Bill Erdmann was at the tail end of a week-long trip to Haiti when he realized for sure that he was on to something.
In November, Erdmann, 55, of Ridge, had gone to a small Haitian village on an agricultural mission of his own design. He brought with him a suitcase full of plug trays – plastic, rectangular trays used for germinating seeds – with the goal of helping villagers grow more crops.
Erdmann, a 30-plus-year agricultural expert, was on his way back to Port-au-Prince, where he would catch a plane home, when a young man who had been working the land for him during the trip pulled him aside.
The two let the rest of the group pass by and, whispering, almost in a huddle, the man asked, “Can I have one of those trays?”
Erdmann handed one over.
“He looked like he had won the lotto!” Erdmann said. “That’s when I knew.”
The trays are virtually worthless in the United States, Erdmann said, because they are so plentiful and so inexpensive. In fact, most nurseries - including his own, Hidden Ridge Plants, in Ridge - find the trays are a waste problem.
“This little nursery throws out 400 trays a year,” he said. “All my friends in the business throw out thousands of trays a year.”
But that doesn’t mean they can’t be reused, he said, demonstrating their durability by throwing one on the ground and stepping on it.
Erdmann said that in the United States and other developed countries, plug trays are essential to agriculture. The trays come in different sizes, the smallest of which yields 512 plants. Ten trays take up little more room than a picnic table, he said.
The trays stabilize the growing process because seeds have their own protective module. When they sprout, they are easily transplanted to the ground or a larger pot.
“They’re putting seed in a field and just hoping it comes up,” he said of Haitian farmers.
Erdmann decided he wanted to go to Haiti right after the January 2010 earthquake hit and started raising money through a small donation jar at the register of his nursery. Through a mutual friend, he discovered Patricia Nicholas, a podiatrist in Wading River and native Haitian who had started her own foundation in Haiti. Her Kindest Hearts Foundation adopted the village of Anse-a-Veau, where Nicholas has staffed a medical clinic, works to create jobs, sponsors children’s education and is working toward building a school.
Erdmann, who has owned his nursery for 30 years, accompanied Nicholas to Anse-a-Veau, where he introduced the plug trays, built a garden and distributed 8 pounds of seeds, which were donated by the Long Island Cauliflower Association.
Nicholas said Erdmann’s enthusiasm quickly caught on with the Haitian people, who are always eager to be self-sufficient.
“The people were wowed by these trays,” she said. “They use a lot of land but they don’t know how to cultivate it properly.”
She said Erdmann’s idea could have a huge impact on Haiti, where subsistence farming is prevalent but not supported or encouraged by the government.
“They teach them that you need to be a doctor for you to be somebody,” she said. “So it would be great for them to understand that farming is a profession and you can succeed on it.”
Erdmann said cantaloupe seeds he planted with children in the village had already sprouted by the time he left, but beyond that, he’s not sure what success they’ve seen because communication has been difficult.
Erdmann said his first trip laid the groundwork for introducing this method of growing. He hopes to return every fall. In the meantime, he is looking for ways to ship plug trays and other farming equipment to Haiti and other developing countries. He is also looking for other organizations to partner with, like church groups or schools, that are already doing work in a developing country.
He said he’s optimistic that his “simple” idea could have a life-changing impact.
“When I show people a plug tray,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ But they don’t say, ‘Oh, that’s going to change third-world agriculture.’”