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BRAZIL: Teens Teach Parents New Family Farming Techniques

Roberto Villar Belmonte - Special to IPS

TRÊS PASSOS, Brazil, Aug 30 2006 (IPS) - For centuries, farming methods have been passed down from parents to children. But an innovative rural education programme has broken with that tradition, and students are now bringing home new techniques to teach their parents in the Brazilian municipality of Três Passos.

The award-winning programme helped raise local per capita gross domestic product (GDP) from 2,800 to 6,500 dollars between 1998 and 2004.

“I always wanted to leave the countryside and find a job in the city, to live a better life,” says Claudiana Inara Urnau, 18. That dream was shared by just about all of the sons and daughters of the small farmers in Três Passos, in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is known for its dairy and pork production.

But Claudiana’s future began to change when high school teacher Zilá Maria Breitenbach, who taught math and history, was elected mayor in 1997 of this municipality located just 40 km from the Argentine border. One of the big challenges faced by the new mayor was to curb the exodus of youngsters to the towns and cities of southern Brazil.

Disillusioned adolescents and young people, fed up with the lack of prospects in the countryside and encouraged by success stories of urban prosperity, began to leave their farms, which in Três Passos average 10 hectares in size.

The exodus, which affected a large part of the 2,000 local small farms, gradually weakened agricultural activity in the municipality, which in the 1970s had been considered the pork capital of Brazil.

The situation became so critical that rural retirement pensions were the main source of income for many of the local farm families.

In her first year in office, Breitenbach – who was reelected in 2001 – began to organise discussions with representatives of the entire community of Três Passos about the main problems facing the countryside, which is the basis of the economy of this municipality of 24,000 people, 70 percent of whom live within the town limits.

The result was the 1998 launch of the “Programa Semeando Educação e Saúde na Agricultura Familiar” (Sowing Education and Health in Family Agriculture Programme), which in December received the 2005 Brazilian Millennium Development Goal (MDG) prize, granted by the government in conjunction with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Between 1998 and 2006, 2,250 students took part in the Semeando Programme, taking classes on farm techniques at five rural schools. But not all of the farms have adopted the new model, which has revitalised family agriculture in the area, because some farmers have put up resistance.


“We didn’t have any idea what the programme was about,” says Claudiana. “But after the classes, our milk production increased from 2,600 to nearly 4,000 litres (a year), when we divided up our land and began to rotate our 10 cows from pasture to pasture.”

Her life was not the only one that changed.

“Now I’m much more motivated to study,” says 15-year-old Patrícia Fernanda Schaab, a former student of one of the five rural schools in Três Passos. “I learned how to do new things on our farm. When I studied farming techniques in the classroom, like how to raise vegetables, I would go home and talk to my mother. My father wouldn’t listen.”

“This year I asked Patrícia’s 11-year-old brother Diego to find out in class how to grow tomatoes. I had never raised them before. I am learning along with my children,” says Clair Schaab, 43.

“They also have good ideas,” Patrícia and Diego’s father, Inácio Valdir Schaab, 44, now grudgingly admits.

“The farm is a company,” comments 17-year-old dairy farmer Diego Paetzold. “I learned that in the Semeando Programme. Money would come in, but no one really thought about how it should be administered. I want to stay on the farm, and to always continue learning. I have nothing to complain about. We used to produce 100 litres of milk, and now we’re up to 360.”

“The students in our five rural schools now understand that they can make a living from the land, if they run their farms well,” says former mayor Breitenbach. “Another achievement was to revive the farm fairs, which have improved integration in the community.”

“I talked to the young people who were sharing their new knowledge with their parents, and I was impressed with the results,” says Alexandra do Lago Grazinoli, technical adviser to the presidency’s national secretariat for coordinating social policy. She was on the panel that studied the projects that were shortlisted for the Brazil 2005 MDG award.


Fourteen-year-old Lair Silveira raises his hand during a class on dairy production at the Guia Lopes Municipal School, to ask agricultural technician Jair Locatelli: “Teacher, why should milk be boiled before we drink it?”

Most of the 11 students in the course have dairy cows at home.

The teacher says that milk can be drunk without boiling it first as long as certain hygiene measures are followed. He continues on to explain the chemical breakdown of milk, the steps that must be taken when milking a cow, and proper feed for dairy cows.

