Staff looks back

Dozens of staff, advisors, board members, and other associates have been involved and committed to the work of the Farm Radio International since its inception. We asked a few friends to share their memories about the early days at Farm Radio International’s headquarters in Canada.

Photo: Mark Waldron

Mark Waldron, Guelph Ontario – As people grow older, it is natural to think of one’s life accomplishments and to think of the future of what one can do to make the world a better place in which to live.

If I was only forty years younger, with today’s knowledge and the energy of youth, what I could do to change the world!, claimed a seventy five year old colleague. Many older people, however, don’t dwell on the past what is done is done but they think of the future. They think of achieving a cure for HIV/AIDS; they search for a means of feeding the world’s hungry; they dream of the day of tuition-free education for everyone. But mostly, it is a case of thinking, of dreaming, of scheming and talking, of philosophizing but with little action.

The Developing Countries Farm Radio Network was all of this and more thinking, discussing and taking action that has helped small scale farmers in less developed rural communities. George Atkin’s germ of an idea was based on his life career of agriculture and using radio to communicate to people, where they were and in a vocabulary that they could understand. After many hours of discussion involving key leaders in agriculture, business and communications, the DCFRN Advisory Council set a course of action and a set of principles that would become the DCFRN base for action.

I remember the debate as the Council argued for principles in developing a vision and mission statement. Goals, objectives and value statements added to the heat of the discussion. With support from Massey-Ferguson and the University of Guelph, a two location, multi-lingual plan was put into place. Committed to a common set of values, the Council agreed to four key principles:

  1. That the idea of ‘appropriate technology’ would be a primary, philosophical base that ideas had to be based on real, live, field experience.
  2. That it had to use ‘farmer to farmer’ communication and not ‘western style, large scale’ production technology.
  3. That is had to be respective of a safe environment and
  4. That it would use radio as the lowest cost, most available and most practical communication tool for mass education.

Those first few meetings of the DCFRN Advisory Council formed the philosophical base for later action. There have been many changes since those first formative days: the relocation to one central management office; the incorporation of the idea as a business and the involvement of hundreds of financial supporters.

Having been involved with DCFRN ever since it was a ‘kernel of an idea’ in George Atkin’s mind, I have seen the kernel sprout, grow, mature and blossom to produce an awesome example of one dream that not only turned into action but is having a major global impact.

Photo: Helen Aitken

Helen Aitken Arthur, Ontario – Congratulations to DCFRN on your 25 years of commitment to the small farmer. In 1980 I had the honour of joining the DCFRN team of three, with the job of building the network of participants in countries where French and Spanish are spoken. Of course, we realized quickly that French and Spanish are languages of the cities, while the languages of the farmers those we wanted to reach were Waloff, Quechua, Quiche, Tagalog, and so many others.

The Network grew. We connected with hundreds of rural communicators, all eager to receive their packages of DCFRN scripts and cassettes materials which they would adapt for use in their radio broadcasts, or through other communication channels. We invited them to share with us their own tried and true farming practices, those that could be useful to small-scale farmers all over the globe.

DCFRN took me to Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. Wherever I traveled, I learned so much. I met participants so many of the legendary characters that George and I still talk about with a smile. We remember Maria Perugachi of Ecuador, who escorted me through the mountains of Ecuador, to pretest our Spanish language broadcasts on tape. The Quechua-speaking farmers didn’t understand Spanish, but provided feedback to Maria’s Quechua translations. There was Kwasi Amafuga, a broadcaster with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, whose major concern in 1986, when I visited him, was the truth about AIDS. Around that time DCFRN began to include broadcast information related to primary health, which was welcomed by the rural communicators.

Since 1989, when I left DCFRN, there have been many changes in the information and communication technologies available to farmers in developing countries. The Internet has emerged as a powerful tool for accessing information, though not without its limitations. Radio, though, has endured, and continues to prevail as the most immediate and effective communication tool for people who don’t speak English, French or Spanish those on the other side of the digital divide those whose transistor radio, slung between the horns of their carabao, brings them timely and useful information in words they understand.

Photo: Magda S. Burgess

Magda S. Burgess Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec – My first contact with DCRFN was through Helen Aitkin, DCFRN manager in the 1980s.

I approached Helen to suggest that I might write some scripts for the network, based on information I’d come across while working at the Ecological Agriculture Projects at McGill University. As it happened, DCFRN was looking for a new full-time Researcher-Scriptwriter at the time, to supplement George Atkins’ activities as the network expanded. I applied for the position, submitting two sample scripts as part of the process, and ended up working as researcher/scriptwriter with DCFRN from 1983 to 1989, when I left to work overseas and then do further study and work related to soil conservation and nutrient cycling.

