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Hawkeye Community College students experience farming in Haiti through trip

posted on Saturday, February 28, 2015 in  College News

By: Andrew Wind, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

WATERLOO—Farming practices in Haiti lag far behind American agriculture.

Without chemical fertilizers, farmers use sugar cane byproducts, compost, and bat manure to enrich their soil. It's easier to collect the bat waste than to get manure from farm animals, which typically are not confined.

Modern implements are not used very often to plant fields. They weed by hand and some farmers have been known to till the soil with a pickaxe.

"I think we figured they're about 100 to 150 years behind American agriculture," said Mitchell Boevers, a Hawkeye Community College agriculture business student from Readlyn who was part of a small contingent that visited the Caribbean island nation during winter break. The Jan. 2 to 9 trip was organized by Hawkeye's Global Agriculture Learning Center.

Other students who participated included Kyle Cook of Hubbard, Jacob Fitzpatrick of Greeley, and Amanda Grunklee of Reinbeck. All of the students are in their second year at Hawkeye except Grunklee, who is a Gladbrook-Reinbeck High School junior taking classes at the college through concurrent enrollment. They were joined by instructors Brad Kinsinger and Dave Grunklee as well as Dike farmer Darwin Cannegieter.

The visitors went to the Universite de la Communaute Chretienne de Caiman in northeastern Haiti to share their knowledge and learn about local farming from its students and instructors.

The Hawkeye students said when they talked about agriculture in the U.S., their Haitian peers were amazed by how much technology farmers here use. But what they were really excited about were the soil testing kits the Americans handed out during the visit.

Cook said one of the main reasons they went on the trip was to teach the Haitians how to use the kits and begin building a relationship with the university. "They knew about soil stuff," he noted. "They just didn't have any way to test it."

Kinsinger said the Haitian students were familiar with concepts like pH, or how acidic or alkaline the soil is. And they knew that components like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium can help crops grow. But they "didn't know why they were important until they saw the testing," he noted.

The students said topsoil is poor in the country because of erosion caused by deforestation over the past two centuries. In addition, farmers hit a layer of limestone in most areas before going too deep into the ground.

Boevers said when Haitian students were asked why they wanted to be farmers, they said: "so their families won't starve." The nation's farmers can only feed 55 percent of the population with what they produce and one out of five babies die before age 5, according to the Hawkeye students.

Kinsinger helped connect a non-functioning weather station at the university to the internet so they could begin accurately measuring rainfall. "What we're trying to figure out is when's the best time to grow the crops," said Cannegieter.

The differences in the standard of living from the U.S. were so stark that the students got involved in some charitable giving while on the trip. "We put in some money and bought a goat for a local family," noted Fitzpatrick. Amanda Grunklee is sending $20 per month to cover preschool costs for a 4-year-old boy there and provide some extra money for his family.

The students were impressed with how their hosts live in spite of the challenges they face.

"Their attitude every day was just awesome," said Boevers. "Basically, they have nothing compared to what we have in America."

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