Asuncion When talking to Martin Burt of Fundacion Paraguaya, it doesn’t take long before he brings up the subject of “agricultural high schools.” Only an hour outside of the capital, the Organizers’ Forum delegation committed to a visit one afternoon.
Arriving we came to grip with the backstory behind the school. The buildings for the most part had been built more than 50 years ago. The facility was originally owned and developed by the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church. They gave up the schools and property to the La Salle Christian Brothers, when they couldn’t make a go of it as the 20th century ended. Around 2005, the Brothers pulled the plug as well, unable to balance the books on the operation. The Brothers then arranged to give the schools to various nonprofits in Paraguay and the Fundacion ended up with the school and all of its buildings on 153 acres of property in Cerrito, which is now named the San Francisco Agricultural High School.
There are more than 150 students in the three-year high school program with 70% now boys and 30% girls, though originally all boys until recent years. The students graduate with two high school diplomas, one as an Agriculture/Livestock Technician and the other as a Hotel and Tourism Technician. The students work and study in shifts by semester. One group begins the day in the fields or the hotel and kitchen operation, and then studies in the afternoon. The other group begins in the classrooms and then after lunch, hits the books. Our two guides included one teacher and one former student. There are over 100 applicants for places at the boarding school, and they select about 60 students per year. The tuition is $2.5 million guaranies or about $430 USD, almost the same as the monthly minimum wage, so not for everyone certainly. Surprisingly, most of the applicants are city dwellers, they told us. They explained that in the first year, a student does a little of everything on the property, and then elects to concentrate during the second year. To graduate, their senior project involves making a business plan based on their interests.
The hotel operation is popular with other NGOs here and abroad, hosting conferences and meetings, and provides according to the Fundacion’s annual report about 25% of the income of the that supports the school. The staff is largely the students of course, as is the kitchen, as part of the mission of the school to “learn by doing.” Our lunch was excellent.
The agricultural operation is organic and includes not only standard truck farm, row crops, but also a stand of eucalyptus trees that will harvested and sold for firewood by 2024. The livestock and animals raised is extensive and includes chickens, goats, cattle, rabbits, pigs, and bees, all tended by the students of course. The other big money maker is their cheese production operation which was a marvel to many of us, and sold widely to some high-end operations in the country under their brand.
The Fundacion and the school tout the fact that all of these things have made the school and its operations self-sufficient for the last several years. Though we were impressed by the scale and scope, that claim may be harder to sustain, since the land and buildings came free, much of the expansion of the facilities and new features came from external grant capital, the vast majority of the labor is free, coming from the students, and the hotel is a significant contributor to the balance sheet. Upon graduation many of the students will find it difficult to break even when they realize that their life in agriculture and livestock will include the cost of land and labor, the debt involved in production, and the unlikelihood of income from a hotel on their hectares. Nonetheless, the graduates will indeed have accumulated a huge amount of experiential learning that will point them either towards – or away – from a future career on the land.