One of the first things George Atkins impressed upon me when I started was the importance of presenting information in a way that would build a clear, logical and complete image in the mind of the listener or reader. He suggested with a very visual image itself illustrative of the communication approach he advocated that I try to imagine that I was addressing a sports stadium filled with thousands of people and DCFRN’s audience was potentially hundreds of millions!

Listeners might hear the information only once, quite likely interpreted in another language. They would be left with the message they had heard, or whatever interpretation of it they retained. So it was very important that the information we sent out be self-contained and clearly expressed, with potential to be useful and without unintended consequences if not done correctly. In some cases we reluctantly had to refrain from presenting a particular topic because it was too difficult to convey unambiguously by radio, or not widely enough applicable. Such information, however, was not wasted; it was available for consultation in DCFRN’s resource library.

Both George and I worked on scripts. Background research was done to ensure that the information was appropriate; texts were written and edited, with George usually adding his own particular speaking style, and all items were checked by someone with relevant field experience. Illustrations and references to other information sources provided additional background for potential users.

It was very interesting and rewarding to participate in this worldwide exchange of grassroots level information learning how farmers in one place controlled soil erosion, for instance, and then making this information available to farmers in other areas who faced similar challenges. I also really enjoyed (and now miss!) my work building up and using DCFRN’s resource library it started off as a single shelf of publications and grew to include a varied and fascinating collection of books, newsletters, and other published and unpublished information.

All too often the work of small-scale farmers is undervalued, despite the huge contributions they make to feeding their families, their communities and their nations; their needs and capacities are often ignored, at best. I appreciate the fact that the network acknowledges and respects small-scale farmers’ knowledge and creativity, and recognizes their capacity to adapt ideas to their use if given access to appropriate information.

Although I officially left DCFRN 15 years ago, I still feel somehow connected to the DCFRN family both the staff (some of whom I’m still in touch with) and the agricultural communicators they work with, especially those I was able to meet in Latin America, the Caribbean and West Africa during my time with DCFRN. It’s good to know that DCFRN is still so strong, and that it has been able to evolve to meet a changing world while remaining true to its goal of disseminating information directly useful to small-scale farmers and their families.

Photo: Jennifer Pittet

Jennifer Pittet Thornbury, Ontario – I started as a scriptwriter with the Farm Radio Network in 1989, although I had worked in other staff positions previous to that time. The packages we worked on contained a variety of fascinating farming and health topics. Some of the first scripts I remember working on were: Choosing cassava cuttings for planting, Preparing a home first aid kit, and Termites are good chicken feed. Each script required a different approach. For example, the cassava script required extensive research in our library. When writing about the first aid kit I interviewed a local Toronto woman who had worked as a nurse in Africa for many years. The termite script was based partly on information that we received from a participant a teacher at an agricultural training college in Ghana. We also consulted on script content with organizations around the world that had expertise in health and agriculture. And George gathered much of the material for scripts during his world trips.

Around the time that I started as a scriptwriter, the decision was taken to distribute the script packages on a quarterly basis. Audiocassette distribution was discontinued. The partner base at that time included a variety of radio broadcasters, agricultural extension workers, missionaries, government ministries and NGO staff. There were fewer groups involved in agricultural communications at the time and DCFRN had close associations with like-minded NGOs such as ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization), World Neighbors, Ecological Agriculture Projects, the International Institute for Rural Construction and CUSO.

Through the late 90’s and into the 2000’s the script packages became more integrated, and inclusive of relevant social issues. Each package treated one particular theme, and each script dealt with an aspect of that theme. I think the HIV/AIDS package developed in January 2002 marked somewhat of a turning point for the script packages. It highlighted the impact of HIV/AIDS on food security and included scripts such as: A community revives a traditional method of grain storage during hard times, An AIDS widow learns her rights, and Successful enterprises bring income in times of crisis. The packages also became more diverse in terms of format. As a general rule, each package included examples of radio spots, dramas, interviews and narratives. The newsletter started to include more in-depth analysis of the package theme.

It is now 2004 and I have been involved with DCFRN for twenty years. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting partners particularly broadcasters in several countries. Among my all-time highlights were visiting rural broadcasters in the highlands of Guatemala, and collaborating on a five-part documentary series about ecological agriculture with a community radio station on the Yucatan peninsula, in Mexico. Over the years I have been involved with the writing and/or editing of approximately 500 scripts.

DCFRN has survived tough times for small NGOs. It’s been particularly difficult for a small NGO with a specialty in agricultural communications. Part of the reason for its survival may be the connection it has kept, through the work of broadcasters and other partners, with the people who are really making things happen the farmers of the world. Congratulations DCFRN on 25 years.

