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Finding Connections Through Soup and Soil

By Cheri Siebken

Sue Beck Hoff '66An uncomplicated bowl of soup.

Sue Beck Hoff '66 had enjoyed the pleasure of growing the vegetables contained in this simple meal she's prepared countless times. She's shared laughter and camaraderie with friends over steaming bowls at her home on Long Island. But it wasn't until she was sitting on a hillside in Guatemala that she felt honor and respect reciprocated through the sharing of a simple bowl of soup made from meager stores.

Hoff found herself on that hillside last April, a month before her 65th birthday. She wanted to do something daring to celebrate the milestone. As a teacher, she had taught her students about Guatemala's civil war, and when she learned at church about a trip being planned to help the rural community of El Matasano, an area that saw the first massacres of the 35-year war, she jumped at the chance to help the community.

Hoff and other volunteers spent a week teaching sustainable agriculture to area residents, showing them how to terrace a steep hillside, cultivate the soil, and plant cucumbers and radishes.

They began by using an "A-frame" constructed of three branches about a meter in length, some twine, and a stone weight to create four level terraces -- one-foot wide by 50 feet long -- along the contour of the steep hillside. At first, the residents of the community watched as the volunteers built and used the A-frames. Gradually, they began to practice what had been demonstrated while the volunteers stepped aside and assumed minor tasks.

"It was hard work -- I don't think that I've ever gotten so dirty," said Hoff, "But it was good work."

Level terraces were just the beginning. Hoff and the other volunteers demonstrated how to till the soil, breaking it with a pickax, removing rocks, and creating beds. "The work continued with our group modeling, and the community assuming the major portion of the work. In this way, in three days, the hill was terraced, the soil leveled, tilled, fed with composted matter, planted, mulched, and, as we left on our last day, it was being watered by a man whose wife and two small children will have good vegetables to eat and even some to share."

Hoff found the work personally rewarding. "Because our group operated on the principle of working with rather than for the community, we learned humility and a deeper understanding that for all the advancements we enjoy in North America, a greater advancement lies in returning to a personal connection with the soil and the seed and the human beings they nourish."