On a spring evening in 1993, at a local cooperative's annual meeting in Pickett, Wisconsin, Gary Geisler decided it was time to step outside his comfort zone—and for the first time in his life, out of the country.
Inspired by the evening's speaker, a dairy farmer who had just returned from a two-week trip to Russia as a volunteer for the Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program, Gary made his way up to the front at the end of the meeting to find out more. Since that night, Gary has made seven F2F trips to six different countries, and plans to keep on volunteering for the program and wherever that may lead him.
The F2F program is managed by Land O'Lakes International Development and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The program enables U.S. citizens to volunteer in developing and transitional countries to promote sustainable improvements in food security and agricultural processing, production and marketing. And according to Gary, taking part in it is more than just rewarding—it's an adventure and it's a wonderful way to give back and help make the world a better place.
Gary's first trip was to Lithuania in 1993. He helped new and existing cooperatives run better—advising on everything from cooperative structure to sources of funding. At the time, Gary worked in business and cooperative education for Land O'Lakes, Inc., so the assignment was a good fit for his knowledge base.
The next four projects took him to the Philippines, Jamaica, Russia and the Ukraine. These trips all focused on cooperative development, though each experience was vastly different from the others.
"One of the things I've learned along the way is that the situation is seldom what we're told it is, because people signing up for the program know they have a need, but don't necessarily understand the problem," Gary says.
"So the first step of any project is trying to figure out if the scope of work is accurate. In the end, you only have two weeks to assess the situation, come up with a plan, implement it and hope you can make a difference. What it really comes down to is finding one or two people who are motivated and give them enough information so they can carry on after we've gone."
Gary believes the best way to help other farmers problem-solve is to give them examples of what other farmers have done in similar situations.
"You don't want to go to somebody else's country and just tell them what you think they should do," he says. "I ask them to tell me about their situation, what they think the road blocks are, and then give them examples so they figure it out. The people who apply for these programs are farmers – they are like the people I work with every day. They know we're volunteers, are grateful for what we can offer, and make the most of it," says Gary.
A lasting impact, for everyone
Now a regional calf and heifer specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition, Gary's last two projects were calf-specific, and for the first time, he was able to return to the same country—Lebanon. He was hosted by staff at the LibanVet veterinary clinic, who took him on farm calls where he observed, made assessments and developed recommendations for how dairy farmers could increase nutrition, improve cleaning and sanitation, practice better colostrum management practices and more. Since this assignment, LibanVet staff have continued these practices, resulting in better calf health.
Gary will be heading to Lebanon and Egypt in the spring of 2016 to volunteer on his eighth assignment. He says these opportunities continue to give him a greater understanding of what is going on in the world, and a greater appreciation for the agricultural resources we have access to in the United States.