July 2010

I’ve been catching up on this weeks frenzy over the resignation of  Shirley Sherrod, former USDA Director of Rural Development for the state of Georgia.  There are several things that I find remarkable about the event, and the center stage position it’s been given in the media.  I agree with what the CNN newscasters imply in their coverage – that just the fact that this story has created such a splash indicates  that we have not yet created a society that can deal comfortably with race.

But beyond the central issue of race in question, there are two other issues that catch my attention:  dignity and haste.

Dignity because Shirley Sherrod maintains her dignity throughout; she is calm, sure of herself, and non-confrontational.  Her ability to forgive and move-on is inspiring while it is frustrating.  I might be furious if I were her, but at the same time I am attracted to her slow, sure manner of speaking and her thoughtfulness.

Which brings me to haste.  Race is clearly the match used in this incendiary but the fire was lit by haste.  We are addicted to instantaneous news, immediate responses, and worst of all – instantaneously gratifying digital media.  The biggest embarrassment is Tom Vilsak, NAACP, the White House, for reacting at cyber speed to a partial video clip without looking into the full story first.  We are tripping over ourselves in our haste to utilize web media in our jobs.

The next buzzword after local should be slow.  Slow food is a growing movement.  I’m reading a book called Slow Money.  How about the Slow Down Everything movement – that we take time to properly research, reflect, think, and talk things over before we act?  That we just do one thing at a time and do it well instead of killing people texting while listening to audio books while driving on a highway looking at a GPS?

Haste makes waste.  Tragically, and unjustifiably, Shirley Sherrod ended up as waste.


SosteNica’s pilot reforestation project with CEPRODEL in Nicaragua is not just about planting trees.  There are many organizations and government initiatives reforesting Nicaraguan hillsides.  What makes the project in Nagarote unique is it’s marriage between financial credit and reforestation.  Why would – and should – small rural farmers accept trees on credit when they can get them for free from other sources?  Last weeks workshop on farm planning and development strategy shows why.

A professor from UNAN León's Agroecology department looks over Edgard Garcia's plan. Edgard has decided to invest in beekeeping; a bottle of his first honey batch is on the table.

SosteNica borrowers that chose to participate in the project are invited to workshops every Saturday, where the financial officers of CEPRODEL along with university professors work in small groups and individually with each farmer to create five-year farm development plans.  The plans include labor intensive projects, such as digging ditches for irrigation or ponds for water retention, along with projects that require financial resources such as purchasing irrigation equipment and fencing.  The aim is to help the farmers balance labor, debt, and natural resources to create realistic goals for strengthening the economic and environmental sustainability of their farms.  By linking the environmental and financial resources together, and supplying trees, organic fertilizers and pest control methods as well as financing the purchase of irrigation pumps and fencing materials, our micro credit services provide a much more integral support system for the rural poor than the normal rural credit line of loans to purchase cattle without any additional support.

Success depends on how you measure it.  The micro credit industry has been extolled for creating a viable (and profitable) solution to poverty and also criticized for the same profitability and high interest rates.  Most micro credit institutions in developing countries are evaluated by the number of loans they make and their payback rates, which are important from the investor’s perspective, but the actual impact of the loan is much harder to measure.  Micro credit organizations aim to reach as many borrowers as possible and keep repayment rates high.  I’d like to see more micro credit organizations aim to educate their borrowers, to work with their borrowers so that their loans have a long-term effect, and to find creative ways of adding value to a loan through linking technical assistance and additional resources.  We are just beginning to see how this can influence a small farmers business over the years, and one thing that’s clear is that how we measure success and impact needs to change to incorporate not just the needs of the investor, but the needs of the borrower as well.

Erasmo Perez Salazar shows off the farm plan he created with his grandchildren, showing the reforested fence lines and new house they dream of building.

I am a proud, devoted local food advocate, small farmer supporter, and former farm worker.  And I admit to having a weakness for asian food.  In former days my organic eating hard working farming friends and I would sneak into the international grocery store and leave our food ethics at the door as we cooed and drooled over canned and imported indian curry pastes, garlic chili sauces and pickles, and frozen dumplings.  That’s a weakness I haven’t overcome.  I recently discovered a house in Managua where a Nicaraguan woman who married a Japanese man sells imported food from the front room of her house.  I lost my inhibitions, and arrived back in Leon giggling deliriously over my purchased soy sauce, nori, wasabi, miso paste, Thai spring roll wrappers, and dried shiitake mushrooms.  And it’s been delightful to mix those with the freshest Nicaraguan products like spring green onions from the market and grass fed local beef.  I have some ideas for new fusions – mango cucumber farmers cheese (cuajada) sushi – and mostly am enjoying the familiar tastes that break up the somewhat monotonous Nicaraguan offerings.  Making sushi is a fun social activity, Nick and I spent a long evening making dinner with our english friend Felicity and Nica friend Melaña the other night.  Teaching Nicaraguans to make sushi and use chopsticks (palillos chinos) is a blast!