Over the many years of HAS’ service in Haiti, we have enjoyed fruitful relationships with many academic institutions including Stanford, Harvard, Tulane, Carnegie-Mellon, and Yale. The latter relationship, which dates back to the rotation of surgical residents in the 1970’s, has taken on a new vitality with the arrival this week of more than 20 students who are participating in a seminar at the Yale School of Forestry. The graduate students, from a number of disciplines including public health and nutrition as well as forestry, have created 5 work groups to study the ecological challenges in Haiti and their impact on nutrition and health.
The group is too large to accommodate on the HAS campus, so we arranged for them to be housed at a conference center in Verettes, and they go back and forth between the center and the hospital each day in a rented tap tap. The conference center is an ideal choice for this group, because it is run by a colorful agronomist, Josaphat Vilna, known affectionately as “Ti (little) Fa” (he is about six feet tall). The conference center is on the banks of a river which comes down the hills to Verettes and then feeds an agricultural canal which comes all the way to Deschapelles. Ti Fa owns a strip of land across the river which he has developed as an Organic Integrated Farm. It is Organic in that no commercial fertilizer or pesticides are used there, and it is Integrated in that the waste from one element of the farm provides nutrients to other parts.
The day after all of the students arrived in Verettes, Ti Fa led us on a tour of his farm, starting with a walk across the river below a dam which provides irrigation and flood control for the river. We climbed the steep embankment to arrive at a spring box which captures water flowing out of a natural spring in the hillside. A pipe from the spring feeds a series of four fish tanks, each one of which held fish of increasing size and maturity. Ti Fa, who is a member of the faculty of the school of agriculture at Universite National d’ Haiti, explained that he maintains in each tank schools of carp and tilapia. The carp feed on vegetable material on the bottom of the tanks, and the tilapia eat insects and seeds on the surface. Periodically, the tanks are drained and scraped and the mud and fish droppings are used for compost heaps for the adjoining fields of vegetables, such as rice and sweet potatoes.
Not content with growing ordinary food crops, Ti Fa experiments with different plant varieties, comparing their productivity and flavor. The water leaving the fish tanks irrigate the vegetable fields, and we followed the streams down to the poultry house. There, Ti Fa showed us his flocks of chickens, geese and ducks, each of which he breeds to produce high-yielding birds for commercial consumption. The area around the poultry yard was shaded by a wide range of citrus trees, enhanced by grafting to increase their yield and flavor. As we walked through his fields and orchards, Ti Fa would stop periodically to offer the students a taste of fresh coconut milk, or of a hybrid orange, or banana.
At each stop on the tour of the farm, Ti Fa explained to the Yale students what he saw as the significance of the farm. It is on a relatively small stretch of land next to the river, but it is planted so as to produce a diverse set of food crops, fruits and animals. Even farmers with small amounts of land are able to replicate his model, and he hosts farming groups from across Haiti to see the farm and to understand the principles and techniques which are used.
Ti Fa’s last job before retiring was as the director of the regional agricultural and economic development organization in the Artibonite Valley, and in that position he led efforts to increase crop diversity and to plant high-value food crops for the national Haitian market. His farm is his teaching laboratory, and the source of many agricultural innovations in Haiti.
For the Yale students, this was an inspiring introduction to Haiti and the potential for agricultural development. For almost all of the students, this was their first visit to Haiti, and Ti Fa’s farm disrupted many of their preconceived notions of what they would find in this impoverished land. The visit also exposed them to the creativity and energy of Haitian farmers, and showed them the potential for growth which exists here. The students have also brought with them creative ideas of their own; next week, one of the groups will work with local farmers to build a solar fruit-drying box, so that the delicious mangos which we watch getting larger every day can be harvested, trimmed and sliced so they can be dried and sold months after the mango harvest, when the delicious fruit is only a memory.
In the next two weeks, the groups will meet with content experts from HAS and other organizations in the valley to explore opportunities for enriching agricultural production and to increase the nutritive value and diversity of current food crops. The seminar was designed by Gary Desir, a Yale physician of Haitian origins, and it is his vision that this seminar will be offered every winter for five years, and will provide a vehicle for the engagement of Yale graduate students with Haiti, and especially with the Artibonite Valley and HAS.
For both Yale and HAS, this is a very valuable opportunity for each organization; for HAS and the region to benefit from the wisdom and scholarship of graduate students, and for the students to benefit from a close-up exposure to the reality of life in Haiti, with its many challenges and even more moment of inspiration.