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San Jose Village, Orange Walk was the scene today, for the public unveiling of a historic joint venture between The Hershey Company and the Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute (SIRDI)—the technical support arm of Belize’s Sugar Industry—with the official launch of the Farmer Field School (FFS) program for the 2015-2016 crop cycle. The FFS program, managed and implemented by SIRDI, targets farmers and exposes them, through hands-on field sessions, to best practices in sugar cane cultivation. It commences annually in December with a new cohort of farmer-students who, over a 2 year period, benefit from new innovative, environmentally sustainable production technologies in an effort to substitute old inefficient practices. Marcos Osorio, Director of SIRDI, said, “The FFS program is all about helping our farmers to become better with the transfer and sharing of knowledge and experiences among farmers and technicians.” He continued, “People learn by doing and farmers are no exception. The FFS program is transformative because it allows the industry to grow and become more efficient, productive and sustainable while improving the livelihood of our Belizean communities.”

Today’s inauguration, introducing the fourth group of student farmers, marks the first time, however, that the program is externally funded. Eric Boyle, Director of Responsible Sourcing and Procurement for Hershey, in a video statement aired during the ceremony, said, “Hershey is thrilled to partner with SIRDI and bring to Belize, The Hershey Learn to Grow Program, which seeks to support farmers who grow the ingredients for our iconic products. We are committed to ensure that these ingredients are grown in a responsible, sustainable manner. We also care about the livelihoods of the farmer, their families and the communities in which they live.”

Accordingly Osorio says SIRDI is equally enthusiastic about the new partnership with The Hershey Company as it will also highlight to farmers the linkage between producing high quality sustainable sugar cane and high end products such as Hershey’s chocolates.

The FFS program is implemented by SIRDI’s highly trained extension team in 6 geographical zones in the northern sugar belt. First, the SIRDI team selects 6 accessible and visible field plots belonging to participating farmers in the areas. Next, the team recruits and registers 25 farmers per site and evaluates their current practices to establish a base line. Then, the farmer-students attend 11 hands-on field sessions that cover best practices in Sugar Cane Cultivation. Throughout the program, the participating farmers are monitored for the practices they conduct in their own fields to determine the adoption rate along with the cost benefit analysis. SIRDI, with more than 5000 registered farmers, has found that the FFS program is extremely effective at building capacity because it allows the institute to disaggregate the large group of farmers and effectively disseminate eco-friendly systems to the farming community.

The Hershey Learn to Grow program originated in Ghana in 2012 and successfully benefitted cocoa farmers in West Africa with advanced training in order to improve the quality of their cocoa, while doubling productivity and increasing farmer incomes.