Sowing the Seeds of Resilience

By A’Melody Lee Jacobi

April 29, 2024

Close-up of two hands holding squash seeds.
Ricardo David Kumul Canul, a 61-year-old smallholder farmer, shows a handful of squash seeds on his farm in Xoy, Mexico. Photo by Phillip Davis/Heifer International.

Urbanization — the movement of people from rural areas to more populated cities and towns in search of better and more diverse opportunities — is a well-known phenomenon.

Typically, the key driver for a person’s move to a bustling city is the economic hardship of life in a rural community. Young people in particular feel the need to leave ancestral lands or farms, their homes and their families to take their chances in cities or even far-flung foreign countries.

Seed Loans Cultivate Future Growth in Guatemala

In the 80 years since its founding, Heifer has been working to find solutions to persistent hunger and poverty in rural communities. Motivations for migration can be complex and dynamic, but there are two relatively simple interventions that have been shown to make smallholder farming more attractive to young farmers: seed loans and seed-saving training. They can help build economic resilience and lessen food insecurity, reduce the impact of inflation and improve yields despite a changing climate.

Why are Seeds Important?

In many of the communities where Heifer works, farmers must purchase the seeds they plant as an essential input before the growing season. When times are tough, the cost of starter seeds is a major impediment and can greatly impact how much farmers plant and how much they are able to harvest at the end of the season. This creates a vicious cycle wherein the farmer loses more income and has less for their family to eat, making it even harder to purchase seeds the next season.

Seed loans — providing quality seeds to vulnerable farmers at low or no cost ahead of the planting season — can improve food security and climate resilience and thus ease the risk of poverty. Such loans allow community members to build collective resilience by sharing resources with each other.

Seed loans reduce the initial investment at the start of the season and give farmers the help they need when they need it most.

A farmer stands proudly before a thatched-roof hut, holding a hoe over his shoulder.
Ambrose Omongi, 28, stands outside his home in Kwera Sub-County, Dokolo District, Uganda. Photo by Joseph Muhumuza/Heifer International.

Ambrose Omongi, a young farmer in Dokolo, Uganda, joined the Kwera Youth Oilseed Farmers’ Cooperative. This cooperative worked with Heifer Uganda’s Learn For Agribusiness project to increase resilience and food security among at-risk communities and increase the incomes of participant farmers by offering them an opportunity to learn how to grow and sell oilseeds.  

Ambrose hoped for a better future, and he’s learning how to make that a reality by growing sunflowers.

“I received 5 kilos of sunflower seeds valued at 60,000 Ugandan shillings [about $16] per kilo, which I planted,” he said. He said he got the seeds from the cooperative on loan. “[Then] I sold my sunflower produce to the cooperative.”

The cooperative recovered the value of the seed loan when purchasing the sunflowers, deducting the cost from Ambrose’s payment and extending the remaining 2.4 million Ugandan shillings, about $635, to him in cash. It was a significant increase from what he earned before joining the program.

The Seed of Climate Resilience

Another intervention, seed-saving training, equips farmers and producers with the knowledge and skills to select, process and store seeds from their own harvests.

Saving seeds creates opportunities to reduce exposure to high inflation, adapt to current environmental conditions and increase farmers' ability to retain more value from what they grow. Over time, such locally adapted seeds, specifically selected and saved from the most suitable plants, become more resistant to drought or local precipitation patterns and resilient to local pests.

These efforts are underpinned by Heifer’s Caring for the Earth model and its climate-smart agriculture approach to address the intersecting challenges of food security and a changing climate.

A farmer in dark clothing and gumboots wields a hoe on a sunny day in a cornfield.
Ambrose tends to his maize crops. Photo by Joseph Muhumuza/Heifer International.

For vulnerable farmers like Ambrose in Uganda, the resulting increase in income and food offers an entry into long-term planning that yields additional climate and soil-saving benefits. Planting the right seeds at the right time can make a big difference in rehabilitating the soil and increasing productivity. Additionally, seed saving creates deeper alignment between farmers’ needs and local environmental conditions that impact crops, like climate or soil quality and water availability.

Empowering farmers to cultivate intentionally is an essential element of Heifer’s locally led approach to development. In many communities, saving seeds is an opportunity to beat the high cost of inputs while testing, adapting and experimenting, just as farmers have for millennia.

Saving Earth’s Native Biodiversity

A happy farmer crouched in a cornfield holds a handful of seeds.
Ricardo kneels with a proud display of squash seeds in his hands. Photo by Phillip Davis/Heifer International.

Saving seeds protects the genetic diversity of native crops and contributes to improved resilience for smallholders in Mexico, like Ricardo Davide, who are on the front lines of a changing climate. By working to establish and stock seed banks with resilient and hardy heirloom and home-grown seeds, they’re able to cultivate varieties of corn that are more likely to thrive in local conditions.

“Hurricane Isidore affected us significantly,” Ricardo recalled, citing the 2002 tropical cyclone that wrought widespread damage and flooding across Mexico, Cuba and the United States. “We lost all our animals, all our crops for consumption. We had to start at zero again after the hurricane. The only thing we could recover was the seeds.” 

“Part of the effort [of seed saving] is to preserve and increase access to native varieties,” said Immer Bello, project manager for Heifer Mexico’s Milpa for Life project. “The farmers [select] seeds which are better adapted to the conditions. This way, they also have control over and access to their own seeds — and they share their seeds with other producers.” 

Through its work Heifer has learned that when rural communities are equipped with tools and knowledge to thrive where they are, and retain their culture and identity, such push factors lose their gleam and communities turn desperation into hope and opportunity.

Marcos Cabnal, a promoter with Heifer’s Green Business Belt program in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, is more prosperous as a result of a seed loan, training and collaboration with Heifer and his local community. Not only is he able to earn enough for his family, but he has also been able to secure a mortgage to purchase land that he hopes to cultivate in years to come.

Two men in matching shirts, one with a clipboard, engage in conversation beside a red truck on a gravel road.
Marcos Cabnal, right, discusses financial strategies with Social Capital Technician Fernando Cuc. Photo by Heifer International.

“The income from the sale of the seeds is being used for cultivation and then it is helping to buy land too. Heifer has helped us to find a loan so we can buy the seed. And when I pay for the seed, then I will pay off the loan, little by little.”

Empowering rural communities requires investment in time, resources and an understanding of the powerful emotional and cultural identities that create an enduring legacy and a sense of home.

Through locally led development, Heifer is working alongside communities to bring about change that is as powerful, as diverse and as strong as the seeds of the plants of planet Earth. In recognition that even though they are small, seeds are our most powerful tool to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth.