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Volunteering to work with disadvantaged farmers thousands of miles away is one of the things Robert Spencer likes best about his job.
Spencer, a small ruminant expert with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, began this career in 1998 with an internship at the University of Tennessee Extension. He spent the summer working with Lincoln County Extension Agent David Qualls in Fayetteville.
“It gave me a taste of extension work,” he said.
Spencer graduated from college in 2003 and started out working with Alabama A&M. In 2006, he began working for the Alabama Cooperative System, and since then, he’s worked in multi-state outreach, as well as international outreach. In addition to Myanmar, he has helped educate farmers in Haiti, El Salvador and Mexico.
“I have to say it’s the most rewarding work I do,” said Spencer.
He has also been asked to work in Afghanistan, Iraq and some Communist countries, but declined them at his wife Sydne’s request. Sydne is an engineer and artist, and together with Robert, produces Spencer’s Goat Milk Soap & Lotions.
Earlier this spring, the Taft resident flew more than 8,000 miles to help educate goat farmers and buyers in The Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The country is colloquially known as Myanmar, but democracy advocates and the U.S. Government continue to use the name Burma.
Spencer traveled to Myanmar in Southeast Asia as a volunteer with the Winrock International Farmer-to-Farmer Program. The Farmer-to-Farmer Program is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and is responsible for administering aid to civilians in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.
This Farmer-to-Farmer project partners also included Hla Shwe and Brothers Meat Production Enterprise and the Myanmar Livestock Federation with participants from the Pakokku Township, the Chaung-U Township and others in the Yangon region.
Winrock is dedicated to empowering disadvantaged populations, increasing economic opportunities for them and sustaining natural resources.
In Myanmar, Spencer not only taught the people how to improve and increase production but also provided hands-on training to local goat and sheep producers, as well as buyers in that region. This education involved multiple aspects of small ruminant production, such as better nutrition, breeding, herd health and meat quality control. He also taught them about improved water quality and how all of those factors contribute to animal quality and body-condition scoring when considering animals for market.
Spencer says the farmers there raise both goats and sheep, but the country consumes more goats and exports more sheep. There are three markets for goat collectors there who buy for China, Malaysia and Hla Shwe and Brothers Meat Production Enterprise.
He explained that farmers of Myanmar have limited financial resources and try to squeeze out a little profit, but overall the buyers of their stock are not happy with the quality of the goats and sheep. One of the things Spencer advised the farmers to do was to supplement their livestock’s nutritional shortcomings with minerals.
“It’s not just about helping farmers; it’s improving industry,” Spencer stated.
Farmers in Myanmar can earn approximately $2,600 per year, so they are happy if they can make a $2,000 profit. The suggested minimum wage there is $3 to $6 per day. Overseas $2,000-$3,000 makes a significant difference in income, Spencer said.
“It makes a big impact,” he noted.
An interpreter travels with him to make sure the farmers understand what Spencer is teaching, but he also watches the people’s expressions to see their reaction when he talks to them. He wants to see if they’re buying the information or are resistant to it. Sometimes he has to clarify ideas so they can better understand the concepts, but most of the time they’re really appreciative for someone to help them.
After the meetings, Spencer and the farmers eat meals together and visit their farms. One area in Myanmar he taught in had a significant Muslim population. There he taught a number farmers and ate a meal with them. Myanmar is 80 percent Buddhist, 10 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian or other religions, he said.
During his stay, he also reported back to hosts at a formal meeting in Yangon. On his last full day of work, several national television stations covered a major conference in which he participated.
While there, he was fortunate to tour the capital of Myanmar, Yan Gon.
“I spent a whole day seeing pagodas and parks,” he said.
On the day he was leaving, some of the local people took him to a Mango Festival and to the National Museum.
“The people are amazing — they made me more welcome than anywhere in the U.S.”
He would tell the people he met, “Thank you for making your Myanmar, my Myanmar.”
In the two and one-half weeks he spent in Myanmar, Spencer trained 111 farmers and more than 20 professionals.
“They were pleased with my work and were asking when I could come back,” he said.
Spencer hopes to return in about six months.