Idaho Nonprofit Leader Lands On Forbes '30 Under 30' List

Mar 6, 2015

We’ve been following an Idaho non-profit over the years as it helps farmers in Guatemala grow more sustainable crops. We first learned of Semilla Neuva - that’s “New Seed” in Spanish - in 2011. The fledgling group was giving advice on farming techniques to Guatemalan farmers.

Executive Director Curt Bowen has grown New Seed from just a few volunteers to 15 full-time staff and he’s now helping hundreds of families in Guatemala. This year he was named one of 30 social entrepreneurs under 30-years-old to watch by Forbes Magazine.

Bowen says the group is introducing a new kind of corn to farmers.

"The biggest areas that have nutrition problems around the world -- and Guatemala is one of them -- share this characteristic: almost all of them are areas where people consume corn as their primary food source," says Bowen. He says people in Idaho know you can't just feed your animals corn, because there's no protein in corn.

"It's the same with human beings," he says. "Half the kids in Guatemala are stunted. That means their brains never fully developed, their bodies never fully developed, and it all comes down to what they eat in the first two years."

Bowen says over the years, scientists working for the U.S. government have bred a variety of corn that is a complete protein.

"We have been working on adapting that corn for Guatemala and getting our farmers to use it."

Bowen says farmers love the taste and it's a really easy solution. If they get 150 families to plant their fields with the protein-rich corn it's the equivalent of giving away two million PowerBars.

"It's high impact, it's sustainable, and it's culturally appropriate because you don't have to change anything. You don't go from eating tortillas to eating tofu; you stay with tortillas, but they're just better tortillas now."

Traditionally, Bowen says, "we would say here's these kids, they're starving, they're not getting enough food. Let's send them food. Eventually you run out of money and you run out of interest. What I think makes us different is we focus on what's the real long-term solution."

Bowen says the group has grown with the help of financial support from Idahoans over the past few years. But when it comes to planting time, everyone on staff still works in the fields.

"I don't want to lose that. We know the farmers we work with, we know them by name. I don't want to get to the point that we don't," says Bowen.

Curt Bowen is in town to celebrate Semilla Neuva's success. "New Seed" is holding a fundraiser Friday night at Zions Bank in Boise to celebrate.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio