A sense of urgency drives Florence Reed. By some estimates, an acre of the rain forest she has dedicated her life to preserving is lost every second. Florence came to love nature early, hiking and camping as she grew up in the Northeast. She joined the Peace Corps immediately after college and was stationed in Central America. What she saw there—a destructive cycle of traditional slash-and-burn farming in which ash is used as fertilizer but soon washes away, degrading the earth—led her to found Sustainable Harvest International (SHI). The nonprofit organization that now promotes sustainable farming in Central American communities began in the spare bedroom of her parents’ New Hampshire home. She was trying to help some families in Honduras, but she had no money and was unsure of how she might raise some.
What she did have was determination. “Things here grow like mad,” she said recently, referring to the rapid growth of trees in Honduras. But the statement applies just as well to the development of SHI. Today it serves, by invitation, 90 communities in Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, and Belize. Twenty field trainers, hired locally, travel by foot, truck, dirt bike—or dugout canoe, if need be—to get from one community to another, where they teach how to farm the land without depleting it. (Florence confesses that it was while walking in knee-deep mud that she realized what it meant to be the director of an international nonprofit group.)
Field trainers educate farmers about alternatives that restore ecological balance, including erosion control, composting, mulching, the use of natural pesticides, crop rotation, and reforestation. Add to that the practice of multi-story cropping, in which fast-growing hardwood trees are planted to act as sun shields for shade-loving crops such as coffee and cacao. Lastly, community loan funds and education in basic business skills give farmers the help they need to better support themselves and their families.
Florence attests to the warm welcome that greets SHI workers, adding that, “The hardest part now is being approached by other communities who know about our work, and having to tell them that, because we’re using all our resources, we just don’t have the funding to hire another field trainer.” To that end, SHI is practicing a different kind of cultivation: While it has assisted Central American families and schools in planting 1.9 million trees and has helped to save tens of thousands of acres, it is also working as hard to educate neighboring North Americans.
“We want to show people how it’s all connected,” Florence explains. “If a farmer grows coffee or cocoa using sustainable agriforest systems, that provides a habitat for the North American songbirds that winter there. And it helps to mitigate global
warming. Buying organic coffee makes a difference. There are all these connections.”
Asked by her alma mater, the University of New Hampshire, to advise students who want to change the world, she answered, “Never let the fact that something seems impossible stop you from doing it.”
Photograph: Michael Weschler
Text: Akiko Busch