SURRY — Florence Reed lives in the woods in this Hancock County town between Ellsworth and Blue Hill. The woods are thick and the meadows that lead to Patten Bay, visible from the main road below, are abundant – the gift of river soil. It’s saltwater farm heaven, although Reed doesn’t farm. Not technically.

However, as founder and president of Sustainable Harvest International, she has been responsible for the restoration of tens of thousands of acres of soil essential to the lives of 2,500 families and the planting of nearly 4 million trees, albeit in a very different landscape far, far away in Central America.

Florence Reed with her son at their nearly net-zero home in Surry. Friends first “lured” Reed and her husband, Bruce Maanum, to the area, and “we also really appreciated the environmental ethic that was so prevalent here, and all that was going on in regards to sustainable organic farming.”

Florence Reed with her son at their nearly net-zero home in Surry. Friends first “lured” Reed and her husband, Bruce Maanum, to the area, and “we also really appreciated the environmental ethic that was so prevalent here, and all that was going on in regards to sustainable organic farming.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Greeting a visitor at the top of her long, bumpy driveway, Reed, 47, looks as though maybe she just got back from a MOFGA meeting or a stop at the local co-op. But she’s most recently back in Surry after a trip to Switzerland, where she spoke about Sustainable Harvest International’s work at the Global Risk Forum One Health Summit. She’s often on the road, whether fundraising or talking to farmers or accepting an award. (In 2012 she won one of the Peace Corps’ top honors, the Sargent Shriver Award.)

She is a jet-setter in clogs and, though soft-spoken, is a ferocious advocate for worldwide sustainability. Among those who admire her work, she’s notorious for being able to talk people into things.

Steve Richards can attest to this. Three months after joining her organization’s board, he was chairing it. She’d reached out to him at a time when the recession was hitting the nonprofit world particularly hard, seeking a mentor to help her keep Sustainable Harvest International going. Who better to turn to than a man who had been general counsel and then acting president for the American Red Cross, had visited 85 foreign countries and just happened to have retired to his second home in Maine?

“Her story really intrigued me,” Richards said. “She is a very passionate person. She can convert almost anyone.”

Like that time she lured Eliot Coleman into teaching a weeklong class in organic farming in Honduras, after brushing aside a few hazards he might encounter. Here’s how Coleman remembers the conversation.

“She said, ‘This is a really interesting project, Eliot. We do have to go up the river in these canoe-like things, but no one has been bitten by the poisonous water snakes. Yet. And there is a remote village, and there are all sorts of suspicious soldiers in camouflage in the woods, but none of them have really bothered us. Yet.’ ”

He went. And he had a great time.

“It’s amazing this job she has done in putting this organization together,” Coleman said. “It is sort of a model NGO (non-governmental organization).”

Founding an international non-governmental organization with a staff of 38 in multiple Central American countries and seven others in Maine to teach sustainable farming was not part of some game plan Reed cooked up coming out of college. In fact, it might never have happened if it hadn’t been for a weekend getaway in 1997, at the exact time when her considerable youthful idealism was in serious jeopardy.

It involved a serendipitous encounter while scuba diving in Panama with a pair of generous Swiss visitors eager to feel like something other than tourists.

PEACE AND CONFLICT STUDIES

Reed at a tree nursery in La Fortuna, Honduras.

Reed at a tree nursery in La Fortuna, Honduras. Daysbeth Lopez photo Bruce Maanum photo

Reed had gone into the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of New Hampshire. She’d asked for a Central American country and been assigned to Panama. She had studied Central America at college and traveled to Guatemala the summer before her senior year, so the region already meant something to her. As a student she’d protested the American invasion of Panama – an invasion that ultimately led to the Peace Corps returning to the country after 20 years.

