Joining the Peace Corps was a natural next step for Rita Argus and Daniel Stevenson after they earned their degrees from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Whether it was through study abroad programs or in-the-field agriculture experiences, the students found their inspiration through different facets within the institution.
But their Wisconsin values were a constant.
“Classroom wise, professors often talked about ‘The Wisconsin Idea’ – the thought that what we are learning in the classroom should be applicable to real world situations,” Argus said. “I think this has conditioned me to better apply what I learned to help with problems and challenges I am encountering here.”
Peace Corps agriculture volunteers work with small-scale farmers and families to increase food security, food production, and adapt to climate change. They introduce farmers to techniques that prevent soil erosion, reduce the use of harmful pesticides, and replenish the soil. Often times, volunteers return from the field with a sharpened perspective on their academic and career goals.
For Stevenson and Argus, that meant using their talents in agriculture to make the world a better place.
“My idea of agriculture has always been of the extremely large-scale, mechanized, high-input Western-style farming. It was a real adjustment to come to a place like this, where most people farm on less than five hectares of land and almost everything is done by hand,” Stevenson said. “People here have techniques and technologies they have developed over hundreds of years that are well-adapted to the land and climate of their area. I spend most of my days learning, instead of teaching.”
Serving as a volunteer in Cameroon altered misconceptions Stevenson had about what agriculture in Africa looked like, and motivated him to pursue a career in public policy, specifically in food security issues.
A year into his service, Stevenson has created tree nurseries, produced trainings for farmer groups, and is involved in the Feed the Future project to introduce the moringa oleifera tree to his community. Stevenson’s work with the moringa oleifera tree – which reaps a number of benefits, from preventing soil erosion, to containing over 90 nutrients, 46 antioxidants, and 35 anti-inflammatory compounds – has been the most inspiring.
“It was really inspiring to work alongside 25 or so farmers to clear and plant a field of 940 moringa trees with the members of a local farming cooperative,” Stevenson said. “They were volunteering their time to help plant a tree that most had never heard of before, in support of a project we still don’t know will be successful.”
Still, no day is the same for Stevenson. Looking back, Stevenson believes the Peace Corps was the best decision he made.
“The UW-M really taught me to think both critically and empathetically about new information and new ideas, skills that are essential as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, where I have to balance different agendas and find my own place within a new culture,” he said.
Like Stevenson, agriculture was always a big part of Argus’s life.
While serving in Senegal, Argus advised farmers on their farming techniques, facilitated research groups, and worked to improve her community’s way of life through agriculture. Through the Master Farm Program in Senegal, Argus showcased Peace Corps agriculture technologies through demonstrations and trainings.
She also facilitated two leadership camps that focused on health, the environment, and the future. But Argus’ defining moment was facilitating Girls’ Camp. The five-day camp brought in 40 girls to tackle topics such as leadership development, health, the environment, and self-identity.
“I was seriously blown away by how awesome the camp was this year and I am so inspired to see the girls seizing opportunities that their mothers didn’t have,” Argus said. “Keep an eye on this generation. They are going to bring about some big changes.”
Argus completed her Peace Corps service in November 2016, and has spent the last few months traveling before returning to her hometown of Helenville, Wisconsin.
“I would love to continue to use my talents to make the world just a little bit better. I think that we are doing a lot of good work, development wise, but I also think we have a lot of improvements to make and I would like to help make that improvement happen,” Argus said. “I am not sure where that is going to take me after Peace Corps, but I am excited to start that new chapter.”
Interested in serving in the Peace Corps as an agriculture volunteer? Attend MOSES, a three day long agriculture conference in Minnesota, and speak with our recruiters about how you can use your skills in agriculture to make a difference.
Read more stories about Peace Corps agriculture volunteers here.