Andrew N. Reed Karakol, Kyrgyz Republic – During the 1980s DCFRN operated out of the headquarters of Massey-Ferguson in the Atrium at Bay and Dundas in Toronto. Massey was in serious trouble at the time. Notwithstanding the crises swirling around them and the frequent bad press directed at the company, DCFRN continued to operate from the Bay Street offices until the company headquarters moved to Buffalo in 1991.

Former Massey Ferguson employees like myself can take some pride in the success that DCRFN has achieved from its modest beginnings on George’s desk at home, through its time spent keeping a low profile at the eye of one of the most controversial chapters in Canadian business history, to the organization now celebrating 25 years of providing practical, low-tech assistance to food-producers throughout the world.

DCFRN’s sojourn in the offices of Massey Ferguson resulted from the friendship between George Atkins and Peter Lowry, alas now deceased, who had the already difficult job of handling the company’s public relations. For a long time Peter was able to provide DCFRN with offices and the use of phones and photocopying facilities without attracting the attention of the corporate cost-cutters based on the other side of the atrium. When questions were raised about these costs, he skillfully stick handled them to the budget of the Farm Machinery Group, based in England.

DCRFN moved briefly to offices elsewhere in the Atrium when the company, known by that time as Varity, moved to Buffalo. During the years we worked in close proximity I became a big fan of the work DCFRN accomplished at the grass-roots level. I appreciate it now even more having worked since in several donor-funded initiatives in the former Soviet Union, seeing first hand the vast amounts of money that are spent without anything near the results achieved by the small but dedicated staff of DCFRN.

Photo: Victor Rice

Victor Rice Buffalo, New York – I well remember learning the full story of the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network in my early years at the helm of Massey-Ferguson. What a stunning and imaginative initiative it was for helping multitudes of poor village-level farmers. They, in fact, were being bypassed by the multi-million dollar development schemes financed by agencies in Northern countries. The Network was providing these farmers with information on ways they could increase their food supplies and improve their nutrition and health.

Even though Massey-Ferguson was belt tightening in the extreme, this was one company activity I would not abandon under any circumstances. My heartiest anniversary congratulations to Developing Countries Farm Radio Network, moving with the times, yet maintaining its original concept and ideals over a quarter of a century. For this I credit the network’s board and staff, and its volunteers both in Canada and overseas. I equally recognize the support of thousands of individual donors, many of whom, appreciating the enormous value of the Farm Radio Network, have contributed regularly since the very early years. Congratulations to you all.

Photo: Kathy Shuff

Kathy Shuff Toronto, Ontario – I began working for the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (DCFRN) in the Toronto office in 1982 on a part-time basis, which became full-time in early 1983. I was with DCFRN in Toronto for seven years. As a young mother I was looking for part-time work, so when I saw a tiny ad in the Globe & Mail for a secretary/typist a couple of days per week with a third world development organization, I applied and was called for an interview. I had visions of working in a back room of a low rent building for a cash-strapped organization on a side street in downtown Toronto.

The Massey-Ferguson offices were located in the rather new Atrium on Bay building across from the Eaton Centre. The offices occupied by DCFRN had no windows onto either the street or the atrium and they were right at the back of Massey-Ferguson suite of offices, but that was the only similarity to my earlier vision. While we couldn’t look out windows to Toronto’s downtown, we felt we had a large window onto the world, as we were dealing with participants in over 100 countries at that time and providing information that was vital to them in helping to improve the lives of rural families at the grassroots level.

During my first days, George Atkins took the time to explain our connection with Massey-Ferguson and the background of his association with the farm equipment manufacturer. It included orientation about DCFRN’s founding through Massey-Ferguson’s offer of a salary to him as well as an in-kind contribution to establish and carry on the work of the Farm Radio Network.

At this time, when DCFRN was beginning to flourish in a small way, Massey-Ferguson was heading into rough economic times and eventual reconstructuring. For those of us who were associated with the Farm Radio Network in Toronto, it meant that Massey-Ferguson’s support of our work was somewhat of a sensitive issue in the headquarter offices where we were located. For this reason we maintained a low profile.