She also knew something of tropical deforestation caused by the agricultural practice of slash-and-burn farming. The topsoil is thin in Central America and quickly depleted by farming. When a field is used up, typically the farmer moves into the woods, cuts down enough trees to access new soil, and so on and so forth. In their quest for tillable farmland, farmers can end up working fields that are a several-hours walk from their homes. Reading about it was one thing, seeing it in person from the window of a bus delivering her to her hosts was entirely another.

But Reed was lucky; the family who gave her a home in Santa Rita was involved with a reforestation project. And though the Peace Corps had sent her out into the country with little more direction than to make herself useful, the family and the community had a mission for her: Replicate what we’re doing. And so she did, walking the 30 minutes to their nursery and then out into the slashed and burned fields to fill in gaps with fast-growing trees that could improve the depleted soils. That was her training and the beginning of an idea that, 20 years later, is still her calling.

DIVING IN

Reed with a crew of children on the way to plant trees in Tranquilla, Panama.

Reed with a crew of children on the way to plant trees in Tranquilla, Panama. Bruce Maanum photo Daysbeth Lopez photo

Reed finished the Peace Corps in 1993 but continued to be drawn to the kind of work she’d done in Panama. She was working on a similar project in Honduras when she went away for that fateful weekend on the dive boat where she met the Swiss tourists.

Reed was broke, although that wasn’t the cause of her discouragement. She had just hired two people to help train farmers in sustainable practices in Honduras. Then her bosses told her they wouldn’t be buying motorcycles for the trainers as they’d planned; there was no funding. These people she’d just recruited and relocated would have no means, beyond the slowpoke bus, of getting to the communities they were supposed to be helping. Reed felt terrible. “I felt personally responsible for these trainers,” she said.

She shared her worries with the tourists. As the trio sat on the dive boat together in this tropical setting, they told her they wanted to see the “real Panama.” Would she take them?

On a lark she said sure, as long as they’d pay for the rental car.

They were up for it, and the car ride took the trio through many, many barren acres that had been slashed and burned for centuries. “You could see all the way to the Pacific,” Reed said. “Thirty miles away. There was no soil left. It was almost like a moonscape.” The visitors were agape. Then Reed took them to Santa Rita, where the reforestration program had produced plentiful coconut palms, greenery and farms that worked with nature, not against it.

“I’ll see if I can pull together some donations,” one said now that he’d seen with his own eyes what was happening to the land. That was Dieter Marmet. He went back to Switzerland, and Reed returned to work.

But her job fell apart completely after that, and soon she was back in New Hampshire, at her parents’ house, trying to figure out what to do next. Maybe she’d start her own organization, one that actually got things done, using the model she’d learned in the Peace Corps. But how?

For the first time, she considered an easier life, involving “a real job.”

She gave herself 24 hours to make a decision. That afternoon, an email arrived from Marmet. He’d rounded up $6,000 for the motorcycles, did she want it? She explained the situation. He told her to start her own nonprofit, using the money he was sending. Reed promptly hired that pair of trainers to work for a new organization: Sustainable Harvest International. Trying to raise money, she frantically wrote letters to everyone she knew. “I even got a book called ‘How to Start a Non-Profit,’ ” she said, shaking her head over how clueless she was then. She felt her way through, one step at a time.

“And it has continued to be like that for 18 years,” she said.

The networking skills that have sustained her through all those years impressed Richards, her board chair, from the beginning. It’s easy enough for a deliberate charmer to network well, albeit it superficially. But a sincere networker is another type altogether; that person doesn’t shy away from forcefulness.

“She is very quick to challenge someone if she thinks they are not on the right path or don’t understand what needs to be done,” Richards said. “She’s not reluctant to speak.” But in a controlled and thoughtful way, he said.

Reed interviews a girl in Calpules, Honduras.

Reed interviews a girl in Calpules, Honduras. Bruce Maanum photo Bruce Maanum photo

Richards had worked for years with the International Rescue Committee. He was used to seeing people uprooted from their homelands, whether because of war, famine or some other disaster. It was a pleasure to observe work that was improving people’s chances of staying in their homes.

