Famine devastating families; drought shattering hopes of a seasonal harvest. These are just a few things Jimmy and Teresa Heisler have seen during their time as missionaries for Youth With A Mission in Creel, Mexico.
The Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, native tribes in Creel rely heavily on annual crops to survive.
The 2011 drought brought tragedy to the Rarámuri community. The rains came a month late, and with short growing seasons, this meant no viable crops for several families.
“We know people who had family that actually starved to death from famine,” Jimmy said.
A proud and cautious community, the Rarámuri do not often let in people from outside of their community inside their circle of trust.
“They’re very reserved,” Jimmy said. “They’ve suffered a lot of different political things and abuses from outside groups.”
A historic tribe that originally inhabited the area around Chihuahua, Mexico, they work hard to keep traditions alive.
Their beliefs from way back tell them that they were the first people God made. Everybody else is a copy.Jimmy Heisler
“A second chance,” Teresa added with a laugh.
Jimmy and Teresa saw a need in the community during 2011, and with no agricultural background, decided to take a chance.
“We just stumbled into it,” Jimmy said with a smile. “Accidentally became farmers.”
Learning from other missionaries from YWAM who had done work within sustainable agriculture, Jimmy and Teresa knew they could tie their mission work to these practices.
“We thought it would connect us with our community,” Jimmy said. “That way, we can build relationships through something that resonates with people in the Texas Panhandle and that also serves people around the globe.”
After researching possible solutions, the Heislers came upon aquaponic systems. The couple created a model in their hometown of Canyon, Texas, to experiment and learn what could work for the Creel tribes.
“We could immediately see it working in Mexico,” Jimmy said. “Then we thought, if it works in Mexico, then it could work everywhere.”
Raising fish and plants together in a single system fit well into the tribal community’s needs and provided a way to grow their crops for longer periods of time.
“Besides self-sustainability, they can use it for income,” Teresa said. “They can sell their produce.”
Nearby lakes provide blue gills, perch, and trout for the systems, Jimmy said. The tribal communities also grow tomatoes, leafy greens, and other crops based on the temperature of the season.
“We try to encourage them to grow the things that they would normally eat,” Jimmy said.
The Rarámuri were originally hesitant to adopt new farming practices as any sort of additives to fertilizer or their crops scared their farmers.
After 20 years of service in Creel, Jimmy said he knows without time invested into the tribe, the Rarámuri would not have tried to adopt new technologies in practice brought in by YWAM. Two systems have already been built and utilized in Creel with more to come.
“We’re teaching them how to do this, and it’s on a family-to-family level right now,” Jimmy said. “As they learn it, they’re going to take that into other communities and extend that.”
Through their work within the Rarámuri and the West Texas community, the Heislers happened upon a unique niche market.
Ryan Williams, Ph.D., is a Texas Tech economist and agricultural and applied economics professor. He said he knows the value of finding a place in a large commodity-heavy area. His time at Texas Tech University has exposed him to the different agricultural markets within this part of the state.
Williams said while individuals operating in these West Texas niche markets may not have found something that’s financially sustainable for a whole family or high-value activity, oftentimes, the work they do becomes transplantable in other situations.
“I’m thinking specifically here about Mr. Heisler,” Williams said. “It may not be beneficial here locally, but that technology that he’s developing becomes transferrable elsewhere and can generate value locally from him selling it.”
More importantly, social value is being created through developing this process so others around the country and world can utilize it. Jimmy often shares social value by speaking about sustainability at events and participating in training sessions for those interested in aquaponics.
“We thought this would have local application,” Jimmy said. “We could teach people how to do this in their communities, in their neighborhoods, in their backyards, in their houses, wherever. This is a model you can set up just about anywhere.”
They pair their knowledge of sustainable systems with their missionary work in hopes to make a difference in Creel, West Texas and eventually, beyond.
“We could use it for international outreach and just connecting with people in general through agriculture,” Jimmy said.
As newly established agriculturists, the Heislers now understand some of the problems behind food security and water conservation, because they’ve been able to see it from both sides of the story. They have constantly pushed themselves to continue learning so they can share with others the importance of their work. Aquaponics fits the needs of the Creel Rarámuri tribal community, but it also fits another popular niche.
“It’s an honest, clean system, and if you can get it certified organic, then you can get the most money for your produce,” Jimmy said, “so it does have a really huge economic potential.”
Could an aquaponics system be implemented in West Texas as a common niche market? Jimmy thinks there’s a possibility, but with some pushback.
“It may be a challenge here. The Texas Panhandle probably hasn’t tapped into its inner hippie yet.”
Commodity groups are abundant and sustainability is still on the rise, but Jimmy and Teresa seem to have found their balanced niche between missionary work and agriculture.
“We just feel like it’s just good timing for us to connect with and serve our community,” Jimmy said.