Supporting Nepal’s agriculture from 7,000 miles away

By Kelsey McMahon
Jan. 23, 2023

It’s been two years since Alyssa “Aly” Mashek heard the faint din of cowbells or the flapping of prayer flags in the Himalayan breeze. Due to the pandemic, she was forced to leave Nepal’s Dadeldhura region after only 15 months of service.

Aly wasn’t sure when she’d get to experience Nepal’s beautiful culture or connect with the local people again. That is, until she decided to participate in Virtual Service. Her first day was reminiscent of arriving at site for the first time: Will I make a difference in the time allotted? What will my counterpart be like?

When Hom Bahadur Thapa Magar joined their first Zoom meeting, Aly noticed that his smiling face was framed by her former home’s idyllic nature; the icy blue skies, the lush green hillsides, and the towering cardamom plants that seem to dance. Although she’s a world away at her home in the U.S., Nepal no longer feels so distant.

A woman smiles with colorful Holi paint on her face
A photo taken during Aly's in-person Volunteer service.

During the following 18 weeks, Hom and Aly collaboratively monitored and addressed fruit and nut tree issues related to insects, pests, and diseases. Their virtual project also involved designing a plan for managing the harvested produce. Each week, Aly donated her time to introduce a core orchard management and agricultural concept. These topics ranged from pruning techniques and proper airflow to site selection and soil health. Hom then provided feedback on each concept’s local implementation.

“I was immediately impressed by [Hom-ji’s] zest for knowledge and excitement over engaging with the Peace Corps again. Even under these impractical circumstances – particularly for agricultural trainings – his unfettered enthusiasm kept me invested and created a symbiotic experience for us,” Aly said.

Producing a healthy agricultural system is no easy feat, even for on-the-ground specialists. The agricultural trainings developed virtually needed to cover the many factors that contribute to a specific plant’s health. Were green manures (living plants that add nutrients to the soil) used instead of harmful fertilizers? Were crops rotated yearly for optimal soil health? Was there adequate airflow to prevent festering fungal diseases? Did the plant receive the exact amount of nutrients given its lifecycle point?

“You wouldn’t water a seedling the same amount you water a fully mature corn stalk,” Aly explained regarding water resource management and plant dosing.

Connecting with Hom-ji and engaging once again with the Nepali language and culture can only be described as a treasure.

Aly Mashek

Aly has seven years of experience in the industry, but largely credits her experience as a Volunteer working in regenerative agriculture and organic gardening for preparing her for the virtual project. She knew, for example, that local farmers were interested in integrating native tree species, fruit-bearing crops, and beekeeping for improved nutrition and more income-generating opportunities.

“They could then sell those fruits at the local market along with honey, and [the community] would have more immediate access to those goods.”

Flashcards with Devangari script and images
The training materials Hom and Aly developed.

Between their weekly meetings, Aly and Hom sent each other photos and through a messaging app, building a surprisingly strong bond that transcended the 7,000 miles separating their respective homes.

In addition to a new saathi (friend), Virtual Service gave Aly the opportunity to dust off her Nepali language and Devanagari script skills. The Peace Corps post staff provided an hourlong language class every Wednesday to help Aly expand her vocabulary and polish the training presentations.

“The Peace Corps Nepal staff have a permanent residence in my heart. It was a privilege to work with them again, and my conversations with Hom became more fruitful when my Nepali sharpened up.”

A Nepalese man prunes
Hom pruning on the organic farm outside Kathmandu.

Aly hopes that other returned Peace Corps Volunteers will consider supporting partners like Hom through a virtual engagement and shared a few tips for new Participants.

First, connect with your counterpart’s previous Participant and incorporate their work for continuity. Secondly, introduce your counterpart to your in-country friends. The latter resulted in an unforgettable exchange.

“Hom was invited to Kathmandu to celebrate Peace Corps Nepal’s 60th anniversary. While he was there, I had him meet one of my friends who has an organic farm in a nearby town. They sent me photos of them pruning and when they went to Kathmandu’s largest international, organic markets together. Hom tried a new snack and he looked so elated,” Aly said with a smile.

Three different crops with signs written in Devanagari script
Hom's healthy pear, walnut, and apple seedlings.

Their virtual project concluded this past November, but the work is far from done. As lead farmer for his community, Hom will disseminate the trainings among his fellow farmers. Aly and Hom are optimistic that their detailed discussions will lead to crops that yield more food per square foot, allowing the agriculture-driven community to focus its attention on reforestation and climate change projects. Hom also plans to start his own agrotourism center at his home, where visitors will be able to discover the beauty of farming the land with regenerative concepts.

“Connecting with Hom-ji and engaging once again with the Nepali language and culture can only be described as a treasure,” Aly said.

Even though she’s physically no closer to those cowbells or prayer flags, Aly knows she had a hand in the health of a farm in one tiny corner of the country she once called home.

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