If you give a man an agouti …

Issak Egge

Photo By Larry Dalton

Canned food and winter coats are well and good for Christmas giving, but have you ever given a cow to a family in need? A llama, a water buffalo or a hive of bees? No? Then let us introduce you to Heifer Project International, which uses your donations to purchase food animals and to provide training and support for sustainable agriculture programs in impoverished communities around the world. We talked with Issak Egge, who heads up Heifer’s Sacramento office. Check out www.heifer.org or call (916) 442-3330 for more information.

Where did Heifer get its start?

The story goes that in 1937, there was a gentleman by the name of Dan West, who was working in post-civil-war Spain for a relief organization. He was given the task of handing out powdered milk to communities facing famine. It didn’t sit well with him because he was essentially creating dependencies, the standard handouts. He had a little dairy background, and he thought to himself, “Instead of this cup of powdered milk, what could folks do with a cow?” He went home, and he pitched the idea to his buddies, and in 1944, they shipped the first heifers, 18 of them, to Puerto Rico. They trained the communities in animal husbandry and all the issues that would come with increased income and a surplus of food. And it grew from there.

It sounds like the old saw about giving a man a fish …

Right. West was from Indiana and was member of the Church of the Brethren, and that had a real role in the origin of Heifer. Our cornerstones relate heavily to a lot of scripture, and a lot of our support comes from various congregations. We aren’t a faith-based organization, though.

Wouldn’t it be easier to send food instead of animals?

It would. But one is sustainable, and one is not. The thought of helping people without creating dependencies is what really appealed to West and his supporters. So, they decided to take it upon themselves to actually ship animals. After World War II, Heifer was asked to play a pretty significant role in the redevelopment of the rural areas of Europe. So, we provided, by 1956, our 10,000th heifer to Germany, for example.

Sacramento and the Central Valley played an important role after that.

When we began to ship animals to South America, the port of Richmond was one of our main hubs for shipment. A number of what we call seagoing cowboys came from the Sacramento region. These seagoing cowboys came from all over the West Coast and would round up the animals and bring them to the port of Richmond and deliver them. And a lot of our volunteers around here are in their 90s, people who were shipping animals back then.

But you don’t ship cows anymore?

No, that was where we started was with the shipment of cows. Milk was the greatest need. But we no longer ship animals. We purchase locally [in the project country], and it’s much more successful. The animals are acclimatized, they are more disease resistant, and it’s good for the local economy. And in some places like India, cows are not appropriate. The need is intense certainly. But more-appropriate animals would be water buffalo or goats. One thing that Heifer adheres to at all costs is culture. The first question we ask is “What is consistent with your culture and your environment?”

So, what are some culturally appropriate critters?

Honeybees. Fish. Aquaculture is growing at an incredible rate because of the massive fish shortages in Southeast Asia. Donkeys for transportation. Earthworms are an incredible resource for coffee growers in Guatemala and Honduras. Let’s see, the agouti—a small rat-like animal indigenous to South America and West Africa—that’s a highly nutritious animal. Through the years, we’ve worked with 32 different types of animals. We work with trees, too.

So, you just drop the animals into the communities, or …

There’s an incredibly extensive training process that goes into these programs, because sustainability is not easy. If you drop a water buffalo in a village in Vietnam, what are you going to do if that water buffalo gets sick? How are you going to feed that water buffalo? What are you going to do with its milk? We want to help people today, but we want to help them 10 15, 30 years down the line. To do that, the training process is as important as the animals.

Tell me about the idea of “passing on the gift.”

It’s the cornerstone that drives Heifer. Let’s say we have a community of 1,000 families. Rather than provide 1,000 animals, one to each of those families, Heifer will provide 50 animals to 50 families and train them. Those families have to pass on the first female offspring of that animal to another family in that community, along with the same training. And that goes on, from the second family to the third, indefinitely. So, we have planted the seed, and the community does the rest of the work. It’s an incredibly empowering process, and that’s what really drives our projects.