When Hal Donaldson was a young man, he got to meet Mother Teresa.
“What are you doing to help the poor?” she asked him.
Well, I better not lie to Mother Teresa, he thought to himself, so he said, “I’m not really doing much of anything.”
That encounter changed him. Donaldson committed himself to a life of service to others. In 1994, he started Convoy of Hope, a faith-based nonprofit based in Springfield, Missouri. Convoy provides domestic and international relief, recovery and development assistance. In 2019, Convoy sent its disaster relief team to the Bahamas to provide aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.
“The islands were completely devastated,” said Alyssa Killingsworth, the global program partner relations manager at Convoy. Then came COVID-19. “Their tourism economy disappeared overnight,” she said.
A food system at risk
Before the pandemic, the Bahamas imported nearly 90% of its food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The islands relied on the steady flow of imports, often connected to the cruise ship industry. But food imports plummeted when COVID-19 halted tourism and disrupted supply chains.
“Historically, the Bahamas had a rich culture in agriculture,” said Killingsworth. “But so many generations removed, they lost those skills.” As of May 2020, agriculture in the Bahamas contributed less than 1% of GDP and only about 2% of employment, according to the World Bank.
Convoy of Hope representatives quickly established relationships with Bahamian organizations. These partners expressed the need for agricultural experts who could teach both experienced and novice farmers on the islands.
Partnering with MU Extension
To help meet that need, Convoy of Hope obtained a Farmer-to-Farmer Program grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development in December 2021.
Collaborating with University of Missouri Extension specialists was a “game changer” for the project, Killingsworth said.
“We needed somebody who knows how to teach,” she said. “Somebody who knows how to pull stakeholders together and engage communities in a constructive way to bring new education and new projects into those communities. These are skills that are natural to extension specialists.”
Agronomy specialist Matthew Herring and horticulture specialist Debi Kelly traveled with Convoy to the Bahamas in April 2022. They were tasked with introducing growers on the islands of New Providence, Grand Bahama and Abaco to the basics of soils. They offered field tours and presentations on fertilizing, composting and cover crops, and met with several government entities working to scale up the country’s agricultural production.
Herring worked with commercial farmers, while Kelly’s focus was on helping small-scale growers, called “backyard farmers” in the Bahamas. Backyard farmers make up the majority of Bahamians involved in agriculture.
Kelly explained that their primary motivation is to feed themselves, their families and those in need. Only a small portion of growers she met were interested in selling their produce. “It’s a very faith-based culture, which might be driving the desire to share and give to others,” she said.
Agronomy specialist Pat Miller traveled to the Bahamas in June. She was accompanied by Carol Miles, who is a professor of vegetable horticulture from Washington State University and one of three non-MU Extension experts to participate. Miller’s focus was on composting, soils, different types of cool- and warm-season crops and rotating the garden for backyard farmers.
Convoy of Hope reported in July 2022 that it was the only organization on the entire island chain offering agriculture training. Interest in the program was high, with 300-400 farmers attending in just the first week.
Adapting to poor soil quality
Specialists found that the primary agricultural challenge on the islands is soil quality.
“They’re all rock, all limestone,” said Kelly. “The ground is very salty.”
Complicating the problem was a lack of animal manure, high fertilizer prices and the absence of soil testing labs in the country, said Miller.
“They’re doing the best they can with the soil that they have,” Herring said. “But it’s difficult to have very large-scale production if they’re having to fabricate the right environment for a plant to grow.”
However, there are ways to increase production.
“There are plants that grow there naturally and easily,” said Kelly. “Pineapple, papaya, mango, tamarind, soursop, apples, cassava, bananas and plantains all grow easily in the soil they have and don’t require much adaptation. But they’re wanting to grow other produce, like tomatoes, potatoes, onions, kale, Swiss chard, peppers, traditional squash, pumpkins.”
Good irrigation systems in areas with shallow soil might be a way to grow some of the non-native produce Bahamians are seeking, Herring said. Creative composting, raised-bed gardens, hydroponic systems and bringing in soil can help, too.
Grace Pinder, a producer in Freeport, Grand Bahama, has been inspired to expand her garden since attending the MU Extension training sessions, and she has even offered three of her own workshops to other growers on the island.
“I’m using compost now in my garden and preparing my soil properly,” she said. “I’ve learned about shade houses or hoop houses, and now I’m growing celery among (other) vegetables that we thought could not be grown in our climate.”
A model not unlike our own
As specialists travel and teach on the islands, they gain an international perspective while learning about a new agricultural system with different soil conditions and growing cycles.
“International experiences help specialists see the challenges at home in a different light,” said Rob Kallenbach, associate dean of extension in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “Those experiences increase their perspective, making them even better specialists when they return.”
“Everyone we met has this clear desire to grow more and to harness the resources to help them be successful,” said Herring. “If we can provide training for people and they can then go on to help others, I think that’s quite powerful.”
Despite different environments, the approach to teaching in the Bahamas isn’t all that different from how specialists teach here, Herring said.
“The model of the Farmer-to-Farmer Program is similar to the Master Gardener model,” he said. “The specialist trains some growers, and those growers are then able to share that knowledge with their communities.”
Growers who participated in training sessions were added to chat rooms on the popular messaging app WhatsApp. They can use the WhatsApp groups to ask each other questions and share resources that will help them continue to improve their production even after the grant has ended.
While some growers use the WhatsApp group with some regularity, Miller hopes that others will also come directly to the University of Missouri for resources.
Applying the land-grant mission internationally
MU’s land-grant mission means there is a commitment to extend university expertise by serving the community. Because the Bahamas doesn’t have its own university-based extension system, MU has a unique opportunity to expand the definition of community.
“Our partnership with Convoy of Hope builds on the rich heritage we have of serving others,” said Marshall Stewart, MU vice chancellor for extension and engagement. “The challenges faced by our friends in the Bahamas are solvable thanks to the technological advances land-grant universities have made in agriculture. Our partnership with Convoy of Hope is yet another example of Mizzou fulfilling its land-grant promise.”
Several other MU Extension specialists have either returned from the Bahamas or plan to travel with Convoy of Hope before the end of the project in early 2023.
Learn more about Convoy of Hope at www.convoyofhope.org(opens in new window).