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Mikkel Pates, Forum News Service, Published June 28 2013

Northwood, N.D., based organization helps Haitian farmers grow own food

NORTHWOOD, N.D. — It’s an unwieldy acronym — IFOSuD.

The letters stand for International Farming Organization for Sustainable Development, an organization started by North Dakota farmers and ranchers to help Haitians emerge from an earthquake, and perhaps grow enough food to feed themselves — and their souls.

The daisy chain of connections that led to IFOSuD started in 2002 when John Draxton, then a Northwood beef rancher, went on a short-term teaching and supply mission to Haiti. The mission, through Community Bible Church of Northwood, was hosted by a young Haitian student named Josue Cesar.

After the mission trip, Draxton went home to the ranch in Northwood and life went on. Cesar went on to study agronomy at the University of Haiti and then got a master’s degree in microfinance from Brussels, Belgium.

But on Jan. 12, 2010, the great earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people in Haiti would bring them back together.

Checking on a friend

After the quake, Draxton reached out to see whether his friend, Cesar, was OK.

As it turned out, Cesar, then 28, had barely escaped. Cesar had been home in Haiti for a Christmas break. The night of the disaster, he had been in his house, about to take a shower. But the water wasn’t working and so — miraculously — he had stepped outside to see whether others in the neighborhood were having water problems. Suddenly, the earthquake hit and collapsed his house.

Cesar at the time had an agronomy job lined up in Montreal, Quebec, but decided instead to stay in Haiti to help his people. A year later, Cesar flew to the U.S. and spent Christmas with Draxton. Cesar presented a plan to Draxton and the two would form IFOSuD — with a goal of increasing farming practices and self-sufficiency.

In March 2012, Draxton was connected to Vessel Christian Foundation of Grand Forks as a 501(c)(3) corporation. In early 2013, Draxton formed the Friends of IFOSuD Haiti in the U.S. to raise money and awareness.

Draxton, who left ranching in 2010 to start a trucking company in the oil fields in Williston with his wife, Katy, was still strongly connected to relatives and friends in the Northwood area, who support him on the IFOSuD mission.

Info and certified seed

Haiti is known as one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. It is agriculturally rich in resources, but the nation’s exports are dominated by T-shirts and clothes.

“There’s kind of a sweatshop thing going on,” Draxton says.

Even before the earthquake, six out of 10 suffered chronic hunger. After the earthquake, there has been food aid, but the people are in a major food shortage.

About 60 percent of Haitian citizens are farmers, but they produce less than 5 percent of their own food.

Most farmers live on one or two acres. In the Leogane area, the land is relatively flat and rich. Most farmers raise sugar cane, a perennial that’s harvested every 14 months. Much of the sugar is processed by a Cuban sugar company with a factory in Haiti. Otherwise, the Haitians grow black beans, corn and rice. Most use saved seeds or buy from neighbors.

Draxton and Cesar thought the farmers could benefit greatly by using certified seed and more sophisticated farming practices. Among other things, they think farmers in that tropical zone should be able to plant three or four crops a year of corn, beans, rice and other vegetables. They typically plant one or two crops, but some fields were left idle after the earthquake.

Ag intervention

“They need an intervention, a boost to get going again,” Draxton says.

For the first nine months of the project, Draxton and a few others donated money to the cause. Essentially, they bought seed for the farmers, rented a tractor a couple of times and bought some fertilizer, Draxton says. “We’re showing them a test plot within their field, compared to what they’re growing. We wouldn’t give them certified seed until they were taught how to take care of it,” Draxton says.

In March 2012, Cesar identified a team of eight young, educated men to help staff IFOSuD on a volunteer basis. Most have an agronomy background and some taught in an agronomy college that had been destroyed by the earthquake. Most work part-time for IFOSuD in addition to their full-time jobs with nongovernment organizations

The team identified 150 small-scale farmers who could be helped by the effort. The team offers farmer field schools, held weekly for 50 farmers. in each of three communities: Buteau-Bossan, Darbonne and Corail le Maire in the Leogane District, which is analogous to a county.