When I started working for DCFRN, Massey-Ferguson’s tangible support took the form of the two furnished offices we occupied and considerable photocopy services, as well as reception, telephone, mail services and office supplies. The office services department contained large, very efficient photocopy machines that ran off the hundred of copies of DCFRN’s English script packages produced for mailing to a large number of our participants. Prior to copying and mailing, many of the scripts were typed by the pool of typists that were part of the office services department. The typists dealt with these scripts many times as they went through a number of drafts. We also used the mailing services provided by Massey-Ferguson when the packages were ready to mail to participants all over the world. In addition to the office services department, there were small photocopiers located nearer to various offices. Many times I recall changing the heavy rolls of paper that these copiers required. Interchanges with Massey-Ferguson staff sometimes occurred in the smaller copy rooms and at these times M-F staff might venture to inquire about what we did and confess surprise to discover that such practical help at a grassroots level for people thousands of miles away was being prepared in their midst.

About half-way through my years with DCFRN we acquired a computer in the Toronto office, which began a new chapter in how our packages were produced and how data about and from our participants was stored and used. Our friendship with the head of technical services at Massey-Ferguson was handy as we ran into numerous computer glitches in those early days of computerization.

DCFRN also had a strong relationship with the University of Guelph, which made the production and distribution of packages in French and Spanish possible. The university provided office space for a small staff in DCFRN offices there. Representatives from both the University and Massey-Ferguson sat on the board of Directors that came into being during the 1980s. Massey-Ferguson’s head of public relations, Peter Lowry, was a key person in DCFRN’s founding and was an early Board member. Several Board meeting were held in Massey-Ferguson’s formal boardroom.

Whenever Massey-Ferguson reconfigured their office space, which seemed to happen quite a lot, it generally affected us and we, of course, had to be willing to move whenever our offices were needed for other purposes. We became adept at moving offices, as we did so at least four times while I worked there. We always had interior offices and never had a choice in the matter, but felt we were treated well and were model, undemanding tenants, appreciative of the assistance given by the international corporation to the important work we were doing. Not long after my arrival, DCFRN outgrew its two offices and Massey-Ferguson generously provided a third office to house the unique and burgeoning collection of resource material that came from around the world. CIDA funding enabled DCFRN to hire a full-time researcher/writer, Magda Burgess and a part-time librarian, Joan Beckley. About this time, Jennifer Pittet joined the DCFRN staff in Toronto, first by volunteering her expertise, and then as Project Assistant: later as researcher/writer, replacing Magda Burgess when Magda left to work in Mozambique. Margaret Taylor-Sevier was another important staff member and carried on after I left. A number of other dedicated part-time and volunteer staff helped in the work during those years.

Near to the end of 1980s, George Atkins retired as DCFRN’s Executive Director and I left for other work shortly thereafter. Things changed dramatically for Massey-Ferguson, renamed Varity Corporation as part of the company restructuring. Varity moved its headquarters to Buffalo and the relationship with the Farm Radio Network, which it had helped to establish, came to an end.

Photo: Elizabeth Wilson

Elizabeth Wilson Port Hope, Ontario – I became executive director of the Network in 1989. After three years at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, I was excited about continuing to work in international agriculture. But, in the first few weeks, I was also sceptical. It appeared that the Network was one of only a small number of organizations serving only the needs and interests of small farmers. How could that be, I wondered? Did farmers already have the information they needed? What was going on? Gradually, I learned that few organizations in international development cared much about small farmers and that, in fact, we were providing a special and valuable service. Fortunately, in my seven years at the Network, more organizations began to fill the huge gaps in information.

The Network is special, I believe, because of George Atkins’ insistence that the people who receive the scripts give feedback and ideas in order to keep receiving them. We all felt that we had friends and colleagues in 125 countries. The mail brought daily delights. Often when a letter arrived with an idea and sometimes a drawing with it I would think, Should we really do a script about this? Everybody must know already. I was usually wrong. One letter described how to grow onions without seed by cutting an onion in half and planting the root end. It shortly produced small shoots that could then be planted. Jennifer Pittet saw the value, wrote the script, and we sent it out. The response was terrific particularly along the Himalayas where onion seed was very expensive. The neem tree scripts were another thrill. The Network spread the uses of neem leaves around the world to farmers who had seen the tree for years but never known of their amazing properties.

The early ’90s were difficult for development agencies. The Canadian International Development Agency took a hard line on funding; Varity Corporation ended its considerable support when its office moved to the United States. Fundraising became a major occupation. Each year we wondered if we could continue. Fortunately, we found donors who shared our belief that the Network delivers amazing ‘bang for the buck’ reaching hundreds of millions of farmers for a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

In the mid-’90s, the office was not really big enough for the staff let alone the volunteers. But we still enjoyed each other’s company. Frequent lunches together were part of our routine. We sampled the cooking of staff members, for example, Saba’s Eritrean bread, Debora Dunn’s Mexican chili-flavoured carrots, Gwen Reaume’s Canadian butter tarts, and, in summer, microwaved corn from the country market set up in the City Hall Square.

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