“What struck me about this program Flo has created is that it has resulted in families now having hope for their children,” he said. They are healthier and have better chances of getting an education, thanks to their parents’ increased incomes – usually up 25 percent after completing the full program.

What she started in her parent’s spare bedroom has been effective for nearly two decades.

But as hard as she works, it never feels like enough.

“I always feel a sense of urgency to be doing a lot more,” she said. She’s conscious of the millions of small-scale farmers in Central America she can’t reach and what their slash-and-burn farming is doing to the environment.

“As much as I love these farmers, it is really the planet that I worry about,” she said.

She and her husband, Bruce Maanum, have a son, Clay, who is 9. (If you doubt her commitment to her work, consider that she was in Belize when she was seven months pregnant with Clay, riding shotgun over rutted dirt roads. “I thought, this baby is going to bounce out of me,” she remembers.)

Clay’s future is the undercurrent to all the conversations she has about sustainability. Deforestation isn’t just an inconvenient walk for farmers; it is depleting carbon and speeding up climate change. “I want there to be a planet for him,” she said.

MAINE MAÑANA

Reed practices what she preaches from a nearly net-zero home she and her husband built in this quiet corner of Hancock County. It’s an incongruous place to find an international nonprofit (Coleman first encountered her while browsing online for non-governmental organizations doing farming work in Belize. “Up came SHI,” he said. Headquartered near him on the Blue Hill Peninsula.)

“Friends had moved here first and lured us here,” Reed explained. The area had the basics she needed. She could catch a flight out of Bangor to go on trips to Central America or fundraising ventures around the United States and Europe. Office space and land was comparatively cheap. Maanum built their (nearly) off-grid house himself. They have room for an extensive garden that yields enough potatoes and garlic to get through the winter (Maanum excuses himself during Reed’s interview to harvest apples from the tree down the road).

“We also really appreciated the environmental ethic that was so prevalent here, and all that was going on in regards to sustainable organic farming.”

There are, she said, some similarities between the culture of Maine and that of Central America: the sense of community, the lack of hurry (“both places operate on “mañana time,” she says), the emphasis on self-reliance.

Florence Reed founded the nonprofit Sustainable Harvest International, which helps improve life for farmers in Central America and fights deforestation.

Florence Reed founded the nonprofit Sustainable Harvest International, which helps improve life for farmers in Central America and fights deforestation. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The lesson she took away from Peace Corps and applied to Sustainable Harvest International was that for change to happen, it had to come through locals training locals, not outsiders pushing new methods. The Central American farmers she works with in Belize, Honduras and Panama have told her they never wanted to hurt the land they love; they were just trying to feed their families.

Local trainers hired by Sustainable Harvest International commit to a five-year program with farmers, starting by working with them to develop a plan for their land. It might involve creating erosion barriers with pineapples or rocks. Or it could involve planting row crops between “alleys” of trees or starting worm composting. Sustainable Harvest International doesn’t approach composting any differently than say, Eliot Coleman.

“Figuring out timing of crops or how that changes as the days grow longer or shorter, in general the same things are going to apply,” Coleman said. “There is a lot of stuff we do here that they can do there.” Although when he was teaching the course in Honduras, his pupils did laugh when he talked about walking out to his fields through three feet of snow.

Another lesson Reed’s group imparts is one Maine farmers know well: the need to diversify. “So they aren’t just growing corn and beans,” Reed said. Self-sufficiency is the goal.

“People think money is the solution,” she added. “I think that is false, though. If you count on money to feed your family, it puts you in a really precarious position.”

Only once sustainable practices are established and families can be fed does Sustainable Harvest work with farmers on growing cash crops, like grain for export.

The projects tend to duplicate themselves. People in one community see what’s happening in the next and ask for Sustainable Harvest to come to them.

“There’s always far more demand than we can get to,” she said. It was a sunlit October day in Maine, where the forest had far less to fear, but she was thinking of other woods that needed her.