They teach “objective thinking” and a four-step process that allows farmers to see symptoms of a problem — with insects, for example — to ask themselves why it is happening, decide on interventions and take action at a proper time. In addition to the technical help, the teams offer Christian teaching, which is a priority for Draxton.

Newfound cooperation

Besides black beans, corn, peas and rice, the team helps farmers grow vegetables including Swiss chard, carrots, peppers, eggplant, onions and more. The farmers manually build trenches for irrigation, using machetes and hoes. In one of the drier areas, IFOSuD hopes to install two drip irrigation systems that could serve multiple farmers.

“They want farmers to work in cooperation with each other because previous to IFOSuD, they didn’t,” Draxton says.

IFOSuD is trying to work out deals with nongovernment organizations to dig subsidized water wells. That’s a challenge.

“They were in the middle of drilling one last year when Hurricane Isaac came through,” Draxton says.

The organization bought baby laying hens that were delivered in May. “Josue told me that every farm will get 1.3 eggs,” Draxton says, bemused by the mathematics of it. The farmers will grow crops that can be fed to the chickens, he says.

“Josue is teaching them how to do it, and hopefully, they will all have them in their backyard,” Draxton says. “That’s the scope of the whole thing, how to be self-sufficient.”

Grow and protect

The farmers have increased their yields by an average of 70 percent — some more — through the use of certified seed and improved seeding population, fertilizer timing, irrigation and pest control. They’ve been hampered by lack of credit. Loans from banks or micro-credit agencies tend to be one-month loans, ill-suited for farming needs.

“You have to be so wealthy to get a loan that you don’t need a loan,” Draxton says. Leogane, a city of 250,000, has two banks. Northwood, a town of about 900, has five banks. Landholdings are fragmented and rural labor has migrated to cities. Land ownership laws are iffy. Taxes are reportedly high, compared with benefits.

The farmers initially couldn’t believe they could grow vegetables in their most fertile ground, Draxton says. Once they realized they could, they raised the question of how they were going to protect the vegetables from thieves. “We said, ‘You’re going to have to look out for each other,’” he says.

IFOSuD hopes to double its impact to 300 farmers in 2013.

Nonprofit entity

Problems have arisen with soil testing, mostly from Haiti’s refusal to allow samples to leave the country.

IFOSuD has been looking at ways to test the soil while it’s still in Haiti, perhaps setting up a basic laboratory there.

Part of the Friends of IFOSuD board — Draxton, Preston Dahl, Mark Korsmo, Mike Dahlen and Laurie Berg, all of the Northwood area — traveled to Haiti in March to mark the first anniversary of the program and to lay future plans.

Dahl says he was impressed with the excitement of farmers who have become convinced they are “part of a progressive thing,” and want to share information. “One of them said that in two years, they thought they could feed our own town with our own food,” he says, adding, that, as a farmer, he is convinced that Haiti is “not going to steal our export markets.”

Korsmo says just thinking about how the Haitian farmers have been surviving — with a machete and a hoe on a few acres, and old seed — makes him wonder. “You have no history, no teaching no knowledge, nowhere to go.”

Draxton enjoys seeing the progress in the farming sphere, but he’s frank about his ultimate goal: “We want to evangelize them,” he says, flatly.

“We’re all Christians,” Draxton says of the Friends of IFOSuD, an ecumenical group. “But if no one changes anything in Haiti, our country sends millions of dollars to them (for relief) and nothing changes. We believe that, if farmers get in there with entrepreneurialism, that could change Haiti from being a welfare country to being a producing country.”

Donors put up $25,000 in March and the board is looking for matching funds. For information, contact Michelle Walters, executive director of the Vessel Christian Foundation in Grand Forks, at (701) 215-8350 or michelle.walters@vesselchristianfoundation.org. IFOSuD also is on Facebook and has a website at www.ifosud.org.