Life Lessons

A unique educational center in Arkansas called the Heifer Ranch has an ambitious goal: ending world hunger. We could all learn something there.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The old English proverb is a wise maxim that acts as the foundation of Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, a remarkable educational extension of Heifer International’s outreach. 

While Heifer’s global headquarters in Little Rock acts as the organization’s center for education, Heifer Ranch in nearby Perryville — about a four-hour drive from Memphis — provides an in-depth learning experience of the daily struggles that the poor and hungry encounter, with programs and tours for groups and individuals. Once used as a livestock facility, the ranch is now an educational campus that engages visitors with activities such as rope- and brick-making, goat-milking, and lessons in basic survival without the many luxuries we take for granted every day. 

A working farm complete with gardens and various animals, Heifer Ranch is also a site of one of the organization’s Global Villages. Spreading over five acres, structures represent the actual living conditions of impoverished populations in places like Guatemala, Thailand, and Zambia, to provide a realistic experience of the actual hardships these people face. 

More than 50,000 people visit Heifer’s educational facilities in Perryville and a similar center near Rutland, Massachusetts, each year. Men and women from across the country come to the ranch to participate in sessions on spring lambing season, where they are taken through gestation, birth, care of ewes and lambs, cheese-making, and wool crafts. 

Heifer Ranch also maintains a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a sustainable food production system that aims to re-establish the competitiveness of small farms and strengthen the community by reconnecting people to the land. Shareholders buy a percentage of healthy, organic produce in advance, and pick up their goods at a local drop-off point or at the farm.

Spreading over five acres, structures represent the actual living conditions of impoverished populations in places like Guatemala, Thailand, and Zambia, to provide a realistic experience of the actual hardships these people face.

As the name suggests, it all began with cows. In 1939, Indiana farmer Dan West worked with the Church of the Brethren, serving rations to refugees of the Spanish Civil War with supplies so limited that he knew many would still go hungry. With the heartbreaking realization that simple relief aid wasn’t enough, he returned to the United States and formed Heifers for Relief in an effort to end hunger around the world. Five years later, the organization sent its first shipment of 17 dairy cattle to Puerto Rico in the initial attempt to help families “be spared the indignity of depending on others to feed their children,” and provide them with a living means of food and income.

The organization has grown and evolved to become Heifer International, a far-reaching nonprofit that currently provides humanitarian assistance to communities in more than 50 countries, including the United States. Since its inception almost 75 years ago, Heifer has given aid to more than 15 million families spanning 125 countries, maintaining West’s original aspiration to put an end to world hunger and combat poverty by developing projects geared toward sustainable practices that build self-reliant communities.

Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, is a working farm with gardens, animals, and a food production system.The concept was based upon the idea of giving a heifer — a young cow who has not yet given birth to a calf — in order to provide a continued source of support for impoverished participants. But Heifer International now supplies families with regionally appropriate livestock — almost 30 different animals such as goats, water buffalo, and chickens — as well as trees, seeds, bees, and the thorough training required to best meet the needs of the community. People can donate by “purchasing” any of these animals from Heifer’s online catalog. A cow, for example, can be sent to a needy family for as little as $500. A pig or goat is $120, and a hive of honeybees is just $30.

Besides high-quality protein, livestock provide families with capital assets, input for microenterprises, and transport. Each type of animal yields life-affirming necessities like eggs, wool, and manure for fertilizer, with the added use of biogas (stove units that employ a type of organic biofuel to cook and heat homes) and planting and grazing techniques to promote environmentally sound agricultural practices. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of Heifer International’s work is the intrinsic practice of “Passing on the Gift,” by which families receiving livestock agree to give one or more of their original animals’ female offspring to a neighboring family in need. These vital gifts and tools help develop technical skills across the board, as marginalized people work together to manage resources and create uplifting, positive change. 

Training often takes up the entire first year of a five-year project, as families are instructed in animal health and husbandry, the integration of livestock into the ecosystem, nutrition, leadership, and gender equity. Protecting the environment is part of Heifer’s goals, as poverty can cause environmental problems for many countries. Impoverished people often make short-term choices based on immediate needs. Many farmers the world over have no alternative to cutting down trees for firewood or putting animals on overgrazed land.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Heifer International's work is the intrinsic practice of "Passing on the Gift," by which families receiving livestock agree to give one or more of their original animal's female offspring to a neighboring family in need.

Communities are the very basis of the organization’s work, as Heifer International provides a planning and management model to guide developmental projects. The community then decides what types of animals and training are necessary to fulfill its goals. 

The organization also partners with governments, the private sector, and other nonprofits, coalitions, and networks like the Peace Corps, to deliver aid and services. In its relatively short history, Heifer International has aided countries devastated by war and helped survivors rebuild communities beset by natural disaster, garnering some well-deserved recognition along the way.

Hailai Yiti and his daughter Hailai Ermen cut fodder near their home in Waxi village, China.Former President Ronald Reagan awarded Heifer the 1986 Presidential Award for Voluntary Action and in 1990 the organization received the Presidential End Hunger Award from former President George H.W. Bush. The Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, known as the world’s most prestigious award for humanitarian efforts, was granted to Heifer in 2004. The organization was also awarded $42.8 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its East Africa Dairy Project. 


Information for this article came from Tours are available year-round; the cost is $3 for a basic two-hour visit, and $5 for a “hands-on” experience. Groups must register in advance. Visit the website to get directions and to learn more about Heifer’s different projects and ways you can participate and help.

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