People are the reason Jim Sundholm traveled 3½ hours from Vashon Island to Yakima to bag apples in a windswept church parking lot Saturday morning.
The apples were bagged and sold by church volunteers from Washington and Oregon to help subsistence farmers in one of Africa’s poorest and most remote countries, the Central African Republic.
“At the end of the day, it’s people helping people,” Sundholm said as he stood outside Wiley Heights Covenant Church.
He squinted his eyes as a wind gust pushed across the parking lot.
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“Fruit is life,” he said.
A retired pastor, Sundholm is a parishioner at First Covenant Church in Seattle, one of the 13 churches participating in the fundraiser that raised nearly $7,000.
The money will go to the Centre d’Experimentation et de Formation Agricole (Center for Experimentation and Formation in Agriculture), a research farm in the Central African Republic.
The farm — called by its acronym CEFA — will use the money to develop fruit well-suited to the region. The crops will then be shared with local farmers, said Angela Boss, a program director with the Food Resource Bank, the churches’ partner in the fundraiser.
Agriculture dominates the African country’s economy by necessity. Farmers overwhelmingly produce crops to feed their families rather than for export.
“You have people who’ve been farming for generations and generations but have had no outside knowledge,” Boss said.
The farmers can’t experiment with new techniques because failure could mean no food on the table.
In the United States, tax dollars have heavily supported research, experimentation and education in agriculture. For example, extension programs across Washington are researching new methods for growing apples and producing wine.
But that’s not an option in the Central African Republic, where rebels seized power this year after more than a year of fighting.
“The country really has no functioning government,” said Boss, who worked for CEFA from 2005 to 2006.
So, CEFA tries to fill that role. Simple things can make a big difference for the 25 agricultural communities working with CEFA.
For example, the country’s staple crop is cassava, but almost all of its plants were diseased. Farmers had been growing diseased plants for so long, they didn’t realize it, Boss said.
The people were amazed when CEFA staff showed them a plant with full, healthy leaves. The farm began working with the communities to replace the diseased plants with healthy ones.
The money raised this year will pay for about 1,350 fruit trees at CEFA, which will then share them with farmers.
Last year, Wiley Heights Covenant Church, Selah Covenant Church, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Yakima and Christ Church, an Episcopal parish in Zillah, raised $3,000 for CEFA.
“We had no idea at all if it would work,” said Mark Swanson, pastor at Wiley Heights.
But it did, and they expanded it to include other congregations of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
Volunteers from the churches presell 10-pound bags of apples, which are donated by orchardists, for $10 a bag.
After the harvest, the apples are delivered to Wiley Heights’ parking lot, where volunteers from each church bag the apples. They then deliver the fruit in their respective communities.
At first, the churches weren’t sure how they’d get the apples from Yakima to the various congregations for delivery, Swanson said.
Then someone hit on the idea of volunteers coming to Yakima to bag the apples.
“Our greatest liability became this opportunity for connection and community and to show off Yakima,” Swanson said.