Over the past couple of years, your world has experienced its own earthquake of sorts, and I would never attempt to minimize your pain or anxiety. But one only has to glance at the devastation in Haiti to understand that no one in the United States should have a complaint.

News about Haiti always perks up my ears because in 1986 I had the good fortune to travel there as a National Pork Producers Council staffer. When I heard about the earthquake my heart sank. On a good day life in Haiti is nearly insurmountable, and even before the earthquake there were few good days in the country.

I say that I was fortunate to travel to Haiti because it was a tremendous learning experience, and it will forever remain one of my life’s starkest memories. 

The trip occurred just six months after the removal of the notoriously corrupt dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. While the atmosphere was a bit unstable, the people had a renewed hope. Accompanying me were a handful of USDA and pork industry representatives; the point was to check on the progress of U.S. efforts to repopulate the country’s swine herd. In 1978, the country broke with African Swine Fever, and with Haiti being just 600 miles off of Miami and boat and air transport a daily event, U.S. officials were rightly concerned that ASF could find its way onto our shores and then possibly into our herds. That’s a devastating prospect regardless of the year.

Through the 1980s, the United States oversaw a program to depopulate and repopulate the country’s swine herd. Hogs were literally piggy banks for the country’s peasant farmers, most of whom kept a couple pigs to eat or to sell as needed. Depopulating the herd was quite a blow for the peasant farmers, who mostly lived in remote areas. The U.S. hogs did not always adapt well to the rugged environment. The U.S.-supplied feed did not always get distributed as expected or promised, not just because the country lacks the basic infrastructure of roads but because corruption tends to be a way of life and survival. The “military’s” herds had the best looking and best fed animals. After meeting with Haiti’s government officials you walked away knowing in your gut that little progress would follow.

Haitians are good people; their government, for far too long, not so much. The country has faced political and economic impoverishment for centuries. More than 80 percent of the population is illiterate, two-thirds of the children die before their fifth birthday, life expectancy is 53 years, and on average, people live on about $2 a day.

A month before the earthquake, I heard a radio talk show featuring a U.S. doctor who established and travels to a clinic in Haiti. It sounded like little had changed since I had been there, and now there’s the earthquake aftermath.

As I write this, the estimated death toll is 150,000; the prospect for infections, disease and malnutrition to claim many more is high. The future rebuilding project is mind-boggling, although perhaps this time concentrated global money and support can help do it right.

But to do it right, Haitians must be at the center of the process. As with the United States’ ASF project, good intentions sometimes lack cultural and realistic understanding.

Also, to do it right, agriculture has to be a part of the plan; too often the city centers get the attention and the aid. Two-thirds of Haiti’s population is rural, and many more are now fleeing into the countryside. Land use (or more accurately, misuse) has been part of the country’s downfall as deforestation has allowed the top soil to be swept away.

There will be an urgent need for food production, agricultural rehabilitation and reconstruction in the months and years ahead, and it’s in the United States’ best interest to lend support. A key need will be to focus on Haiti’s livestock. The American Veterinary Medical Association has boots on the ground. There are many diseases that are endemic (or suspected) on the island of Hispaniola, which also includes the Dominican Republic. Diseases spread easily when opportunity surfaces such as the damage the earthquake has created.

Our country’s port and government personnel must heed caution and be aware of the potential for a foreign animal disease crossing into the United States. Pork producers, who have already stepped up biosecurity in light of last spring’s Novel H1N1 2009 influenza virus, must remain diligent. Increase your biosecurity awareness related to international travelers, foreign visitors and employees.

From the humanitarian side, if you haven’t already donated to Haiti’s relief and rebuilding effort, commit a few dollars. Truly no donation is too small; this is a country where even pennies matter. Encourage your children, staff, neighbors and others to do the same. Americans’ generosity has been impressive, but as soon as the reports and pictures disappear, the contributions will likely trickle and dry up.  

I was in Haiti just one week. In the end, once I got past the initial shock of the conditions and poverty, it was traveling back to the United States that was most dramatic. Flying into Miami and seeing the sprawling city lights, walking into a grocery store with its vast abundance, and listening to Americans’ complaints were hard to get used to.

No question that you have faced some serious challenges, but all things in perspective — we are all very blessed.