Myrlene Chrysostome was seven years old when she first started working alongside her father as he harvested rice, beans and other crops in Haiti's Artibonite Valley.
“I would help him to shell corn by hand and he would pay me a little,” she said. “I liked working in the field.”
This flat valley is more productive than many places in Haiti and her father made a living by also running two processing plants for his crops.
Chrysostome knew growing up that she wanted to study agronomy, so that she could help her father. But by the time she finished her undergraduate degree in 1983, she says much had changed for farmers in Haiti and many were struggling.
One problem was the degradation of Haiti’s agricultural lands where deforestation and cultivation of marginal plots of land led to erosion and loss of fertility. Further, the collapse of the extension system meant little technical assistance to help farmers manage the changing conditions.
“Back when I was young, more than 80 percent of the rice Haitians ate was produced here. Now, with increased demand and decreased productivity, we’re importing a lot.”
Instead of working for her family, she took a position with Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture, helping in research and extension for crops such as corn and beans. In 1994, she got a scholarship through USAID to attend Tuskegee University in Alabama, a historically black university.
“The language was hard to understand,” said Chrysostome, who had done some travel to the United States. “People spoke so quickly. I spent most of my time in the library. But I did meet people from other cultures - including some students from Africa - and got exposed to jazz.”
As part of her master’s thesis, she examined water quality in a protected forest that had become degraded. She subsequently earned a PhD in soil and water science at the University of Florida.
In 2008, USAID hired Chrysostome to lead its natural resource and environment programs in Haiti. Her chief mission has been to help restore the agricultural land that her fellow countrymen depend on.
Unlike the area where she grew up, much of the land in Haiti is hilly and the soil in many places has lost nutrients because farming has been too intensive. Many farmers rely on rainfall to irrigate their crops and in the past few years, rains have become more erratic.
“We’ve experienced drought that I’ve never seen. It’s hurting agriculture, including crops that drought didn’t affect before - like cacao,” she said. “When it does rain, it hits dry land with poor infiltration capacity and flooding results.”
Her first project was to work with farmers in the north to better manage watersheds. In mountainous areas, they taught farmers to use cover crops and fruit trees to protect the soil against erosion - and earn extra money. Her team also helped build greenhouses - so more could be grown in less space - and installed drip irrigation systems.
When Haiti’s devastating earthquake struck in 2010, Chrysostome’s work shifted to just focusing on boosting agriculture on the country’s most productive land.
Recently, Chrysostome has overseen research projects - including with the University of Florida and with the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement - to identify drought resistant seed varieties and examine crop diseases.
She says Haitian farmers are now adopting climate-smart techniques. “The spill-over effect is important,” she said. “When you see that other farmers are applying techniques that were developed for your program, that’s something I’m proud of.”