Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Volunteer Spotlight: Vern Cardwell

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CTI has collaborated with skilled volunteers since we were founded in 1981 by engineers and scientists who sought to use their expertise to fight global hunger. On our design team, you’ll a find a creative and quirky bunch of seasoned experts from a variety of fields. Take Vern Cardwell, an agronomist who spent 45 years teaching at the University of Minnesota, before retiring and becoming a daily fixture in CTI’s lab. Vern’s work and wisdom have impacted so many people, and he’s been instrumental in the development of our groundnut tools and grain thresher. We recently spoke to Vern about why he volunteers and what drives him to spend his retirement working to fight global hunger.

Why do you volunteer?

I taught a course on world food problems for 15 years at the University of Minnesota and I’ve had the opportunity to work with farming communities around the world. I’ve lived through the horse drawn equipment era to the modern 1000 hp tractors and so I recognize that big machinery can do a lot of things, but big machinery isn’t going to solve the problems of small farmers.

When you arrive on some of these African villages and you look across the skyline, you can’t see a power pole anywhere, there’s no electricity. You look around and there are no motorized vehicles other than the ones you came in. You ask to see their tools and they show you a machete and a short handled hoe. It’s a lot of backbreaking work. When you talk to the women, who are doing most of the work, and they very matter-of-factly point out, “We have our periods of hunger, where there isn’t enough food for our children, and there are deaths in our family.” That gives you a sense of urgency to do something to improve on the situation.

I retired in December of 2012 and I started working as a volunteering in January. I’ve been putting in 20-25 hours a week ever since and have made 5 trips to Malawi and one to Tanzania. 

What drives you to care about global hunger?

All we have to do is think about where we came from. My grandparents left Russia at the time that the Bolshevik revolution in 1914. They didn’t have enough money to come directly to the US, so they ended up going first to Argentina. Grandpa worked on a wheat farm to earn enough to get to Tampa. When they got to Tampa, grandma was rejected. She had to leave. She and several others in their group went to Cuba. After about three months grandma was able to come to the US and meet up with grandpa again.

But by the grace of god, I could have been a Russian, I could have been an Argentinian, I could have been a Cuban. But I am an American. Each of us, we are all in this country, immigrants. We may have been born here but our forefathers came from somewhere else. And the fact that we have what we have is a tribute to their hard work, but it’s also a tribute to the bounty that this nation has in terms of natural resources.

Africa is the dry continent. The oldest soils in the world are in Africa. The soils have been weathered; they have been leached and are low in natural fertility in many areas. And so our bounty is not because we’re so much smarter, but because we have a rich geographic area that has above normal precipitation, and 25% of the world’s class one land. We take it for granted and we shouldn’t.

Does that make you feel a sense of responsibility?

Hunger and poverty are the responsibility of everyone. It’s not just nonprofit groups or church groups. Our corporate leaders have a responsibility, our government has a responsibility, and each of us individually has a responsibility. Sometimes it’s giving gifts to support and other times it’s working with legislatures. It is only going to be through collective efforts that we we’ll see the kinds of improvements that are needed, where the tools, infrastructure, political and economic conditions in these areas provide the resources for the villagers where they have a voice in their future. Then their lives will begin to improve.