Updated: Jul 20
By Russ Zick
USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer
Small holder farmers in Morocco are engaged in upgrading their agricultural practices in order to increase income by expanding exports to Europe, the United States, and other Southern countries. The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) has been engaged in that process with several programs such as assisting Moroccan cooperatives in obtaining organic certification for their walnut, almonds, and other products. During the certification project, HAF, a Moroccan and U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to using a collaborative approach to assure sustainable solutions, recognized there were gaps in the produce supply chain related to seed access and seed variety preservation. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN states that, “Food security is dependent on the seed security of farming communities” and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have increased awareness of the seed supply chain and food security for all developing countries.
HAF partners with Land O’Lakes International Development (LOL) to develop a project concept and proposal to improve seed access and preservation in the nut supply chain. LOL, in turn, partners with USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program (F2F) to advance sustainable agriculture and forestry activities to enhance economic growth.
Teaming with High Atlas Foundation
HAF staff is a mix of Moroccans and volunteers from other countries, including men and women, young and old, and they manage a diverse mix of local development projects. Members provide a nurturing, encouraging environment. A typical workweek included attending presentations by staff, interns and other F2F volunteers on their projects. The presentations and comments were a means of project quality improvement, as well as team-building. The events also provided insight as to the fit of the seed storage project within the range of other HAF projects. The daily routine of family-style group lunches was a way to share Moroccan food and hospitality with everyone that was congenial, memorable, and productive. I found it an energizing and inspiring experience being included in this uniquely Moroccan HAF team.
Although the final objective of the assignment was clear from the start, “prepare a proposal to the Ministry of Agriculture for seed storage infrastructure improvement”, it took a week and three layout drafts, to clarify the need, size and nature of the concept plan. HAF project managers provided guidance in discussions and site visits to help me understand in detail the need to assist farmers with capacity for two types of seed storage: 1) storing harvested nuts for short periods prior to post-harvest processing, and 2) storing endemic varieties of tree and wild medicinal plant seeds for ready access during the planting season, especially varieties under threat of being lost to more commercially viable varieties. HAF partnering with the Idraren Cooperative had recently developed a business plan to produce 1,000 tons of certified organic walnuts. Seed storage is therefore essential to meet production potential and market demand for years to come.
Seed banks facilitate development of local agriculture by conservation of region-specific crop diversity and introduction of new more productive varieties. Development agencies have noted that gaps and weaknesses in the seed supply chain sometimes lead to poor harvests, which are much more consequential for lower income and small holder farmers. For example, in a 2016 report, Access to Seeds Foundation noted, “Improving access to seeds for smallholder farmers is thus an essential part of the solution to global food insecurity.” And International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), reported, “Seed delivery systems are a major constraint for the uptake of the new varieties and genetic gain by farmers in many countries of the [north Africa] region.” Seed supply in Morocco was traditionally a government function that served large scale agriculture. Seed supply is changing in Morocco and a proposed seed storage and processing facility is part of community level efforts to address gaps in the seed supply for small holder farmers.
The assignment provided an opportunity to contribute to development of organic agricultural processing and diversification of endemic seed varieties, benefiting small holder farmers in rural areas. It also afforded the opportunity to use my mechanical engineering experience in agricultural applications and to facilitate the synthesis of a design concept in a cross-cultural setting. In preparation for the assignment, I activated my project engineering network, reviewed professional technical articles on seed storage facilities, and visited a USDA world-class seed storage lab in Colorado. In country, together with HAF colleagues, we visited SONACOS, a large scale quasi-government produce and seed storage distribution center, a large-volume government sponsored agricultural producers’ market, and the recently completed post-harvest processing center at the Idraren Cooperative, located in Asni of the High Atlas Mountains.
Temperature, humidity and seed moisture content are critical factors affecting vigor and viability of seed preservation during both short and long-term storage. Planning a seed storage facility requires space allocations capable of maintaining several different environmentally conditioned rooms. The proposed facility included temperature-controlled rooms for cool and cold storage and humidity-controlled rooms for air-drying, dehumidification and heated drying of seeds to provide capability to service a variety of different seed storage functions and volumes.
The most tangible accomplishment of the assignment was to give HAF a written proposal suitable for presentation to the Ministry of Agriculture. The proposal included a hand-drawn layout drawing, a project narrative describing the need and the proposed solution, a detailed cost estimate and a tentative implementation schedule. It is likely that the highest value of the concept plan will be to stimulate further discussion about the new seed capabilities needed. The concept plan is undergoing further revision before it is presented to the Ministry of Agriculture, but the plan will help to advance the discussions and can lead to improved access and preservation of seeds for small holder farmers.
There were other intangible impacts from the assignment. I will long remember the rhythm of the Marrakech day with the morning and evening calls to prayer, sleeping indoors with the door wide open to the quiet, perfectly cool night air, the excitement about an afternoon rainstorm, even though there was not much moisture; the aesthetic experience of sharing sweet mint tea, poured high above the glass to aerate the tea and the touch of a scorching hot glass. It’s also nice to feel I now have some friends and colleagues in Morocco.