SD couple spearhead effort to donate crops to countries in need
BRIDGEWATER, S.D. -- In 2007, Kenton Hofer took a mission trip to Guatemala. While there, he helped build a house for an 82-year-old widow, who every afternoon would sit on a rock and shell corn, one ear at a time, so she could have supper.
Upon witnessing the woman's poor living conditions and her hands, crippled from arthritis and poor health, the rural Bridgewater farmer knew he needed to do more than build a house.
"At home, I can harvest enough corn in one year's time to feed her and her family the rest of their lives," Hofer said."The inequality of that just hit me like a rock."
He called home to his wife, Autumn, and told her the story.
"I said, 'we need to do something,' " he said.
Spurred by her husband, Autumn called World Hope International, which helped connect the couple to Foods Resource Bank, a self-described "Christian response to world hunger."
According to the organization's website, more than 200 food-growing projects in the U.S. raised more than $3.2 million to support 57 programs around the world in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
"We grow a crop, donate part of it, then they in turn take the money and work with organizations like World Hope," Autumn said.
Rather than donate crops directly, which the Hofers said often becomes messy and difficult to deal with internationally, Foods Resource Bank takes the money raised from donated crops and turns it, in essence, into grant funds for those in need. Those funds are distributed through member organizations like World Hope, and a variety of mainline church denominations like Catholic Relief Services based out of Maryland, Lutheran World Relief based out of Maryland and the United Church of Christ in Ohio.
The Hofers said the program combines their desire to use one of their main resources -- agriculture -- through an openly evangelical but inter-denominational organization to help people in third-world countries.
"A landlord that is Lutheran, a landlord that is Mennonite, they can both donate ... you can kind of divvy it up. We like that approach," Autumn said. "People didn't feel like they weren't supporting their own denomination by doing this."
Now, Kenton and Autumn are project coordinators in the area for Foods Resource Bank, which they said involves a lot of face-to-face meetings with past, present and prospective participants.
"Our job as project coordinators, we communicate with the farmers," Autumn said.
Another component that attracted the Hofers to the organization, and that they use as a selling point, is that the funds raised must be used for agriculture development. The projects supported by Foods Resource Bank are geared to help communities set up sustainable farming operations.
"They don't just send food," Kenton said. "These programs have to be designed toward what is going to make this community food secure."
He referenced a successful cattle program in Mozambique, as well as other budding programs in North Korea, Central America and multiple nations in Africa.
"It's been good because it stretched our faith, and it helps us somehow feel like we're not just pouring money down a rat hole by sending food or sending money," he said. "The farmers we're partnering with around the world are learning to be self-sustaining."
And though Foods Resource Bank is a relatively new organization, Autumn said member organizations like World Hope have been working in ag development for 10-15 years, and have established presences in the communities where they seek to send resources.
It's helped the couple gain credibility with area farmers as they try to spread the word about this program.
"The reception from people is really good," Autumn said. "They like the idea we're not just giving food, and we're not just sending money. The programs that we work with are programs that have had longevity."
Kenton said through some of the programs, individual incomes can jump by as much as 25 percent -- a significant jump for anyone, but especially if the starting point is less than $200 per year.
"The first thing they can do when they can afford it is send their kids to school," Kenton said. "It's cyclical. It helps to break that cycle."
According to the organization's annual report, 6.2 percent of its $3.44 million in expenses in 2011-12 were administrative, and the Hofers said FRB works to get those administrative costs covered through grants or other means. Because FRB does not use the funds raised for administrative costs, one of the goals of the project is to get 100 percent of products donated, from land to seed to labor.
"So when you harvest, everything you have is pure profit," Autumn said. "(FRB) understands it cost the farmer something to produce that crop. They don't expect the farmer to operate at a loss on those acres he's donated. That's why the object is to get as many of the inputs donated as possible."
Not only does that allow the farmer to break even, but Kenton and Autumn said it brings about another of FRB's goals: combined effort.
FRB, Hofers said, is built on trying to connect the urban and the rural church. So, if some aspect of donated acres isn't yet covered -- fertilizer, for example -- Autumn said a Sunday school class or any non-farmer could still join hands with the farmer to raise the funds and cover the costs.
The three churches they have worked with mainly are in Madison, Canistota and the Mitchell Wesleyan Church, and in the past six years, they have slowly but steadily grown from their lone 30-acre donation to several donations totaling about 100 acres.
"We started small, and each year it grew," Kenton said. "As far as the local projects, there's a lot of flexibility."
But, he said some farmers are wary of donating in the wake of last year's drought, and the previous year's flooding.
"We've really challenged our farmers to commit to the acres," Kenton said, no matter what the crop yields. "In a lot of ways, personally, it's about stretching our faith. That we have committed to doing this, whether we have a crop or not."
Operating on faith, Kenton said, helps them stay focused on the mission behind Foods Resource Bank and the work its member organizations strive for in developing countries: Sharing the Gospel. It "builds the bridge."
"The ultimate goal for us, is for these people to find Christ," Kenton said.
As they continue to work with the program, the Hofers said their dream is to see a community field take shape, with people working together in a way visible to others.
"We've not been able to accomplish that. So far our projects have been spread out over 10 or 15 fields," Kenton said. "This thing could go from the 100 acres it is to 200 or 300."
And it doesn't just have to be farmland -- Autumn said people can join together to donate essentially "any marketable product," from a community garden to hay to livestock to honey.
"Anything that you can grow and sell -- any of that," she said.