The Semeando Programme provides classes on farming techniques to seventh and eighth-grade students in the five rural schools in Três Passos. However, the courses do not only focus on theory, but involve hands-on projects on the students’ family farms, overseen by five technicians hired by the municipal government.

The activities are designed and organised by three municipal secretariats: education, agriculture and health. While the classes are for seventh and eighth-grade students, the curriculums of other grades have also incorporated training in agricultural techniques. All students, in every area, benefit from the new approach.

“Environmental questions impregnate all of our classes,” explains high school teacher Katiane Schmeier, 26, who teaches history and geography. “Today, for example, we are going to study global warming and the increased intensity of hurricanes, a phenomenon that affected the coast of Rio Grande do Sul state for the first time in 2004.”

The courses have also been incorporated in a state secondary school in the area, where the graduates of municipal middle schools continue learning about farming techniques. And through an agreement with the State University of Rio Grande do Sul, a higher education course focusing on agribusiness will begin to be offered this year.


“One of the biggest difficulties was the resistance of the high school teachers, who were not prepared for the reality of rural life,” says educator Lenir Buchner, coordinator of the Semeando Programme. “Our challenge was to develop the teaching materials.. Parents also resisted the changes. Even today we have farmers who refuse to accept the new ideas.”

“The special classes have helped farmers take advantage of other municipal programmes that provide incentives for dairy farming, fruit production (peaches, figs and grapes), pork farming, agribusiness and eucalyptus plantations,” explains Mayor Carlos Alberto Canova. “This way they begin to see their land as a source of income.”

Last year, the diversification promoted by the municipal government helped Três Passos weather the worst drought suffered by Rio Grande do Sul in 60 years. The drought led to an 8.5 million ton fall in the state’s production of soybeans, corn and beans, and economic losses of a magnitude never seen before, amounting to nearly 1.7 billion dollars.

But despite the drought and the drop in soybean production, dairy output in Três Passos grew from 10 to 14 million litres a year from 2004 to 2005, increasing the revenues of small farmers by nearly 700,000 dollars. The municipal government estimated local GDP growth at nearly 10 percent between 2004 and 2005.

The number of pigs in Três Passos has grown in the past eight years from less than 10,000 to more than 70,000. Sadia, a leading Brazilian food company, operates a pork export plant in the town, which caters especially to the Russian market, and has seen its output rise to 600,000 animals slaughtered per year.


Mayor Canova is intent on maintaining and expanding the Semeando Programme. Despite the success of the rural education initiative, the number of students has been falling off.

According to municipal government figures, 194 students were registered in the courses in 2001 and 177 in 2002. In 2003 the number dropped to 135, and although it recovered slightly to 149 in 2004, it fell again, to 132 and 111 in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

But Jinete Vivian, a research adviser with the municipal Planning Secretariat, says the drop in students is not due to people moving to the cities, but to a regionwide decline in the birth rate in rural areas. Besides, she explains, in the early years of the programme, many students who had dropped out of school were drawn back by the success of the initiative.

The reduction in the number of students has also been seen in seven primary schools, of first to fourth-graders, located in rural areas of Três Passos. Several have even been forced to close due to the lack of students, says local Education Secretary Evandro Luis Mohr. The students have been transferred to the Semeando Programme’s five schools.

Another problem is the lack of funds to finance the activities of the five agricultural technicians who are helping train the students. They travel to the farms, where the projects are carried out, by motorcycle, for which they receive just 50 litres of fuel a month and no funds for maintenance and repairs.

Besides visiting the farms of the Semeando Programme’s 111 students, of some of the students from the Roque Gonzalez State School, and of former students with whom they have stayed in contact, the technicians are also sought out by families who don’t have children in the Programme’s schools.

While the Semeando Programme’s organisers are seeking solutions to these problems, Claudiana Urnau no longer dreams about a job in the city.

She now has other goals: to continue studying new farming techniques at the University of Rio Grande do Sul, and to get a licence to drive the family motorcycle, which she is already skilled at riding on the hills of her small farm.

No one knows where she will be working in the future. Probably on her family’s land. But wherever she ends up, after taking the Semeando Programme’s classes, Urnau will say with pride: “My parents are family farmers from Três Passos.”

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