“There is something unique about watching something grow,” says Austin Larrowe, a senior from Woodlawn, Va. “It’s amazing how much potential is in one tiny seed.”
Larrowe, an applied economics management and agricultural sciences major, transplanted that potential at home and across the globe, growing ideas that feed the hungry and build the capacity of communities.
His inspiration began with a home-grown love of agriculture. The son of a former Virginia Cooperative Extension agent, Larrowe was a 2009-10 state officer of the National FFA Organization. Inspired by travels to more than 30 countries, the Pamplin Scholar developed a passion for two fields, international affairs and agriculture. His energy and ideas ignited projects that spread from Southwest Virginia across two continents.
During his freshman year, Larrowe founded Feed by Seed, a nonprofit that provides agriculture education and support to underserved populations. The group sponsors on-campus educational sessions and promotes volunteerism in hunger-related initiatives.
During the spring 2014 term, Feed by Seed promoted an effort to package 1.2 million meals in a single day. The nutrition-dense meals were scheduled to be distributed from Roanoke, Va., to food banks across the United States.
The nonprofit’s primary focus, however, is operating an 18-acre farm in Nicaragua.
“In the area where we started the farm, most students and their families are trying to survive on about $2 a day,” Larrowe said. “We teach them the skills to produce food they can eat themselves or sell.”
The crops fill an immediate need: managing hunger. But that is not the most significant outcome of the project, Larrowe said.
“The food we grow fights hunger, but it also nourishes spirits,” Larrowe said. “The people have been beaten down. War, drugs, natural disasters, and poverty have robbed them of hope. With every plant that grows, the farm gives a piece of that back.”
Feed by Seed works in tandem with other nonprofits to train families, using sustainable agriculture techniques modified for the conditions in the region.
“The training center is important to the region simply because we are seeking to help families sustain life,” said Donald M. Gillette of Because We Care Ministries, a partner in the project, who oversees farming on-site. “Because of the harsh conditions – weather, volcanic soil – it’s virtually impossible to grow vegetables. What Feed by Seed brings to the table could not be measured. Austin’s organization and the expertise of the students from Virginia Tech have literally changed our world. One person in the program has been able to provide for his family, and now he has 17 other families in training.”
To date, more than 3,200 villagers have benefitted from learning opportunities and food distribution, and Feed by Seed has organized more than 60 public-service experiences in Nicaragua for individuals from the United States.
The farm grows sorghum, corn, plantains, greens, tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, and other important local crops. Workers raise rabbits, poultry, and dairy goats and also manage a tilapia pond.
Although he considers the farm a success, Larrowe said it hasn’t been easy. Finding seeds and techniques suitable for the environment can be a matter of trial and error.
“We’ve found about a thousand ways not to do things,” he said.
Hope Wentzel, a junior from Alexandria, Va., studying animal and poultry sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, visited the farm in 2012.
“It’s a living process,” she said. “There is a clear goal with clear direction on how to achieve it, but the approach is not inflexible. Growing the food is not the only challenge. Convincing people to try foods, like eggplant, that they haven’t seen before takes some creativity and patience.
“Becoming involved with Feed by Seed was incredible in ways I can’t describe,” Wentzel said. “I was aware of poverty and hunger, but this put a face on it. I was surprised, not by how different we are, but how much alike. It made the world seem much smaller.”
The experience in Nicaragua prompted Wentzel to find other international opportunities. She traveled to Nepal and Brazil, confirming her desire for a future in international development.
“My decision to travel to Nicaragua that summer was the beginning of an inspirational friendship,” she said. “Austin is so excited and passionate. He encourages other students to reach farther and be the best they can be, to not be afraid of the bigness of their own ideas.”
In 2013, Feed by Seed was invited to explore expanding to Uganda.
“I saw an article about the farm in a Roanoke magazine,” said Steve Sandy, operations manager for in-country activities in Uganda for Life Center Ministries Africa.
“We are working with malnourished children. We want to partner with Feed by Seed to educate mothers on agricultural practices. We hope to create sustainable gardens as a food source and a way of building community.”
Gillette said the potential partnership in Africa is no surprise. “This project could be duplicated almost anywhere,” he said.
Larrowe calls it a “multiplier effect,” suggesting that when you plant an idea and give people the tools to put it into action, it grows.
With help from a University Honors scholarship, Austin Larrowe attended in fall 2012 the World Food Prize Conference. There he interacted with agricultural leaders and policymakers from around the globe, including Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations.
The World Food Prize, an international award, recognizes individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. The prize was founded in 1986 by Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2013, Austin Larrowe became the first Virginia Tech student selected for the Presidential Fellows Program. Sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, the national program introduces university students to the fundamentals of policy-making.