DODGEVILLE — Since 2004, former agricultural journalist and photographer Pam Karg has been living in the Republic of Armenia, a country 10 time zones away from Milwaukee, where she was raised. It is a country that has truly touched her heart with its people, stories and hospitality, but she regularly leaves it to travel abroad through the United States Agency for International Development’s Farmer-to-Farmer Program, a volunteer program that supports farmers and agribusiness professionals in developing countries improve their livelihoods and food security.
While Karg is not a farmer, she has been immersed in agriculture ever since she began writing about it as a young journalist transplanted to the Baraboo area. After working at a newspaper for a while, she found a gig at Foremost Farms USA as a communications manager, representing the cooperative for 10 years before eyeing an early retirement and dabbling in freelance writing.
Although she had written about agriculture her entire career, Karg admitted she did have some reservations about volunteering for a program to teach farmers. However, she has found that people of all skills and trades are valuable to the Farmer-to-Farmer Program, and has found that just “living gives you a lot of experiences.”
Karg, while back in the U.S. for a few months, recently presented to the Dodgeville Kiwanis Club, speaking about some of the people and projects she has worked on in 10 African nations as a volunteer through the program. Wearing a yellow outfit from Africa, earrings made from coconuts and $1 Croc shoes, she shared her experiences in hopes that someone in the audience may make the perfect volunteer or know someone else who would be.
The Farmer-to-Farmer Program was initially authorized by Congress in the 1985 Farm Bill. Since 1985, more than 19,000 Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers have provided technical assistance to over 1.5 million people in 112 countries.
Eight U.S.-based non-governmental organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, Partners of the Americas and Land O’Lakes Inc. International Development, place bids for projects in specific countries, and upon receiving the winning bid, work in partnership with local community organizations, cooperatives and small businesses in those countries to develop volunteer assignments. Karg has been selected a number of times as a volunteer, with her first assignment taking her to Senegal, Africa, to work with small vegetable and fruit farmers, teaching them about cooperatives and business planning.
Working with individuals in Senegal made Karg more cognisant of the challenges people face, with the experience making her a better teacher and better preparing her for future volunteering assignments. It also made her think about what we have in the U.S. and how fortunate we really are.
“I don’t have to walk miles to get water in the U.S.,” she said, adding that citizens in Armenia and Georgia sometimes go days without water or electricity.
One of her most recent assignments to Zimbabwe last March was her first-ever trip to that African country. As a volunteer, she worked with 40 farmer-members and extended family members of the Seke Irrigation Scheme on organization development and leadership skills, and helped farmers learn more about how to plug into the retail value chain.
One memorable moment from that trip was being able to help those farmers in Zimbabwe understand that they aren’t just farmers, they are business people too. Karg had to explain how “business can come in all different forms,” and that they, too, are business people, even though they do not own a shop to sell their products.
To help them understand this, Karg took them to a supermarket to study the products available. It was profound to them to know that their crops could be made into products that could be sold at the grocery store, and even more, that they have the ability to talk to the store’s manager about the possibilities.
“They think they’re only a farmer,” she said. “It was as insightful for me as it was for those who took part in the supermarket tours.”
Karg also worked with eight different women’s groups, teaching them how to preserve food and encouraging them to try new ways of food preparation. With her experience in pickling foods and drying fruit, Karg introduced them to sauerkraut and guacamole, among other things. And although at first the women were skeptical, they were willing to try something from another culture that they had never been exposed to.
Teamwork and leadership are other important skills that she has taught others abroad, with Karg commenting that these are skills that can be learned by being part of organizations like the Kiwanis.
“You don’t need to farm to know how to run a meeting,” she said.
“I encourage each of you to consider volunteering,” she added. “Whether you have technical expertise as a farmer or experience in business or a special hobby you’ve perfected over the years, use it as a volunteer.”
Karg recommended those interested start with a two-week assignment to get their feet wet, but she cautioned that once you start volunteering with the program, it may be hard to stop. Volunteering abroad is a great way to see the world, get off the beaten path, have fun and help people, she said.
“You see a lot of people without hope,” she said. “We always have hope here but it’s not true everywhere in the world. I feel it’s my personal mission to spread, keep and find joy in everything.”
For more information on the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program, visit https://farmer-to-farmer.org.