Chris Stillion did lots of different things during his time with the Peace Corps in the West African nation of Niger. He worked with women to establish a group savings fund, which often was the only way poor rural residents could save money. He helped restore a 100-meter-deep drinking water well. He organized a women’s cooperative garden, where women learned irrigation techniques and grew onions, mangos, tomatoes, cabbage, peppers and leafy greens for home consumption and sale.
But the thing that drew him most was the land itself. While coordinating a large-scale intervention to restore soils in a heavily eroded agricultural valley, Stillion drew connections between soil quality and human survival.
“I realized how important caring for and understanding soil is to the long-term productivity of the land,” says Stillion. “I was working with farmers who were absolutely dependent on what they could grow on limited and nutrient-poor land.”
Stillion returned to the United States in 2007 determined to contribute to that field. He’s now a graduate student in the CALS cross-disciplinary agroecology program, where he continues to collaborate with local landowners, this time in the Kickapoo Valley. Under the guidance of soil science professor Stephen Ventura, Stillion is working with residents who were involved in the recent drafting of state-mandated land use plans to develop compatible scenarios.
Information Stillion is gathering includes documenting land use priorities of local residents as well as Kickapoo towns and counties; using GIS mapping to assess the future of managed rotational grazing and how a woody biomass energy program might best benefit the area’s economy; and working with residents and groups to calibrate the land use model being created at the university for use in local decisionmaking.
Approaching Kickapoo landowners is not so different from what he’d experienced in Africa, Stillion notes.
“I’d say that they’re skeptical at first but eventually they become very receptive and supportive,” he says. “I think they finish by understanding that I’m not going to tell them what they should be doing, that I really do want to learn something from them, and as a result produce something of potential use to them.”
Looking back on his Peace Corps experience with a few years’ distance, Stillion has no doubt that it had a profound effect on his life.
“Helping other people and learning in partnership with them is fairly addictive, and that’s what we were really doing in Peace Corps—getting to know people and their needs and working with them to meet those needs,” Stillion says.
He recommends Peace Corps to anyone considering it.
“It’s an excellent way to discover the world and yourself—the complexity and diversity that’s out there, outside of America,” he says.