Florence Reed Australia Fall '87 is founder and president of Sustainable Harvest International, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping farmers in Central America improve their yield by adopting environment-friendly agriculture techniques.
Why did you choose SFS as a study abroad program?
I had always been interested in environmental issues, and at the time, the importance of saving the rainforest was just coming into the popular mindset. It was the new focus of the environmental movement. And as this interest was developing in learning more about the world’s tropical rainforest, I found out about the SFS program in Queensland, Australia.
Reflecting back on your time in the program, what did you gain from your SFS experience?
I left SFS with a desire to protect what was left of the world’s tropical forests and a much deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of life…of all the flora and fauna. There is great diversity of life in these forests, and this has shaped my philosophy for what I want to be teaching families that work with us in Central America. The more biodiversity the better, whether it is in the forest or in the farms, where crop diversity supports individual crops, just like it would work in the forest. Sustainable Harvest International promotes the idea of the farm as an agricultural ecosystem.
What is your most profound or lasting memory from your SFS program?
I remember the feeling of being in that rainforest, the sights and the sounds and the feeling. We took a trip to a strangler fig tree that took up several acres. And I got a kick out of the name of the wait-a-while, a vine-like plant with hooks that literally makes you wait a while as you try to detach yourself. I loved the tree ferns and hearing the kookaburras sing outside of our windows. I was a bit nervous about snakes, though, and it didn’t help that on the first day, our professor advised us that a good rule of thumb is "if it is brown, it is probably poisonous." We soon after discovered three brown snakes living in the rafters of our house, and panic ensued, until the professor referred to them by name. "I see you’ve met ‘Martha, George, and Fred,'" she said. They were not poisonous, by the way.
What do you do for work?
I founded Sustainable Harvest International eleven years ago by myself while working out of a spare bedroom in my parents’ house. It has been growing over the years, and now there are 10 US-based staff and 50 Central American staff operating in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Basically, our work is geared towards helping farmers in Central America learn how to produce more on their land without cutting down the tropical forest. Families come to us interested in learning about improving the productivity of their farm to have more to eat and sell and to find new crops. They also want to use the land in a more efficient and sustainable manner to preserve it for their children. We teach agro-forestry, organic gardening, and sustainable agriculture to raise the standard of living while protecting the local forest.
The work is primarily carried out by hiring local field trainers who each work with 50 families through weekly visits. As of June 2008, through our efforts, 2.3 million trees have been planted and over 9000 acres were converted from degraded land to sustainable farming lots. Forty-five thousand acres have been saved from being slashed and burned.
As an example of what is possible, I can tell you the story of one farmer in particular. Don Cheyo just recently graduated from our program after participating for five years. He is now growing traditional crops using sustainable techniques and has an organic vegetable garden with diverse crops. His family has planted thousands of trees and those trees have helped to bring more water to the local spring, which helps the whole community. He has gone from earning several hundred dollars a year to earning several thousand, which he has been able to use for a new roof, medicine, a horse, and also to reinvest into buying more land.
For the past four years, we have offered opportunities for volunteers from the US to see our work first-hand. It is called the Smaller World Program, and groups of volunteers can travel to our sites in Central America to get involved with our projects. We are in our fourth year, and 120 volunteers went through the program last year.
What does your work entail on a daily basis?
It is always changing as the organization evolves. Now, my time is focused on working with strategic planning with our board of directors and conducting outreach activities to make people aware of the work we do. I do fundraising, too, and I still keep a handle on what is happening in the field.
What is next for Sustainable Harvest?
In our new strategic plan, we want to double the number of families, from 1200 to 2400. We’d also like to build the micro-loan and small business side of our work. We’ve gotten very good at helping families to make their farms more productive and environmentally sustainable, and we want to focus on making the farms more economically sustainable and increasing income levels of families.
What are the two most essential skills that got you to your position?
I think it’s been very helpful that I’ve been flexible in my approach to the work, and I try to listen to other people. I always keep in mind that I don’t always have the answers or the best answers, so I’m open to hearing what people have to say. I know that I had the initial spark of the idea, but so many other people contributed to get this organization to where it is now.
What advice do you have for other SFS alumni looking to get into your field?
Go for it. Don’t be held back by fears of failure. If someone sets out to do something positive in the world, the world conspires to make it happen. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and look for help in a broad array of people. You never know when and where the help that you need is going to come from. One day eleven years ago, when I was debating if I should launch Sustainable Harvest, I received an email offering $6,000 for start-up funds. It came from a person I had met in passing and who was interested in discussing my plans, but it was someone I never considered a potential supporter!