World Environment Day all month: Understanding farming and livelihoods

Kevin Fath Jamaica
By Kevin Fath
June 30, 2014

My experience while serving as a Peace Corps agribusiness adviser in Jamaica provided me with unique opportunities to learn, engage and research at the community level.

I served in a small coastal farming and fishing village in Westmoreland parish in southwest Jamaica. I worked primarily with a group of organic farmers, promoting sustainable agriculture and introducing climate change adaptation strategies through community engagement. As a participant in the Peace Corps Master’s International program through Texas A&M University, I also conducted research on the vulnerability of local agricultural livelihoods to climate change.

As part of the community integration and learning process, I facilitated an assessment with the Westmoreland Organic Farmers Society, a local organization engaged in production agriculture and home economics. The results of the assessment helped us to better understand factors affecting the economic and environmental sustainability of their livelihoods. Through informal discussions with farmers, I also gained awareness of how changing weather patterns, such as variable rainfall, increased risk for these small-scale farm families.

In October 2012, local community organizations were given the opportunity to apply for small grants to support the development of livelihood opportunities more resilient to climate change. Designing a project and submitting a successful proposal was easier because we had already collectively identified and prioritized the needs and interests of the organization.

Among other things, the funds we received went toward establishing an organic demonstration farm, where the group erected a structure to catch and store rainwater for a drip irrigation system. The farm was also used to host a Farmer Field School where community members learned about organic farming practices, the potential impacts of climate change, and possible adaptation and mitigation strategies. The group was also able to purchase improved processing equipment and received food safety training, important steps toward establishing a formal agribusiness.

The group continues to develop and improve the farm, as well as their processing capacity. More importantly, they are increasing resiliency by adapting new technology to their own cultural norms and practices. Working side-by-side with my Jamaican friends to establish the demonstration farm was not only one of the joys of my life, but also showed me how difficult it is to cultivate marginal lands with simple hand tools -- a reality for millions of men and women around the world.

During my service, I also designed a study to assess the vulnerability of local agricultural livelihoods to climate change. My hope is that the results will illuminate areas where targeted programs can improve farmers’ resiliency and increase incomes. The data I collected can also be used to measure changes in vulnerability over time. I hope the change we’ll see in my community will be that of more sustainable livelihoods through environmental stewardship and human empowerment. This is a very possible outcome if the Jamaican men and women I worked with in the farmers group are any indication.

This story was originally published on the EPA's It's Our Environment blog.

Kevin Fath