Reed, “The reason that I’m optimistic is because of the 2,500 farmers who are currently or have been through Sustainable Harvest’s program.”

SHI teaches organic farming practices through a five-phase program.

The program begins by having farmers make realistic goals for the farm. Next farmers learn the practices that will transform their farm by working with a field trainer.

The motto of the program is that “healthy soils are what create healthy crops” and environmental health “all starts with the soil.”

The third phase deals with ways to increase the economic income of the farm. For example, the herb Culantro can often fetch a considerable sum of money each week at local markets.

Then they focus on developing the entrepreneurial skills of the farmers and encourage them to take part in community leadership.

The last phase is graduation from the program, which takes about 5 years to complete.

One prime example of the power of SHI to transform both the local ecosystem and the lives of the farmers they assist is the story of Edilberto Mendoza.

Mendoza inherited a piece of farmland he was told would never yield any crops. By graduation from the SHI program, he had a thriving farm that grew dozens of different crops, was able to improve his family’s diet, and made enough money to send his daughters to high school.
In the 18 years since SHI was established, they have planted 3.7 million trees and saved about 90,000 acres of tropical forest.