Local farmer travels to Myanmar to share knowledge

Monday January 7, 2013

WESTMINSTER WEST -- This is traditionally a pretty slow time of the year for Howard Prussack, co-owner of High Meadows Farm in Westminster.

Most of last season's produce has been sold, and it is still a few months before he starts planting for the 2014 season.

So Prussack generally tries to rest a little in the winter, and get ready for the farming season, which usually includes the long work days needed to keep a successful farm in business during Vermont's short summer.

And while winter is spent fixing equipment and ordering seeds, Prussack has taken on a new farm chore over the past few years: international development.

Prussack just returned from an educational trip to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), where he met with more than 1,000 farmers and business leaders during the four weeks he spent in the country.

It is Prussack's third trip working for Winrock International, an international non-profit organization that works with disadvantaged people around the United States and the world.

Winrock brings people such as Prussack to farms and communities around the world to share their development ideas and technology.

Prussack says he was busy enough with his farm business, High Meadows Farm, a few years ago when a former employee who now works at Winrock asked him if he wanted to talk with farmers in Nepal.

He's returned to Nepal twice now, and he went to Myanmar in November to work with onion and tomato farmers.

"Who knew I could do this?" he said about his recent introduction to international development. "But after all these years I've learned about farming, and marketing, and business, and I've got something to teach."

Winrock International was started in 1985 when The Agricultural Development Council, a John D. Rockefeller III organization, merged with two other nonprofits.

Winrock brings international energy, agricultural and technology experts out into the field to work with local people in 65 countries.

The trip this year to Myanmar was especially noteworthy as the country has only recently moved away from 50 years of military rule and the people and government are trying to work toward a market economy.

"Everything grows there," he says. "They are right between India and China and the markets that are open to them are mind boggling."

For the farmers it means more markets outside the country are available to them, and there has been an influx of international development as groups begin to explore the country following the signing of the new constitution in 2008.

The United States had sanctions on the country, but Prussack said he met with farmers who were ready to embrace their new lives. Prussack followed President Barack Obama by a few days after the U.S. President visited the country for the first time in November.

"It was a good feeling to be there. The country was very excited about having Obama there," said Prussack. "People are very optimistic about how their lives are changing, and it felt good to be a part of that. It's like they have a blank slate and they want to make things better."

Prussack was among the first international agriculture experts to visit some parts of the rural country in more than three decades.

In many ways, he said, the country is reinventing itself from the bottom up. After decades of central rule there is no banking economy in the country and the farming economy, as well as the country's general economy is developing.

There has been little access to tools and the farmers are preparing for a very different future, said Prussack.

"There is a lot of opportunity there now and the farmers want to be a part of it," he said. "They want to make more money and we were there to help them do that."

He found rural farmers who were using simple techniques and who were excited about hearing from Prussack about how they could try some new ideas to increase their profit.

He traveled though a dry region in the central part of the country which is known for its onions, and then worked with farmers who grow tomatoes on floating islands in a fresh water lake.

He did soil tests, looked at some of the storing methods the farmers were using, and talked about marketing ideas like branding the onion region and starting an onion festival to celebrate the crop.

In both areas he talked about technical agricultural methods and also worked on marketing and storage efforts to help improve the export capabilities.

Winrock International pays for all the travel and accommodations, though Prussack said all of the time in the field is volunteered.

He says the learning and teaching have become satisfying parts of his otherwise quiet time of the farm year.

"I get to see a part of the country that tourists don't get to see," he said. "You get into the lives of people. You can really get under the skin of a country when you travel to these farms."

Prussack is going to travel to El Salvador with Winrock International in February, and then when he gets back it will be time to start planting for next year.

"It feels good to do this work. It feels like I am making a difference," Prussack said."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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