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Getting his Hands Dirty with Farmers in Developing Countries

Getting his Hands Dirty with Farmers in Developing Countries

by Maureen Smith Martindale

Ever since his Peace Corps agriculture volunteer work in Nicaragua in the 1970s, William Zimmerman hasn’t minded getting his hands dirty: working with soil and farmers in developing countries, that is.

During his volunteer service, he learned about subsistence farming, and his interest in biology grew into a passion for agriculture. He went to graduate school to research soil fertility. Later he worked on numerous agricultural projects in developing countries--with funded research, paid or pro bono consulting, further Peace Corps Response assignments, and Farmer-to-Farmer projects funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Within the last seven years, he’s completed 23 Farmer-to-Farmer assignments in 17 different countries, in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. He’s helped farmers to improve soil fertility, develop composting techniques, grow yams, lettuce, dragon fruit, coconuts, leafy vegetables, sugar cane, and more. This Fall, he will complete projects when he travels to Guyana and the Honduras.

That initial Peace Corps stint “subsequently determined the course of my career and my life’s mission,” Zimmerman said.

In Peru in 2020, Zimmerman assisted an organically-certified coffee cooperative to develop methods to compost coffee pulp.

Authorized in 1985 by the Farm Bill and funded by USAID, the Farmer-to-Farmer program promotes sustainable improvements to agriculture and food security, and sends volunteers to more than 30 countries at the request of farmers, organizations, businesses and academic institutions. According to USAID, over the past five years volunteers helped nearly 2,000 host organizations increase annual sales by more than $400 million. Funding is awarded through grants to U.S. based non-governmental organizations with operations overseas.

Here, William Zimmerman tells his story. Volunteers normally provide personal consultations and training in country, but assignments became remote during the COVID pandemic. Zimmerman said most assignments last two to four weeks, with some longer. Some current assignments are returning to in-person. You can also read more on his blog at


Q: At what point in your life did you decide to focus on agriculture, and why?

A: My professional interest jumped from basic biological sciences to the applied science of agriculture during my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua from 1974 to 1976. My small agricultural group of nine had very low attrition (only one), and we bonded well for the most part. We lived up north isolated from most volunteers in southern towns or cities, and our sites were spread out from each other. Our duties were agriculture extension even though none of us had farming backgrounds. In this environment, I learned subsistence agriculture and became interested in soil algae for natural soil fertility.

Bill Zimmerman was a Peace Corps agricultural volunteer in Nicaragua.

Q: It looks like after your initial Peace Corps stint in Nicaragua, you delved deeper into agriculture with a PhD and more research on nitrogen fixation, and azolla. For us laypeople, what do those terms mean and why do they intrigue you?

A: Immediately after Peace Corps, I entered graduate school and focused on the use of soil algae as a biofertilizer, especially nitrogen-fixing blue-green algae, now called cyanobacteria.”This biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is the ability of select free-living or symbiotic bacteria to convert atmospheric N2 into NH3 that is assimilated into plant cellular metabolism to make amino acids, proteins, and other Nitrogen-containing organic compounds.  N2 gas composes 78% of our atmosphere, so these microorganisms are unique in their ability to use a free renewable resource to make “food.” A study of these microorganisms formed my master’s thesis.  I then garnered a Fulbright scholarship to Colombia to start my doctoral research. My dissertation topic shifted from free-living soil cyanobacteria to the nitrogen-fixing symbiosis of a floating water fern, Azolla, with one species of nitrogen-fixing cyanobacterium (blue-green alga), Anabaena azollae. This biofertilizer was historically used in rice paddies of Southeast Asia.

As my career matured my research and extension interests expanded to odoriferous cyanobacteria in drinking water reservoirs and, more broadly, into soil health and fertility. This broad perspective of soil health forms the basis of my field F2F assignments with training on climate-smart farming procedures to adapt to or mitigate effects of climate change.

Q: You returned to Peace Corps service through Crisis Corps in Nicaragua in 2000 and also to Liberia as a Response volunteer to teach. Which of those experiences was most satisfying to you, and why? 

A: My last service in Liberia was more satisfying. I had more experience in teaching and field work by that time, the assignment was much more focused, it was my first time in Africa, and my first involvement with higher education overseas.

At a local farm near Kakata, Liberia, in 2015, Zimmerman taught about soil health and erosion.

