Rutland, Mass. — ROSALEE Sinn walks past the barn stalls housing goats, kids, some rabbits, a chicken or two and, yes, even a guinea fowl, to lean on the split-rail fence surrounding the cow pen. The 20 or so two-year-old heifers inside, born and raised on New England farms, will soon be flown to the dusty plains of Jordan. They are America's gift to some impoverished residents there, part of an ongoing program that has helped raise the living standards of the rural poor in this manner since the final years of World War II.
Heifer Project International (HPI), the private development agency sponsoring the program, promotes self-sufficiency and independence by providing quality breeding stock -- cows and goats for the most part, but also rabbits, chickens, and even bees -- to qualified individuals too poor to purchase stock of this caliber.
But HPI faces an unusual challenge right now.
The organization has an ``unparalleled opportunity to bless others,'' but an inability to take full advantage of the situation because of a shortage of funds, says Mrs. Sinn, director of Overlook Farm here, Northeast regional headquarters of the Arkansas-based agency.
The opportunity results from the federal government's dairy-herd buyout program, aimed at reducing the oversupply of milk by cutting the number of dairy cows by 1.55 million during the next three years.
Many farmers accepting the buyout offer would rather see their bred-for-milk animals go overseas than have them slaughtered and add to the oversupply of meat at home -- thus eliminating one glut by creating another. These concerns have resulted in hundreds of offers of young cows or heifers (not yet in milk and therefore more readily shipped) pouring into HPI headquarters in Arkansas and its five regional centers, including this one at Overlook Farm.
But while HPI has all the stock it can currently handle, it is frustrated by a lack of funds to ship the animals to needy recipients. The cost of air-freighting animals can range from a low of $750 to a high of $3,000 each, depending on the distance involved. ``It's generally much cheaper to ship people than cows,'' Sinn points out.
Those among the public who have heard of the situation have responded generously with donations, ``but more is needed if we are to take full advantage of the present opportunity,'' she says.
HPI -- or, simply, Heifer, as the largely volunteer staff calls it -- works on the credo that to give a poor man a cup of milk today only means that he will be in want again tomorrow; but give a man a cow and he has milk on a permanent basis along with the self-respect and dignity that accompany his new sense of independence.
Dan West, an Indiana farmer, founded HPI after his own experience distributing relief supplies to hungry families during the Spanish civil war. The futility of giving handouts and seeing the food run out long before the lines of hungry people led him to ask the question: ``Instead of endlessly giving powdered milk, why not give a cow?''
But Mr. West attached one condition to all HPI aid which puts it above most forms of charity. It is this:
Each recipient must give the first female offspring of its cow or goat to someone else, who does the same thing in turn. The effect is a self-perpetuating gift that over the years can have a marked effect on the living standards of a region.
The first shipload of young heifers went to Puerto Rico in 1944; since then thousands of all types of farm animals have been shipped to 107 countries and to 33 states within the United States. Included with the original gift is training from a Heifer representative in the care and feeding of the animal. Also, all would-be recipients are evaluated for their ability and willingness to undertake their new farming opportunity. No animal is simply dumped on a needy family and left, Mrs. Sinn insists.
HPI combats world hunger one family at a time, the way a mason builds a wall -- one brick at a time until the wall is complete. Each success on its own has a negligible effect on the worldwide hunger problem, but ``one success becomes ten, and ten becomes a hundred and then a thousand,'' Mrs. Sinn says, ``and the impact on a whole region becomes noticeable, as we have just seen in Honduras and among the Masai in Kenya.''
At the end of the last decade a survey in Honduras indicated that as many as 97 percent of the country's rural population suffered from some form of malnutrition. Hearing of the situation, HPI began introducing goats into the country through selected families. ``A goat,'' says Mrs. Sinn, ``gives two to four quarts of milk a day and has babies twice a year,'' so the results are quick in coming. A mere four years later these same areas were surveyed again and it was found that malnutrition had dropped to 14 percent.
In the Kiloriti region of Kenya, the Masai lost 80 percent of their cattle in the drought of recent years. Last year HPI began replacing the loss with either two cows or five goats per family. Said one Masai mother: ``Were it not for your gifts, more of our children would have died. You are adding to our own strength.''
Other examples indicate the immediate impact of HPI's work:
An 11-year-old boy in Dominica was given five rabbits. Each day the boy would go along the roadsides cutting the most succulent grass and other forage to feed them. Last year he raised 350 pounds of meat for his family, who previously rarely ate meat of any kind.
In Equador a man is currently putting his two young brothers through university because of an HPI gift of 25 chicks in 1969 when he would have been in college had he the necessary funds and the basic education to be admitted. Today that small flock has increased to 2,500 laying hens, and besides educating his family the now relatively prosperous farmer is helping his neighbors establish flocks of their own in the same spirit that motivated the original gift.
In the United States, HPI coordinator Anne Bossie has been giving cows to needy families in Maine. Each cow is worth $1,200 a year in milk, butter, and cheese, she says. Folks from ``mainstream America'' often suggest that such a small amount of money is hardly worth the effort of looking after a cow. But in that particular region of the state the average family income is only $5,000 a year, Ms. Bossie points out, adding: ``Who wouldn't be delighted with a 24 percent raise?''
Animals used in the HPI programs are bought or come as tax-deductible gifts from farmers. Financial support comes from church groups and individuals (about 50 percent), foundations, businesses, civic clubs, and government grants. On average, something less than 18 percent of income is used for administration.
Put another way, more than 80 percent of all donations goes directly to the people in need, making Heifer Project International one of the most efficiently run charitable organizations in the world.
A major reason for this efficiency is the dedication of the workers that make up a relatively small full-time staff, a more moderate part-time one, and vast numbers of volunteers who are paid a $25-a-week stipend. Many of these volunteers are agriculture students who choose to give of their time and who also gain thorough practical experience in stock management.
Last year HPI's annual income amounted to about $7 million, and this is expected to grow by more than 25 percent a year through the turn of this century.
Tax-deductible donations can be sent to any of the regional centers or to Heifer Project International headquarters at Box 808, Little Rock, Ark. 72203.