5 Questions: Environmental Activist Flo Reed
Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow Florence Reed recently spent a week on the Vassar campus talking to students and faculty about the world food crisis. Reed, who served in the Peace Corps in Panama, founded Sustainable Harvest International in 1997 to help farmers in Central America learn better ways to grow their crops and preserve their land. In June Reed received the National Peace Corps Association’s Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service.
Her visit coincided with Vassar’s inaugural Conference on Food and Agriculture, at which she delivered the keynote address on October 6.
Q: How long have you been interested in social and environmental causes?
A: It began when I was a child with my parents and my church, and by the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to do something to alleviate human suffering. In college (the University of New Hampshire), I founded the first environmental group on campus. I was a better activist than I was a student.
Q: What did you learn about farming and environmental issues while you were in the Peace Corps?
A: I saw first-hand how farmers were burning the rainforest and I wanted to do something to save the land. I assumed there must be some organization that would provide the farmers with technical assistance—information on crop rotation, building erosion barriers, making compost—but there wasn’t. Here was an obvious need that wasn’t being filled.
Q: How long did it take you to hatch the idea for Sustainable Harvest International?
A: For four years after I left the Peace Corps, I worked for two not-for-profit agencies. One wasn’t really in my field, but I learned a lot about the mechanics of running an organization. The other one addressed environmental issues, but it wasn’t run very well, so I learned what not to do.
Q: How successful have you been in helping farmers?
A: Since we began, we’ve helped more than 1,500 families in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Belize learn ways to make their farms more productive and abundant without burning any of the rainforests. It’s gratifying to hear their stories. They are growing enough food to keep their families healthy and increase their income. It’s rewarding work.
Q: What has it been like to discuss these issues on campus?
A: My visit to Vassar is my first as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and the students I’ve met have had lots of questions. I’ll visit Merrill Hurst College (in Portland, Ore.) next spring. I’m sharing my personal story—how I came to be doing what I’m doing—and I’m urging the students to be open to opportunities to serve that may arise in their lives. I didn’t know what to expect when I founded my organization, but I’ve become more aware of the 2 billion poor people in the world. Now I have loftier goals.
The inaugural Conference on Food and Agriculture at Vassar, which took place October 6 and 7, featured alumnae/i presentations about everything from slow food to alternative agriculture to fair trade coffee and chocolate production. See the winter issue of the Vassar Quarterly for details on the conference and its presenters.