Q: Can you give an overview, a nutshell summary of your involvement with the Farmer-to-Farmer program and how you became interested?

A: After my Peace Corps Response (PCR) assignment in Liberia ended in 2013, I wanted to continue but family responsibilities prevented being away longer than a month. I discovered the Farmer-to-Farmer Program, which fulfills my desire for more assignments in developing nations for lengths of time compatible with my availability, and has opportunities that include my skill set.

For the past one and a half years, the COVID pandemic curtailed international travel.  My last 7 assignments have been remote trainings. Most of these have been paired assignments with one U.S.-based volunteer helping plan the overall training and sometimes participating in classroom training in countries with acceptable Internet reception, and one host-nation volunteer conducting the practical training and writing the final report.  Most countries, especially in Africa and Asia, will still conduct remote trainings into 2022.

Q: Are you an exceptional case with the Farmer-to-Farmer program since you've worked with it for seven years?

A: Some Famer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteers have decades of experience.  Most only have a few trips.  Since my initial F2F trips were only a year after my PCR service in Liberia, I completed them while still in a Peace Corps frame of mind, so I automatically compared the two types of positions.  Since my F2F Scopes of Work (SOWs) require qualified professionals at mid-career or later, there are higher expectations on a shorter timeline than with PCR. Our prior experience and cumulative skills are important for successful completion of assignment objectives. 

On the other hand, Peace Corps prepared me for overseas endeavors under circumstances more challenging than those faced by most USAID consultants. With F2F I have: a driver and vehicle to take me to work each day, so do not wait for a bus or bush taxi; accommodations that include a decent hotel or guesthouse much superior to places I would stay when out of site with Peace Corps; and an interpreter whenever necessary, very unlike Peace Corps. I was gratified but also felt a little guilty at first.

In 2019 in Guyana, William Zimmerman worked on soil amelioration in a coconut water bottling micro-enterprise.

Q: What challenges does climate change pose for the work of farmers you are helping? And aside from cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, what can we do from afar to help combat those challenges?

A: The challenges for smallholder and medium-enterprise farmers cover all aspects of farming from food to table. They are particularly severe in Africa, where half of the world’s poorest people reside. Sixty percent of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa are involved in agriculture. In any tropical region, effects of increased temperature and an erratic rainy season can create both droughts and destructive rainfall with floods.  Extreme weather events also encourage more famine or plagues, such as locusts in East Africa this year. Infrastructure, never excellent, is further damaged, increasing processing and storage expenses, and ultimately food prices.

Apart from cutting greenhouse gas emissions, everyone must learn that the old and new Green Revolutions favoring industrial agriculture (and chemicals) globally are a relative failure in Africa and certain other regions. Crop yields increase but soil health is destroyed.  Successful regenerative agriculture improves soil health for long-term soil fertility and increased crop yields. Forcing smallholder farmers to use patented seed and overuse synthetic chemicals improves corporate or country balance sheets but not nutritional livelihoods of family farmers.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you've seen in helping farmers in developing countries? 

A: One significant challenge in an F2F assignment is trying to monitor follow-through of recommendations if another local or governmental organization, volunteer, or NGO is not in place to do so.

Q: How can those of us with no farming background help farmers in developing countries?

A: There are many outlets for assistance, including actually volunteering with F2F on related assignments--grant writing, strategic planning, agribusiness, processing and storage, marketing, value chains, pedagogy. For Peace Corps and Peace Corps Response volunteers in F2F countries, communicating with us and others working on our projects could be appreciated. I always look for volunteers whenever I am overseas. Not all F2F volunteers have this perspective, of course, but it is my natural inclination.

Q: What has been the greatest reward of your Farmer-to-Farmer work?

A: My greatest satisfaction comes from making connections and friendships from my work, and seeing progress made after an assignment is completed.  Just as rewarding is the knowledge I gain each time from pre-trip research, cultural preparation, on-the-ground education, and documentation. I am always a student no matter what my age.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge of your work on the program?

A: Situational reality cannot be predicted.  An F2F volunteer must be very flexible and open minded because the assignment may alter because of weather, logistics, host priority, or whatever.  Sometimes I must make major changes to a Scope-of-Work to guarantee its completion.  But advance preparation for this possibility is a positive challenge. Finally, I always feel that I can do better, so am never fully satisfied.

 September 25, 2021