Meet an Agricultural Scientist: Edward Paterson
Through Australian Volunteers for International Development program, Australian Agricultural Scientist Edward Paterson joined Fargeen for 5 months from February-July 2017, dedicating his passion and expertise in agricultural science to Fargreen’s mushroom production. We caught up with him to understand more about his experiences while based in our farm headquarters in Thai Binh Province.
How did you initially become interested in Agricultural sciences?
Mushrooms have actually been a curiosity of mine ever since I was a kid growing up exploring the vast farmlands of my home town in central Tasmania. I think my passion for agriculture really began from these childhood adventures and only grew from there and pushed me into an agricultural science degree. When my early research brought me to Vietnam to visit farmers around Tuy Hoa and Quy Nhon in South Central Coastal Vietnam I knew I wanted to delve further into agricultural extension–I was intrigued by the power of smallholder farmers in changing the living conditions for whole communities, which led me to pursue work within the Australian government after completing an Honors degree.
How did you end up joining Fargreen?
The opportunity at Fargreen came at an ideal time, as I had had similar thoughts to the Fargreen model about using mushrooms to increase incomes and food security in smallholder communities. A friend of mine saw the work opportunity through the Australian volunteers network and I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance to get involved with Fargreen growing and monitoring mushrooms in Thai Binh!
What was life like in Thai Binh?
Well while Fargreen’s production headquarters is located in a farming community, it’s not as isolated as I expected like the farming landscape of my hometown. In fact the Thai Binh countryside is buzzing with people and activity. It was a little daunting initially, being so different to home and also being the only foreigner in the region but I was able to get into the swing of things pretty quickly.
The rice planting and harvesting cycle acts as a long slow clock counting the year as it goes by, and being in the countryside really allowed me to understand how intricately the people and culture are connected to food and nature. I felt myself becoming more and more attached to the place and the people the longer I was there.
How would you describe your daily work at Fargreen?
My main role was to advise the production team on how to increase mushroom yield and quality. I toured the farms regularly with the production assistant, Em Cuc, to make observations and discuss with farmers and Fargreen production staff about any notable variables such as mushroom deformities, contamination or weather conditions, which would help me to determine causes or guide new research.
Additionally I worked with the staff to increase the scientific basis to their work through data analysis and evidence led decisions. My hope is that all future decisions are made because the data reveals where to go next.
Can you explain a bit about the networking relationship Fargreen has with farmers?
The model is different to any I have seen before and it’s a relationship that benefits all.
The farmers are employed to grow mushrooms and vegetables, which supplements the income from their other farming activities. They also are only actively engaged in Fargreen work for part of the day or week. This allows plenty of time to undertake their normal farm work, and thus complements rather than provides alternate work for the farmers.
The semi-fixed income means that the farmers aren’t exposed to the risk of a failed harvest; mushroom production is unpredictable and is exposed to the vagaries of the weather, contamination and other unknown additional elements. That being said, if the batch of mushrooms goes all well and they are fruiting as expected, there is a financial incentive for the farmers to provide ideal conditions for a high yield as well as harvest the mushrooms at their peak quality. A small company cannot support a large number of employees but the model Fargreen operates within provides the best out of Fargreen and Fargreen’s partner farmers.
Did you have to work through any challenges?
Communicating with the farmers and staff in Thai Binh was challenging. I do not speak much Vietnamese and some of the ideas I tried to communicate were complex, much more than my Vietnamese allowed for. This required me to change my approach to become more effective in conveying my messages. Using visual aids, such as drawings and graphs, and demonstrating what I meant, along with translation helped me become better at communicating ideas.
Sometimes mealtimes were a limit testing experience especially when I was offered dog meat during a gathering at my hotel!
Any last thoughts or memorable experiences?
I was particularly inspired by people’s can do attitude-that anything can be achieved with a sense of ingenuity. Also the sense of community I encountered will stick with me.
I have learned a lot during my time in Vietnam, most of it I think will become clearer to me after I have left and I’ll be reminded from time to time. I think I will definitely take a greater sense of openness, both to people and to ideas, home with me. The people I have worked with have been so open to me and the ideas I have brought with me from the other side of the world. I have felt welcomed and included and appreciate that so much-it will last with me.