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Jerry Nolte, left, and Tony Jilek, right, continue building partnerships in Nicaragua to help the country improve agricultural production and economic sustainability. -- Photo submitted

Ag professors sow seeds of growth

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Like they do once or twice every year, retired UW-River Falls agriculture professors Jerry Nolte and Anthony Jilek leave for Nicaragua in January, continuing work and partnerships they started there decades ago.

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"It's a follow-up visit with the Farmer-to-Farmer program," explained Jilek, adding that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funds the FtF program.

The overriding mission of both is a mix of cultural exchange and helping impoverished countries establish sustainable development.

Partners strive to create long-term quality of life improvements for the natives.

Several sources agree that in the western hemisphere, Nicaragua is second in poverty only to Haiti.

Jilek taught at UWRF in the College of Agriculture Food and Environmental Science (CAFES) for 26 years and Nolte taught for 30. They listen to Nicaraguan farmers, learn about their work then make suggestions to improve productivity.

Much work involves building long-term relationships and trust.

The two men say they've been working recently on forage quality -- testing its nutritional content and the soil in which it grows.

They're excited about a potential deal with a commodities-trading company that will establish a forage-testing facility. The professors explained that conducting tests and producing forage data will ultimately improve the food and increase the farmers' yield.

Work toward a better future

The ag experts say producing better meat and milk depends heavily on knowing how much is being produced and its quality.

Cows in Nicaragua are now allowed to roam and graze, but the grasses lose nutrition from being too wet during the rainy season and from being too parched during the dry season.

Recently the professors helped build A-frame drying racks -- with covers -- that will enable Nicaraguan farmers to store forage and feed a higher-nutrition food to their livestock.

Jilek said, "In addition to forage testing, we're encouraging them to test beef," explaining that the younger, more tender beef sells at a premium.

They strive to get their animals to market faster than the four years it takes now, compared to as little as 18 months in the United States.

Another project with potential: On the way to Nicaragua now are 200 doses of bull sperm donated by an ag producer. Jilek and Nolte had little experience shipping such an item -- learning quickly about clearing customs and maintaining a proper shipping temperature.

Jilek said cross breeding native animals with Jerseys and milking shorthorns could produce native animals that better handle the hot, dry climate, "We're hoping to try that because they're better grazers than what they have now," he said.

University employees Dan Semi and Valerie Malzacher have also traveled to Nicaragua to establish more and better access to information. Farmers now have more online resources including a forum where they can compare notes.

Jilek and Nolte may also introduce the idea of milking goats as livestock. Cows are perceived to be more prestigious, but goats' milk can be used for any kind of cheese and commands a higher price on the international market.

Goats would thrive in Nicaragua's rocky, hilly landscape and hot weather. Other potential projects are to create a grading system for meat quality and a foreign-study exchange program between River Falls and Nicaragua.

Nolte said, "Our goal is to see real development."

Partner-city missions

During each trip to Nicaragua, Jilek and Nolte visit Ocotal, a partner city to River Falls and Hudson since 1988 through the Partners in Wisconsin program.

Separate from their university-associated work, the men coordinate with people in Ocotal to help improve their quality of life.

The men hope to help a baseball program for boys aged 12-18. To participate, the program requires that the boys stay in school and do well.

There are four full teams but only enough equipment for one team at a time. Nolte and Jilek say they'd be happy to bring or buy the group enough used equipment to supply all the teams.

They say soccer and basketball equipment -- everything from balls and nets to goals, shoes and uniforms -- are also welcome. Sports give the kids something productive to do.

"They're working with basically nothing, other than the volunteers," Jilek said.

The professors' work through Wisconsin Partners has also added computer equipment and a community kitchen at a center for abused women. At the center, women and children of both genders learn cooking, sewing, pottery, artwork and other skills.

Nolte says with a frown that some of the people there come from "terrible" circumstances. But the thriving center offers hope -- and has so many cooking students it could use another oven.

The kitchen has only a dirt floor, so the men would like to pour concrete there but need about $300 to do it.

Jilek said, "It's important for people to know that when they give through the Wisconsin partners, it's 501c3."

He said anyone who can help -- with gifts of money, materials, time, state-side coordination or program involvement in the future -- should contact him, preferably before the next trip Jan. 10: 715-425-8923, 715-220-7527 or Anthony.f.jilek@uwrf.edu.

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