In the coffee, rice and rubber farms of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 24-year-old Trung Nguyen has seen all too many relatives develop cancer, due to the unfettered use of chemical pesticides. As he nears the end of a 10-month agricultural training program in Israel’s Arava Desert, Nguyen is determined to bring what he has learned back home, to both change this stark reality and modernize farming techniques in the local Buôn Ma Thuôt community.
“We cannot depend on chemical agriculture anymore – it’s not good for our health. We also learn about sustainable agriculture,” he told The Jerusalem Post last week. “We would like to apply this kind of growth back in our country.”
Nguyen is a participant in the diploma program at the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training (AICAT), a learning institute in the central Arava Desert community of Sapir and under the jurisdiction of the Central Arava Regional Council. Established in 1994, AICAT operates with the support of the Foreign Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry, and benefits from funds raised by Jewish National Fund-USA.
Hosting about 1,200 students each year, AICAT has produced more than 16,000 alumni who are determined to adapt the skills they have learned in their communities back home in Africa and Asia, according to Noa Zer, the regional council’s resource development director.
“The demand far exceeds the supply,” Zer said. “This is what we look at as a win-win-win situation. For the students themselves, it’s a great program that combines theoretical knowledge with practical training.”
For the duration of the Arava’s agricultural season, from about August to June, the students come to AICAT to hone both their theoretical and practical skills, all the while living with farmers in the region and earning money by working with them, Zer explained. Not only do they study new cultivation techniques and agricultural technologies, but they also learn a wealth of management, marketing and business skills in the program.
“To be a farmer today is to be a businessman in the field of farming,” Zer said. “The students are getting valuable knowledge; they are getting practical training.”
While most of the students come to participate in the 10-month diploma program, about 20 people each year have now been signing up for a master’s degree track – an option launched two years ago in collaboration with Tel Aviv University, Zer said. In addition to offering the diploma and master’s degree programs, AICAT hosts groups for short-term groups in advanced agricultural studies.
No matter which course the students choose, Zer stressed that their exposure to innovation and the spirit of the Arava Desert continues to guide them when they return home.
“The main lesson that they learn in the Arava is making the impossible possible,” she said. “It inspires them.”
Paired to work and live with individual farmers, each student in the diploma program must formulate a mini project related to the crop cultivated at that farm, and present the results of the assignment at the end of the 10-month program, explained one of their teachers and a farmer herself, Maayan Plaves Kitron.
“The most important thing that they gain here is the option or the ability to think not in a traditional way, like their parents do,” said Plaves Kitron, who is the horticulture coordinator at the Yair Research and Development Center (Central and Northern Arava R&D Center).
While many of the participants may grow rice at home simply because their parents grew the same crop, they are quickly “exposed to options, to possibilities to do so much more” at the AICAT program, according to Plaves Kitron.
“You see the change,” she said. “They take risks and they dare to think differently from the rest of the people around them. This is what I’m trying to encourage with them, to open their minds and [make them] think a bit different. Even if you grow rice, try to think how you can grow it and improve your crop.”
This is exactly what Nguyen, the Vietnamese student, is aiming to do when he completes the program in a few months and returns home. Describing how the Arava farmers are able to raise crops in a harsh desert while Vietnam’s tropical climate offers optimal growth conditions, he stressed the importance of strengthening agricultural innovation in his country.
Doing so, Nguyen said, could provide a host of advantages, such as reducing Vietnamese dependence on China as well as curbing cancer rates from irresponsible pesticide use.
One reason chemicals are used in such a widespread manner to grow cheap food in Vietnam is the country’s desire to reduce dependence on China as a food source, he explained.
“We come here to learn how to grow in any kind of conditions. We learn how to export, how to market,” Nguyen said. “In Vietnam, we are dependent on China. Many farmers have problems with the economy because of the Chinese dealers.
“We have to save the farmers and our people,” he added.
In order for more students like Nguyen to come learn at AICAT, JNF-USA is providing financial support for an ongoing expansion project to double the capacity of the program’s campus. As Earth Day approaches this April 22, the organization is including the training center among its top priority fund-raising efforts. Already by next year, JNF-USA executives said they hope to see 2,000 students training at AICAT, and 5,000 in the near future.
“Jewish National Fund is very committed to the miracle that is AICAT – and every day is Earth Day for students attending the center,” said Adam H. Brill, JNF-USA’s director of communications. “At AICAT, students learn best practices and the latest in science and innovation to feed their villages back home.”
Some such practices include reduction of and more efficient water use, as well as employing smart and sustainable technologies like drip irrigation – for precision water, fertilizer and nutrient delivery, according to Brill who has witnessed firsthand the joy and accumulated knowledge students share while attending AICAT.
“JNF-USA’s ongoing fund-raising goals for AICAT include the development of new buildings on the AICAT campus to meet the growing global student interest, as we literally have many thousands of students competing annually to attend the center” Brill added.
In Zer’s mind, doubling the campus’s capacity also means fulfilling several critical JNF missions, including populating the Arava Desert with a new “economic engine” in the region and spreading a positive image of Israel among participants.
Hanni Arnon, the executive director and founder of AICAT, echoed these sentiments, describing the training center as “a bridge between peoples,” where both agriculture and the human spirit know no borders.
“They learn here in the Arava that if you will it, it’s not a dream,” Arnon said. “With faith, a pioneering spirit and ingenuity, you can make the desert bloom.”
While AICAT participants may gain enormous advantages as they head back to manage their farms at home, Zer pointed out how Israel also benefits significantly from hosting them, even if temporarily.
“We introduce them to Israel. They live on farms with farmers,” she said. “They really see the real face of Israel. They are the best ambassadors of the State of Israel you’ll ever find.” This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.