Volunteering through Generations: How a Wisconsin Family Supports Armenian Farmers
After first hearing about the Farmer-to-Farmer Program in 1994, John Bobbe eagerly signed up to volunteer in Poland. The program, funded by the United States Agency for International Development, mobilizes volunteers like John to provide technical assistance to farmers, farm groups, agribusinesses, and others in developing and transitional countries.
Six years later, John received a call from ACDI/VOCA about an assignment in Armenia. With his background in farming and extensive teaching experience, John was a perfect fit, and he soon arrived in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city. Over the next two decades, John returned again and again to Armenia as an ACDI/VOCA volunteer with the Farmer-to-Farmer Program.
“I’ve watched a country go from basically no internet, no cellphones and just watched as the country has developed.” — John Bobbe, a Farmer-to-Farmer Program volunteer
During his assignments, John consulted with the Green Training Center, a unique organization within the Transcaucasia region working to empower women’s agricultural groups. Many Armenian men are forced to find work as migrants and send remittances to their families. “In many cases, the men aren’t in the country,” John said. Meanwhile, women in Armenia are often left to manage the household farms.
John taught women’s groups how to market their farm products, such as dehydrated raspberries, how to keep chickens out of their fields, and how to properly space crops. He introduced them to pectin, a naturally occurring starch used to solidify jams and jellies. John also encouraged them to sell their highest quality products and keep the lower quality goods for household consumption. For many of the women, a $100 increase in their income was a “huge improvement,” John said.
Now John’s passion for volunteering is continuing through his granddaughter, Sonya, a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls studying agriculture. Excited for his granddaughter to follow in his footsteps, John connected Sonya with the Green Training Center. Despite not knowing what to expect, Sonya jumped at the chance to get hands-on experience and boarded a flight to Yerevan, the country’s capital.
“I felt very proud. I thought it would be an adventure for her; I knew they would take good care of her.” — John Bobbe, on his granddaughter Sonya’s volunteer assignment
Both John and Sonya learned that to succeed in their assignments, they had to understand and experiment with what people had access to locally. John emphasized that volunteers must “learn to assess where people are at, both in their lives and in their work — in what they want to accomplish.”
Once stateside, John and Sonya kept in touch with friends and colleagues in Armenia. Members of the Green Training Center visited their family in Wisconsin and even brought them an Armenian Gampr puppy, a breed native to the Armenian Highlands. Since volunteering, John has raised funds to help a school in the Ararat Valley purchase gardening tools to care for apricot trees. The apricots are sold in a nearby village, and all proceeds directly benefit the school. Even now, John orders his seeds from Armenia. “They call me the broccoli seed king,” he said.
Perhaps most rewarding though has been seeing the people John volunteered with thrive. The daughter of his interpreter was still young and learning English during his assignments in Armenia. Now she is in her third year of medical school. “I’ve watched the generations come up,” John said. “They have the same hopes and dreams that we do for our kids and grandchildren.”
ACDI/VOCA has mobilized more than 12,000 skilled professionals as international volunteers through the Farmer-to-Farmer Program as well as corporate and student volunteer programs. If you are interested in volunteering with ACDI/VOCA, learn more and apply here.