Farmers Helping Farmers: Making a Difference for 35 Years
A hurricane that destroyed the banana crop on the island nation of Dominica inspired the first donation from a group of P.E.I. farmers. Thirty-five years later, Farmers Helping Farmers continues that tradition.
Over the years, Farmers Helping Farmers has carried out hundreds of development projects in Kenya. The dollar value of those projects since 1980 exceeds $10 million Canadian, including funds contributed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). These projects are estimated to have touched the lives of at least 100,000 people in East Africa.
The roots of Farmers Helping Farmers reach back to 1979, when CIDA organized an international farm consultation across Canada, including a session on Prince Edward Island.
"The idea was to bring together farm families from Canada and from developing countries to talk about their issues and challenges," explains Teresa Mellish, the long-time coordinator for Farmers Helping Farmers.
The consultation, as it was called, was held at U.P.E.I Delegates from 30 countries were paired up with 30 P.E.I. families, and the visitors were billeted with their Island hosts, including Barry and Ellen Cudmore who lived on a farm near Brackley Beach.
“We were particularly warmed towards the people from Africa,” recalls Ellen Cudmore. “We felt a special rapport. There was the enormity of it –the number of issues we all faced. But also how the issues were similar.”
It was during the P.E.I. visit that the hurricane flattened the banana crop in Dominica. Hearing about the disaster from the delegates from Dominica, Island families raised $5,000 to give to the farmers to re-plant their banana crop.
After the visitors returned home, the Island farmers met for a follow-up to the conference. Inspired by the experience, a group of them decided they would like to see what it was like to farm in a developing country. The group prepared a proposal for CIDA asking for $250,000 towards projects in Kenya and Tanzania.
"There was some discussion of partnering with a Caribbean country because of potential trading links and proximity," explains Teresa Mellish. "But we had really connected with the delegates from Kenya and Tanzania. So those were the countries we chose."
It was a decision that changed Teresa Mellish’s life. She has travelled to Kenya nearly every year since that first trip thirty-five years ago. Since then, her husband has also visited Kenya several times, as have her son, daughter, son-in-law and daughter-in-law.
“This has given our family an international perspective which has changed the way we see the world and its challenges. We communicate with our Kenyan partners almost every day and we share in their successes and work with them to try and improve their lives,” said Mellish
It was January 1980 that 22 Island farmers travelled to Kenya for the first time. They spent 6 weeks, visiting Kenyan farms and meeting with farmers.
“It changes your life,” Ellen Cudmore explains. “You can’t see water running the same way, like when you brush your teeth. You realize what a privileged situation you live in.”
The P.E.I. delegation covered a lot of ground during the 6 week visit. They traveled through Kenya to Tanzania.
Barry Cudmore says Farmers Helping Farmers has worked, since that first trip, because the group has focused on the grassroots.
“We feel that there is a high level of trust between the people there and our group here,” explains Cudmore. “It’s very direct.”
Cudmore says Farmers Helping Farmers has also benefited from the annual visits to Kenya, and periodic visits of Kenyan to Canada.
“And having them come here, helps us keeps a pulse on the whole thing,” says Cudmore.
He also pays credit to long-time coordinator Teresa Mellish.
“Without Teresa, it probably won’t have gone very far,” Cudmore explains. “She got things done. You need to have someone who will do it.”
And so Farmers Helping Farmers was born and news of the group spread across Prince Edward Island.
The development work continued through the 1980s and 1990s, with annual delegations and modest fundraising, usually $7,000 per year.
Farmers Helping Farmers was rejuvenated in 2002 when a group of thirteen Islanders travelled to Kenya for 3 weeks on a "Learner’s Tour".
It was an eventful trip on many fronts. The Islanders began their work with the Muchui and Ruuju women’s groups that has led to tremendous progress in those communities – including screenhouse gardens, school gardens, improved nutrition and food security.
"We work with women’s groups because they are the farmers," explains Teresa Mellish. "They plant, till, weed and harvest, at the same time as they care for the children and the home."
