As a boy growing up in Haiti, Josué St Fort learned firsthand about the many challenges Haitian farmers face. Both of his grandfathers were farmers, and they taught St Fort from a young age how to sow and harvest maize and beans on their rainfed farms in southern Haiti.
It was an invaluable learning experience, one that planted a seed that has brought St Fort to the University of Florida to study ways he can help farmers cope with increasing climatic hazards.
St Fort says his grandfathers’ fields were similar to the majority of farms in the mountainous Caribbean country: They received no irrigation – so they were completely dependent on rainfall. This is one of many factors that make Haiti – one of the world’s most food insecure countries – all the more vulnerable to extreme weather patterns, such as more intense storms and droughts.
“I learned how climatic variability impacted agriculture because of the complaints of my grandfathers,” St Fort says. “Also, when I was helping with the harvest, I could easily see the difference in the yield from season to season for the same crop because of changing weather conditions.”
After high school, St Fort decided to attend the State University of Haiti’s agricultural school in Port-au-Prince – the Faculty of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine (FAMV) – where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy in 2013. Last year, St Fort received a scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food Agricultural Sciences, where he is studying agricultural and biological engineering and specializing in geographic information systems and climatology.
He is one of 20 Haitian students who are earning master’s degrees through a project managed by the University of Florida called Feed the Future Haiti Appui à la Recherche et au Développement Agricole (AREA). (AREA is a French acronym for Support to Agricultural Research and Development.)
Return to Haiti for climate research
In May, after completing his first year of grad school, St Fort returned to Haiti and installed moisture sensors on an experimental bean plot at the Duvier Agricultural Research Center (CRDD) in Haiti’s hilly Kenscoff’s region. This will provide moisture data for use in a crop model he is creating to help decision-makers forecast the yield of dry bean varieties under extreme weather conditions, such as those caused by the El Niño southern oscillation (ENSO).
ENSO is a climate phenomenon that influences temperatures and precipitation across the globe, and it is marked by two primary phases: El Niño, which St Fort says tends to cause drought and extremely high temperatures in the Caribbean, and La Niña, which often causes erratic rainfall patterns and flooding, and results in more fungi diseases for plants.
St Fort says he is trying to understand these and other crop-climate dynamics so he can develop strategies to help farmers. By studying the patterns of ENSO, scientists can predict its arrival several seasons in advance of its strongest impacts, and they can advise farmers on ways they can manage its risks, such by selecting alternative crops to plant, and changing sowing, harvesting and fertilizing schedules.
In his experiment, St Fort is focusing on how various climate conditions impact the yields of beans, which St Fort says is among Haiti’s most critical crops, one that provides a substantial and cheap source of protein in the daily diet of Haitians.
“I am specifically using a crop model to simulate the yield of dry beans and create a pattern that will explain the variability of the yield due to a specific ENSO phase,” St Fort says. “This information can become handy when it comes to making agricultural risk management and mitigation decisions.”
His plan following graduation
After he completes his graduate studies next summer, St Fort says he will return to Haiti in hopes of landing a job at Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture, where he wants to help educate professionals and farmers to better manage the growing threat of climate variability.
St Fort says getting farmers to change practices they have used for generations won’t be easy.
“Haitian farmers are very conservative,” he says. “They are very reluctant to change their traditional methods even though new ones are really effective.”
Haiti will need to adopt smart public policies and improve extension services to help its farmers to transition to new methods, he says. This may mean providing farmers with incentives, such as giving them higher-yielding seeds that are more tolerant to drought, and subsidizing other improvements, such as providing environmentally friendly pesticides or irrigation. Or it could be as simple as convincing farmers to change their planting dates to lessen the risk of losing crops to storms – perhaps, based on a forecast from St Fort’s climatic model.
“With my forecasts in the crop model, agronomists can suggest to them to delay the planting date,” St Fort says. “I know this field and the topic are quite innovative and might undergo some resistance from farmers. But with a good plan we can make it work.”