Rebuilding from the Ruins

A small project led by CALS could have a big impact on dairy in Kosovo

IT STARTED AS A PHONE call to CALS from one concerned citizen. Now it’s a project that, with relatively few dollars, has the potential to improve and strengthen the emerging dairy industry in the war-ravaged nation of Kosovo.

It began when Al Anding, a commercial real estate entrepreneur in Madison, became close friends with one of his tenants, restaurant owner and Kosovo native Gani Ahmetaj, an ethnic Albanian. He familiarized Anding not only with the beauty of his country, which had been part of Yugoslavia for most of his life, but also with the horrors his people endured when centuries-long hostility between Serb and Albanian inhabitants flamed into war in the late 1990s.

Years of violence included the killing and persecution of farming families, the destruction of livestock and agricultural infrastructure and the displacement of 300,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Ahmetaj’s own family fled to the mountains, and Ahmetaj often did not know for weeks if they were dead or alive. A massive NATO bombing campaign (with substantial participation of the U.S. military) was successful in introducing peacekeepers from the UN, which governed Kosovo for nearly 10 years. The Republic of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.

That year, Anding visited Kosovo with Ahmetaj. “I literally fell in love with the people,” he says. “They are so bright, so eager to learn, they have an excellent work ethic—and in every home I went in I saw an American flag.” Anding saw how much help they needed, particularly in the farming sector. “They’re at least 50 years behind where we are in agriculture.”

That’s what prompted Anding, a UW business graduate, to call CALS, where he reached then-associate dean of external relations Ben Miller. Miller saw a good fit between Anding’s concerns, CALS’ expertise and UW’s role as a land grant university. “It’s part of our history and our mission that when people present us with these types of needs and opportunities, we are able to snap into action,” says Miller.

Anding sponsored an exploratory trip to Kosovo that included CALS agronomy professor Dan Undersander, who had worked with farmers there on alfalfa growth, and John Kappelman, a Manitowoc County farmer who had worked in the nearby Republic of Moldova with the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program. They met with potential partners and stakeholders through the University of Pristina’s College of Agriculture to discuss how CALS could best assist the country’s demolished dairy sector.

As a result, a team from Kosovo—which included representatives from the University of Pristina, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Development, the federal legislature and business—traveled to Wisconsin in late 2009 for a 10-day Wisconsin-Kosovo dairy policy workshop to meet their counterparts and other stakeholders and hammer out a course of action.

“Everyone was really moved by what this group had been through and how they’d had to fight for their country,” says Karen Nielsen, director of CALS’ Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development, which organized the workshop in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). “The progress they’ve already made in putting their country back together is really impressive.”

Babcock was key in helping secure a two-year USDA grant, launched in early 2011, with the goal of improving the safety and quality of milk production. The first year is devoted to gathering baseline data and developing a risk assessment tool—a checklist, in effect—of what practices should be in place wherever milk is produced, transported and processed. In the second year, researchers will run checks at all sites in that chain. The project team consists of government, industry, university and extension experts in both the U.S. and Kosovo, led by veterinarian and CALS professor of dairy science Pamela Ruegg.

All of these participants are donating their time and expertise. The $150,000 in funding covers travel expenses and some testing and equipment costs. The team’s motivation, Ruegg says, comes from a genuine desire to help and the belief that project results will be tremendously effective not only in Kosovo but in the United States and other parts of the world.

Dairy in Kosovo is at a very simple level, where even basic safeguards—such as hygienic conditions for milk production, effective testing for bacteria, milk with a refrigerator life of more than three days—aren’t yet in place, says Ruegg.

For example, at the small farms her team works with, farmers put their milk in small, non-refrigerated containers and deliver it to a centralized collection center for cooling. Few hygienic controls are in place. Not surprisingly, milk quality and safety are a huge problem.

“Right now the dairy sector can’t meet the people’s needs for dairy, let alone contribute to economic growth,” Ruegg says.

Ruegg’s project also will address critical gaps left by USAID and other big international aid projects—such as a state-of-the-art national laboratory without systems in place to have it effectively serve industry needs. Ruegg’s team is training personnel in milk microbiology and other relevant specialties. One of the newly minted lab workers happens to be a UW biology alumna—Fillojete Rrustemaj, who as a student had worked at Gani Ahmetaj’s restaurant and become friends with Al Anding, who helped pay for her education.

But this is not merely a project to serve Kosovo, says Ruegg; the risk assessment tool will have broad application in other developing countries and even here at home. The growth of farmstead dairy processors in the U.S.—where, for example, artisan dairy farmers may milk their own cows, make their own products on site and live close to a variety
of other animals and crops—means that we face some of the same health and safety issues as small farms in Kosovo, Ruegg says.

The project’s timing and focus will allow it to have a big impact on Kosovo dairy, Ruegg believes.

“We’re working with the highest levels of a new government, so what we learn from this project could become embedded in policies that are now being developed,” says Ruegg. “It is very gratifying to be involved at this stage.”