Kenyan men, explains Mellish, often have to leave the farm to earn cash income in larger communities, putting the day to day burden of farming and raising a family on the women.
Patsy Dingwell was part of the 2002 trip and launched the School Twinning program that has connected a generation of P.E.I. students to their peers in Kenya. In 2015, there are now 18 Canadian schools and churches paired up with schools in Africa. They write letters twice a year, letters treasured by the students in Africa.
"It is like Christmas when they get those letters," says Patsy Dingwell. “The Kenyan students carry them around and show them off – the way Canadian kids used to do with a hockey card.”
Dingwell says the School Twinning program encourages empathy and understanding in both groups of students.
The connection has also led to fundraising projects on P.E.I. on behalf of their Kenyan schools, to the tune of about $20,000 a year. The School Twinning program is now expanding, with participating schools in Newfoundland, Quebec and Alberta.
Farmers Helping Farmers took another giant step forward in 2004 when the group formed a partnership with the Atlantic Veterinary College and U.P.E.I. Dr. John Van Leeuwen made his first trip to Kenya that year, with a number of his vet students. He has travelled to the African country every year since then. His work with dairies in Kenya has dramatically improved the health and productivity of cows, which in turn has benefited the families who depend on them for animal source protein and income.
“The training and research projects have been very gratifying,” Van Leeuwen reflects. “Smallholder dairy farmers have doubled and even tripled their milk production.”
“Animal health trainees have acquired valuable knowledge and practical experience so they can offer quality veterinary service to Kenyan farmers into the future,” adds van Leeuwen.
U.P.E.I. students from Education, Nursing and Family and Nutrition Sciences have also travelled to Kenya through Farmers Helping Farmers.
Rosemary Herbert is now president of Farmers Helping Farmers. She traveled to Kenya in 2013.
”Students and volunteers who travel to Kenya are enriched by the experience and receive far more than what they give,” Herbert explains. “It changes perspectives and helps us realize what is important in life."
Lydia MacKay shares her love of Kenya with the elementary school students she teaches on P.E.I.. MacKay traveled to Kenya in 2011 and taught at Ndunyu Secondary School in the Meru area of Kenya. She says the experience was “life-changing”.
“Teaching in Kenya taught me to appreciate the education system we have here in Canada,” MacKay explains. “We take so much for granted. I continuously draw on my Kenyan experiences in my own classroom. There is a lot of value in teaching students about a very different part of the world.”
For Teresa Mellish, the success of Farmers Helping Farmers is in the impact they have had at the grassroots level.
"The Kenyan families have a higher level of food security, meaning they are not as stressed about where their next meal is coming from," says Mellish. "Children do better at school, and we have a sense of partnership with women’s groups and with dairies."
While there have been many successes, Farmers Helping Farmers has also faced its share of challenges. The group had partnered with CIDA since 1980, with the government organization boosting fundraising dollars, $3 for every $1 raised by Farmers Helping Farmers. But with the evolution of CIDA, Farmers Helping Farmers is now looking for new ways to raise funds for its ongoing work in Kenya.
The fundraising has continued at the grassroots level. There is the popular barbeque every August at the Harrington Research Station. The Farmers Helping Farmers Holiday campaign also generates much-needed funds. The group also received a generous bequest of $400,000 from an Islander that has helped them to continue the work in Kenya.
Despite the financial challenges, Farmers Helping Farmers is looking forward with ambitions plans. It has started work with 4 new women’s groups in Kenya. The first stage of that partnership is providing some of the women with water tanks that allow them to gather water during the rainy season to carry them through periods of drought. The work of the Dr. John Van Leeuwen and his veterinary students continues at dairies in Kenya. U.P.E.I. and Farmers Helping Farmers have just launched a new five year project worth half a million dollars through the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). A group of a dozen Island youth also travelled to Kenya in July 2015 in celebration of the 35th anniversary.
“We have made lives better,” reflects Teresa Mellish. “And that feels good.”
You can “like” Farmers Helping Farmers on Facebook and follow @FarmersHelping on Twitter.