CHESHIRE, Conn. (AP) — Every family in Thinh Cuong Duong’s hometown of Thái Nguyên, Vietnam, has a small field in which to grow rice, sweet potatoes or lettuce. The small farms are largely for sustenance – like the ones grown in Juab Calvin’s native Les Cays, Haiti.
These small kitchen gardens – or potages – are nothing like the sprawling farm of Casertano Greenhouses & Farms, in which they’ve been interning the last six months.
And that is just the point. “Here, they use more technology,” says Duong, known as T.J. in Connecticut. “In my hometown, they don’t have as much technology. If someone has a machine to cut the rice, they rent it to other families. Most people do not have such things.”
Here at Casertano’s, an 80-year-old farm that has been in operation since 1929, Duong can stroll the 78 acres – eight of which are dotted with enormous greenhouses – and learn the techniques for large-scale farming that his developing country desperately needs.
“I see more opportunity in this area,” said Duong, 24, now in his junior year studying environmental science in Vietnam. “Maybe some people think I am crazy. My country is an agricultural country and (needs) more investment so we can export.”
Duong and nine interns were brought to Cheshire through an international, paid agriculture exchange program run by Communicating for Agriculture Education Programs (CAEP) in Minnesota.
The program, in its 30th year, aims to give young adults an opportunity to experience the world through agricultural exchange, while providing an opportunity for rural families in the U.S. to learn about other cultures. For 10 months, the 10 interns from various regions of the world – from Brazil to Georgia to Haiti and Colombia – work at Casertano’s, learning the techniques of a large wholesale American grower of plants and flowers. This is the Cheshire company’s second year of participating in the program. Casertano pays the interns and provides housing and transportation.
“This is a win-win for us,” said John Casertano, a third-generation grower. “We get folks who are very well educated and very interested in our field. Horticulture in the U.S. falls into a trade category. There isn’t a great interest as there should be, which is disappointing.”
For Casertano, whose grandfather emigrated from Caserta, Italy, the exchange is a reminder of his own experience teaching English in Thailand after graduating from Bowdoin College in 1991.
“It was a life-changing experience for me,” said Casertano, a history and religion major who began working with his father temporarily in 1995, found himself enthralled by it, and now serves as president of the company. “A lot of the cultural exchange is more of us learning about them than about them learning about us. This group tends to come with a great deal of knowledge about soil characterization, fertilizer composition, someone who is in a high level of management in their organization such as ours has.”
Casertano’s, which John Casertano’s grandfather began in 1929 after buying the farm from his parents, produces 6.5 million pots of perennials and ground covers annually. Its Christmas wreath and ornament business comprises 30 percent of its total sales. It employs 150 people, most of them for nine months a year.
“One of my main goals is to learn more English,” said Diego Sanchez, 28, of Colombia, who worked for Dow Chemical prior to his internship. “Also, for the agricultural experience and also the way how they manage the crops here.”
Lola Japaridze, 26, of Tbilisi, Georgia, agreed, adding that she wanted her country to embrace its agricultural heritage. “The problem is that Georgia is an agricultural country, but people don’t want to work in agriculture,” said Japaridze, who has a master’s degree in food technology. “There are a lot of young people, they like tourism, they like to be lawyers, economists, business and diplomacy. But if you get (food technology) as a major, you can change things.”
Milt Smedsroud, a Minnesota farmer, said he began CAEP at the suggestion of former Secretary of Agriculture Robert Selmer “Bob” Bergland, who found that international agricultural students were finding it difficult to obtain J-1 Visas. The program began in 1985 with four interns. It now places nearly 1,000 annually from 43 different countries. Since it began, it has placed more than 30,000 interns or trainees in the U.S. The organization works with the State Department to develop a training program to which the host company must agree, he said.
“It’s very important that these young people have cultural experience,” said Smedsroud, 85. “I have seen so many people from around the world taking the experience they have had in this program and use them in their own countries. We are seeing more and more Third World program students. There is one sentence that explains the whole purpose of the program. The simple sentence we hear is ‘It’s the most fantastic experience I ever had. I learned to stand on my own two feet.'”
Charlene Gouron, 29, of Nantes, France, received her degree in horticultural engineering in 2012. She worked as a grower in a nursery in her hometown, focusing on young plants and shrubs.
She enrolled in the program to improve her English and broaden her experience level. “For me the big difference is the environmental factor,” she said. “In France, we have more and more laws. We are not allowed to use as many pesticides. Every year, they say we have to use less and less.”
Since March, Gouron has run Casertano’s trial programs, which tries out more than 400 new plants a year. She focused on using exclusively biological elements to grow plants.
Although it is an industrialized country, France is one of the world’s leading agricultural nations. The country has more surface area devoted to agriculture than any other nation in Western Europe. It continues to lead Europe in agriculture, excluding the Russian Federation, boasting 730,000 farms that employ an estimated 7 percent of the workforce. In the U.S., that figure is 1.4 percent.
Other interns, from countries like Haiti or Columbia, have a more embracing attitude toward pesticides.
“In the past, we didn’t use a lot of pesticides,” said Joab Calvin, of Haiti. “But now, because people need to develop the country to increase the production, they use more chemicals and pesticides.” Over time, he says, that soil becomes less productive, a factor he hopes to change. “If I compare the U.S. to Haiti, I think that the wealth comes from agriculture,” he said.
The number one country from which the program draws currently is Brazil.
“A lot of those young men and women who are in agriculture, have to learn English,” said Maja Behrens, of CAEP, which says the group first ensures that its interns are not displacing local workers. “Our participants from oversees learn about the United States and go home with a completely different attitude of the United States,” she said.
A recent internal survey found that more than 75 percent of participants leave with a more positive outlook on the U.S. The Minnesota-based program works with interns to help them obtain J-1 Visas. The J-1 Visa offers cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States through a variety of programs overseen by the U.S. State Department. This year, the interns at the Cheshire farm have come from Georgia, France, Brazil, Columbia, Haiti, Slovakia and Vietnam.
For Casertano, just having educated, hard-working interns bringing their own skills and culture has been “deeply satisfying.” In part, that is because of the interns themselves. “That’s been one of the most eye-opening experiences for me,” he said. “Our entire group was really not interested in staying (in the U.S.) Their goal was to learn what they could and bring it back to their country. The have a tremendous amount of ambition.” He cites a Brazilian man whose focus was weed control. “We gave him a small area to do some work. He brought back a more sophisticated program than we had been using.”
But another benefit has been the positive attitude the international interns bring to his field – an attitude he does not replicated in Connecticut.
“We have somewhat of a negative view of trade type jobs in the U.S.,” he said. “Globally, horticulture is viewed as a perfectly respectable profession. We place a lot of emphasis on college degrees in the United States, (which) are focused toward what we consider ‘the professions.’ The impression I get from traveling in other parts of the world is that higher level of education is viewed as an opportunity regardless of the field you’re in. Growing up in Connecticut, our view is that that’s not why people go to college.”
Smedsroud expects his exchange program to continue, although “We’re all a little nervous right now about what the new administration is going to do with the visa program,” he said. “In agriculture and horticulture, there is a shortage of workers. We have not trained Americans to have the job skills or the desire to work in those particular fields.”
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