Union’s Louis Beck and Karson Hennings join agricultural delegation to Kosovo

Two goals that Hawkeye Community College’s Kosovo/Iowa Agriculture Education Project has for Iowa FFA members are 1) Experience global agriculture, and 2) Gain cultural competencies. For Union High School Agriculture Education Instructor Louis Beck and senior student Karson Hennings, the La Porte-Dysart FFA President, that mission was accomplished during a trip to Kosovo last month. Beck and Hennings were part of a delegation that included representatives from Hawkeye Community College and five Iowa high schools. While there, the pair spent six days with host families, immersed in Kosovo culture, part of a unique collaboration designed to help improve agriculture education in both countries.

The journey to and from Kosovo is a long one, involving some 23 hours of travel over three legs. Beginning in Cedar Rapids, the group first flew to Chicago. The second (and longest) flight went from Chicago to Istanbul. From there, a third flight took the group to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

For Louis and Karson, the bulk of their Kosovo experience was spent in Peja, a smaller city located near the western edge of the country. Louis was placed with a host family whose father teaches at a local technical school. Karson stayed with a family of six. The youngest, 17 year old Egzona, attends the same technical school and served as Karson’s guide throughout the week. The fact that her three older brothers still live at home is not unusual in Kosovo, as extended families residing in the same home is much more the norm there.

Agriculture in Kosovo, a former state of Yugoslavia that declared its independence in 2008, is very much a work in progress. Instead of big cash crops like corn and soybeans grown in Iowa, there is an emphasis on small-scale, high value crops in Kosovo, where farms tend to be smaller and lack some of the technological advances Iowa farmers enjoy. What Kosovo lacks in technology, though, farmers compensate with good old fashioned hard work.
“They are working really, really hard to produce enough to feed themselves,” Louis said.

A lack of financial resources has many producers in Kosovo looking for investors from outside the country to help make their operations profitable.

“We saw some really great, great looking operations. But all of those great looking operations were that way because they had somebody backing them. We also saw lots of villages that looked pretty ramshackle.”

“I was really impressed with how hard they work. It’s just the lack of technology- that structure is not in place,” he added.
A shortage of animals is another challenge in Kosovo. Louis recalled a conversation he had with a cattle trader:
“He told me, ‘I want to know the names of people who sell. We don’t have enough cattle to supply all of our needs.’”

“They need dairy cattle. They don’t have enough milk. They don’t have enough beef. They need more animals. But that takes money. What they need is people to invest in their country,“ Louis stated.
Animal agriculture is an area of particular interest to Karson. Prior to being selected for the trip to Kosovo, he researched and wrote a World Food Prize essay that offered possible solutions to help address the country’s shortage of cattle.

One of the statistics that surprised Louis and Karson was the rampant unemployment that exists for young people in Kosovo. Nearly 60% of people aged 20-35 are unemployed. Louis said that because of unemployment, they want kids to be excited about agriculture. They want to get young people excited to stay in Kosovo and really build up the agriculture industry.

Karson noted that one way of achieving that goal are the technical schools like the one he toured that provide specialized training for jobs that are available.

In the school Louis and Karson visited, it’s the teachers, not the students, who travel from room to room. Classrooms consist of little more than a teacher’s desk to accompany the tables and chairs used by the students. Absent are the photos and other informational displays typically found in high school classrooms in the United States.

Because of the limited number of schools and available classrooms, a school day for Kosovo students consists of just four hours of instruction, which means kids attend school either from 8 AM-noon or 1-5 PM. It’s a basic, bare-bones education based on the European model, Louis indicated.

Both Karson and Louis were very impressed with the healthy diet of the people of Kosovo, which is based heavily on fresh fruits and vegetables, including a vast array of peppers.

“I’ve never eaten so many peppers in one week in my entire life,” Louis joked.

Karson said, “On the street you just see bags of peppers.”

While many of the peppers grown in Kosovo are of the sweet variety, Karson did experience a close call when sampling the native produce.

“I just randomly grabbed a pepper and said ‘I hope this isn’t hot.’ I think Egzona must have said something,” Karson recalled. Without a word, members of his host family gently took the pepper he was holding and quietly replaced it with a different one. Karson will never know just how hot that pepper he was holding could have been.

One of the more interesting foods they ate while in Kosovo was a form of liquefied yogurt. Described as “savory,” Karson said the dairy product, sold in cups, was very salty.

“It wasn’t bad,” Louis said.

“It just wasn’t what I expected. Then they have a treat where they’ll sink a pickled pepper in it [served as a snack],” he added.

Six days in a country more than 5,000 miles away proved to be the start of building friendships that will continue to grow in the future. Each month, Louis and his teacher counterpart in Kosovo will continue to exchange photos and video to document what is going on in their agriculture education classes. Meanwhile, Karson’s list of Snapchat friends has become a little bit larger and little bit more global. Staying in contact will be important because in April, it will be the Americans’ turn to serve as hosts when their Kosovo counterparts visit Iowa.

As a participant in the Kosovo/Iowa Agriculture Education Project, Karson will have the opportunity to earn three college credits with the completion of assigned projects. While his plans for the future are not completely decided, he remains very interested in pursuing a career in the Marine Corps and also open to attending college.

“I can join the Marine Corps on a reserve-type contract and then also choose to go to college,” he explained.

Given the violent history of Kosovo and other countries in the region, it’s easy to see why people might question the desire to travel there. The answer to that question, at least two visitors from Union High School are in complete agreement, are its people. Louis Beck explained:

“I would go back to Kosovo not necessarily because it’s a touristy place or anything like that. I would go there just because of the people, to see the people again. They are really good people. They want the same things we want. They just have less to work with.”