denis gullickson | talking titletown | dec. 2017
"Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men"
Nice sentiments this time of year — echoing through downtown streets and suburban shopping malls — often about as meaningful as empty words on a store-bought Christmas card.
In the “actions speak way louder than words" category comes this story of octogenarian Damon Szymanski — a Pulaski farmer, educator and “agri-ambassador" and his nearly-sixty trips to 23 foreign countries since 1990, helping other farmers across the world become more efficient and successful.
It's in those trips and Szymanski's tremendous passion for what can be accomplished person-to-person that the essence of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men" can be found.
Though I've counted Damon's excellent son, Mark, as a friend for the better part of twenty years, this writer first met the elder Szymanski this past Fourth of July. The nation was celebrating its birthday — a prescient starting point for this tale — punctuated by the current Yuletide season to neatly bracket it.
For this is also an American tale, too — as local and homespun as Pulaski and Steeple View Farm where the Szymanskis have been farming for two generations. It's also a tale of U.S. ingenuity, hard work, attention to detail and heartfelt compassion for others — no matter who they are or where they hail from.
And, it's a tale of international diplomacy — not the ilk of intrigue, highfalutin state dinners or cyber loads of clandestine money slipped among offshore accounts. Rather, the kind of “human diplomacy" where things are always most earnest and, ultimately, most effective.
Damon Szymanski's nearly thirty years involved with Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA) have benefited him as well — perhaps as much as those he's assisted. He describes his experiences with an appreciative twinkle in his eyes.
ACDI/VOCA's Vision aims to “be the international leader in empowering farmers and other entrepreneurs worldwide to succeed in the global economy." Separate organizations with similar strategic goals, ACDI and VOCA merged in 1997 — about seven years after Sczymanski first became involved with the latter.
ACDI/VOCA's groundwork “fosters broad-based economic growth, raises living standards and creates vibrant communities by promoting economic opportunities for cooperatives, enterprises and communities through the innovative application of sound business practice." To date, the group has worked in 146 countries — from Africa to Asia to Central and Eastern Europe to South America. Total revenues are approximately $154 million and the organizaton employs about 1,270 people in the USA and overseas.
Szymanski's early involvement in VOCA — the very first implementer of the U.S. Aid-funded “Farmer-to-Farmer" program — put him in the fold of volunteers that included other farmers as well as bank presidents, coffee roasters, grain storage specialists, business magnates and others.
Focused particularly on the widely-scattered, newly-independent state entities after the fall of the Soviet Union, this “army" of volunteers provided local entrepreneurs with exposure to the dynamics of the private sector and modern commercial operations.
Today, the organization's programming revolves around “value chain approaches to enterprise development, self-sustaining financial services development, farmer organization, agribusiness development, self-help community development and food aid, among other competencies."
With these targets in mind, the organization sends hundreds of U.S. volunteer experts overseas each year on short-term assignments.
Pulaski to Poland and Back
Named after the Polish Revolutionary War cavalry general, Kazimierz Pulaski, the small northeastern Wisconsin town of Pulaski encouraged settlement by Polish families in Milwaukee, Chicago and Pennsylvania's mining regions. By 1885, 35 families had put down roots in the community — most of Polish descent.
It was into this community that the Szymanksi clan would eventually make its way. Damon and his wife, Shirley, would begin their own farming operation in 1958 with 12 cows, 80 acres of land and horses.
Appropriately, Damon Szymanski's first VOCA “mission" in 1990 was something of a “return-trip" to Poland. A fluent Polish-speaker himself, the fit was perfect and set the tone for future excursions — wherever they might take him. Szymanski related to smaller, startup farmers especially, though he'd grown his own operation into 100 cows and nearly 600 acres then.
“People are the same, no matter where you go," Szymanski said.
It's not an observation based on a hunch; it's a connection that breaks through language and cultural barriers and it's rooted — quite literally — in the soil beneath one's feet.
“Wherever I go, I can speak the language," Szymanski says. “I am a farmer."
And what joins Szymanski with any other farmer he speaks with is the ground they share. Starting there, he has helped farmers everywhere improve their dairy and livestock feeding practices by using locally available products and offering guidance and counsel to the farmer and to local cooperatives with which that farmer will work to the betterment of both.
To Poland and elsewhere, Szymanski has taken the lore of farming and “growing" a farm with him.
“The basics of good dairy farming are record keeping, milk quality and cleanliness," he said.
What he discovered in Poland were some primitive practices on the part of some very private farmers — often operating without the benefit of some basic technologies and just as often without adequate attention to those farming basics.
In the disparate pieces of the disbanded Soviet Union, Szymanski found himself doing some real head-scratching and soul-searching.
“It's hard to explain to people who had been forced to work together in collectives that they must now voluntarily band together as private farmers in democratically-based businesses to achieve the efficiencies necessary for success," he told ACDI/VOCA's “World Report."
More than once, getting those lessons across leaned heavily on Szymanski's own lessons acquired back home in good old Pulaski, Wis., U.S.A.
Latvia. Estonia. Kazakhstan. Armenia. Kenya. Russia. And on and on. All have been “ports of call" for this man on a mission to talk to other farmers about growing success from that ground beneath their feet up.
Finding and honing that universal language has been a part of the journey. To that end, Szymanski was instrumental in Marvin A. Schaars' “Cooperatives, Principles and Practices" being translated and published into six languages and distributed by ACDI/VOCA offices in numerous Eastern European countries.
When not on a volunteer assignment, some of Szymanski's time is spent keeping in touch with the partners on the other end of his missions — his “clients" across the world. His basement rec room is filled with precious mementos — including keepsakes as well as copious written documentation of his travels and his interactions.
He is especially fond of his ongoing contact with the production plant manager from the Piatnica Dairy in Poland with whom he addressed bacteria problems with the cooperative's milk collection operation. There, milk was gathered from some 3,200 farmers who eventually adopted a “clean milk quality program" inspired by the cooperative's premium payments for milk with a lower bacteria count.
It was the same kind of win-win-win for the farmer, the cooperative, the economy and beyond seen in all of the projects Szymanski has undertaken.
Szymanski then hosted the Piantica Dairy manager on a subsequent U.S. visit during which they toured the Morning Glory Dairy Plant and where that manager acquired and took back to Poland the know-how of making U.S.-style cottage cheese.
Of his experience working within the field, Szymanski told the “World Report," that “ACDI/VOCA represents the best kind of foreign aid — don't just send money, send information and get it to the right people."
By the spring of 2001, Szymanski had made his fiftieth volunteer assignment for ACDI/VOCA — a “landmark" achievement in that he had hit that plateau faster than any volunteer in the organization's history.
Off to Brazil
In 1994, former 8th District Wisconsin Congressman Mark Green entered a statement into the U.S. Congressional Record extolling Damon Szymanski's service to other farmers around the world and, in turn, to this country and its grassroots foreign relations.
During Damon's missions, he has played a crucial role in helping improve agricultural development around the globe, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. He has contributed dramatically to our national goal of opening global markets through an infusion of our values of democracy and economic freedom. Damon has served as a strong bridge between the United States and the rest of the world."
As of this writing, Szymanski is off on yet another mission — this time to Brazil — through December 19. He returns to Steeple View Farm just in time to enjoy Christmas with his own family.
“Not bad for a kid from Pulaski," said the 88-year-old Szymanski, a bit amazed — and, perhaps, amused — by his life's journey of “giving back."
No, not bad at all — especially for putting into deeds what that age-old phrase, “peace on earth and goodwill towards men" really means.
Snow covers the ground on this moody, gray November day as author, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson writes at a cobblestone cottage near Lakewood.