Homegrown Help for Haiti

January 28, 2010

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For four years, NC State has had a hand in feeding 1,400 Haitian schoolchildren who live within six miles of the epicenter of the recent earthquake. Dr. Charlotte Farin, an animal science professor, works with the Christianville Foundation Farm in Gressier, which produces fish, eggs, goats and pigs to provide high-quality protein for school lunches.

The Jan. 12 earthquake leveled three of the four local schools near the farm, along with the foundation’s medical, dental and eye clinics.

While it may be months before children return to classes, Farin learned this week that the farm has been designated as an aid distribution site with the U.S. military. Farm operations supervisor Obinson Joseph, who is Haitian, has helped bring food to families in one of the poorest and hardest-hit areas near Gressier.

And despite sustaining some damage, the 65-acre farm’s food-producing capacity will help in the long-term recovery. Looking at Farin’s photos, you can almost hear the bleats of the herd of 70 goats at the farm. As a reproductive physiologist, Farin has helped improve the genetics of the herd and teach Haitians to care for the animals.

“In theory, goats are good milk producers, but that’s not practical even in normal times in Haiti without reliable electricity for refrigeration, so goats are mostly raised for meat,” Farin says.

Farin first learned about Haiti as a volunteer on a public health outreach project in Jeremie through the Haitian Health Foundation. In 2003, Edsel Redden, a county extension director with the University of Florida, came to Raleigh to talk with Farin about his work with the farm through FISH Ministries, a nonprofit group. Two years later, she was part of the Haiti Fish and Goat Development Project.

Though she does not have an extension appointment with formal outreach responsibilities, Farin has a strong service ethic. “Americans are very fortunate, and as you begin to travel, you see that 96 percent of the world does not live the way we live,” she says.

“Maybe we realize that on an intellectual level, but when you go and see what it’s like, you feel a personal responsibility to help someone else. The beauty of NC State is that this is part of our mission.”

The farm, located in an area where malnutrition was severe even before the earthquake, raises food to supplement the children’s diets of rice, beans, mangoes and bananas. “To reach their full intellectual potential, they need high-quality protein on a regular basis,” Farin says.

While others tended the aquaculture ponds, laying hens and small swine herd, Farin worked with 17 Nubian goats. She carefully selected the best breeding animals and added genetics from U.S. meat goats. “The animals in Haiti have been able to survive the diseases, drought conditions and hurricanes, so they’re naturally selected to live in that environment,” she says. “We didn’t just want to import animals. We wanted to breed up, so we’re aiming for about 50 percent U.S. genetics.”

She chose to increase the herd slowly to allow time to train local veterinarians and livestock producers in all aspects of herd management, including vaccination, deworming, artificial insemination and ultrasound procedures. With a one-year Heifer Project International grant that ended in December, a handful of the animals were given to Haitians to build their own herds.

The farm added a Haitian open-air barn that allows a breeze to circulate in the year-round high temperatures. For the rainy season, it’s equipped with berms and retaining walls to move water away from the animals. Before the earthquakes, new fencing was planned so that up to 100 animals could be moved frequently from pasture to pasture.

Farin takes encouragement from initial damage reports from two West Virginia construction workers on site. While the fish ponds and goat barn were damaged, they can be repaired. Redden, her colleague from Florida, has experience with disaster relief from Hurricane Katrina, which has been invaluable.

However long it takes, Farin plans to continue to help in Haiti, both professionally and personally.

“The country of Haiti is on edge all the time, so it doesn’t take much to tip it over the edge,” she says. “What it means is that everything we’re involved in is for the long run.”

She encourages individuals to get involved in a meaningful cause. “Haiti was what I needed to do, but it isn’t the same for everyone,” she says. “You can help in your family, on your street, in your neighborhood, town, state or region. As Americans, the generosity we have as a nation, both in big and little things, is our strength.”