Monaro is perfect agricultural learning ground

AS BOMBINGS killed up to 100 people near the Pakistan city of Quetta last Thursday January 10, a group of 15 men and women from the area were on their way to Cooma courtesy of the United States aid organisation USAID.

The Monaro welcomed the group from the Balochistan province in Pakistan who were in Australia as part of the Balochistan Agricultural Project.

Lead by International Marketing Specialist with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations Grant Vinning, their aim was to learn skills and farming practices they could take back to their communities.

The Monaro proved to be the perfect learning ground for a group who come from an area that relies heavily on agriculture- particularly sheep.

"Seventy per cent of the population would earn there income from agriculture," Mr Vinning said.

"Sheep in our area are mobile banks. People actually use the animal as a store of wealth. People keep them because it's often their only form of income.

"I'm talking about people who are living on 50 cents a day and this is poverty like you've got no idea. It's pretty damn tough.

"With the sheep the first thing [they get] is the milk, then the meat then the wool. And the wool is to some extent a throw away product."

Mr Vinning said the aim of the mission was to improve the farming practices so the locals could get more money from their product.

He explained that current practices for shearing meant the sheep became stressed, the wool would get dirty and the wool was uneven so the farmers would get little money for their product.

"We want to improve the welfare of the animal, improve the wool, improve getting the wool off the sheep and then doing better things with the wool and basically trying to turn the wool from a waste product to a value added product," Mr Vinning said.

While in Cooma the group of 10 men and five women visited farms and learned more efficient shearing techniques, went to Jemalong Wool to learn about wool handling and Monbeef to learn about halal slaughtering. They also visited the local cattle and sheep sale to see how livestock is sold in Australia, and spent time at Past Times at the Four Mile to learn about weaving, knitting and felting.

The group has been split in two- one, made up of the women and two men, to focus more on the wool and products that can be made from the wool and the other to focus on the sheep and shearing.

With wool donated by Gordon Litchfield Wool, Monaro Wool Services and Jemalong Wool Pty Ltd the women spent three days at 'Past Times' Ashford Australia learning new skills from members of the Monaro Fibre Artists Group on how to improve the income from wool.

"Our project takes the view that, women tend to be the ones who look after the animals and the women tend to be the ones that have the most deprived conditions," Mr Vinning said.

"So if we can do something to improve the sheep, the wool and the products from it we are doing something directly with income related back to the women."

The women all have a university degree and are employed full time by the program.

They are called "community development market facilitators" and each have about 15 to 20 communities in their area that they will disperse their newfound skills to when they return home.

Owner of Ashford Australia Rewa Nolan said it was a privilege to host the Pakistani women.

"We were delighted how quickly they picked up the new skills and am very excited that they plan to take these skills back to Pakistan and teach other women," Mrs Nolan said.

"Our cultures are very different and the environment we live in is also worlds apart but when you sit and weave alongside these women you realize that you share something special and that has been a very memorable experience for me."

The project, funded by the United States aid organisation USAID and the Australian aid organisation AUSAID, started about 10 years ago when the area was suffering from severe drought. The project became a food security and poverty alleviation program and grew from there.

The program employs 160 people with most of them local Pakistani's and covers and area of about 50,000 people.

Mr Vinning said the group, some of whom had never left their province and lived in parts of Pakistan not even he was allowed to enter because it was too dangerous, had an amazing experience in Cooma.

"They are astounded," he said.

"You can't fake this level of enthusiasm. The reaction has been highly fulfilling and uplifting and very encouraging.

"The shear pride of what they are doing has been so good for them."

After their time in Cooma some the group was heading the Charleville in Queensland where conditions are comparable to Quetta while the other group were going to Melbourne to visit the Australia Wool Exchange.

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