Lt. Col. Robert C. Perry (center, blue shirt) and Defense Attaché Office Coordinator Meri Perisić (left) receive seeds and potato slips being prepared for distribution in Berane, Montenegro. Photo courtesy of Jelena Krivčević

By Michael P. Murphy

When the global COVID-19 pandemic reached Montenegro in mid-March, the Montenegro government reacted swiftly to place protection measures for the country, severely restricting travel into and within Montenegro. Borders were shut, flights into and out of the country were curtailed, and citizens were restricted from traveling between cities without authorization. While these efforts contained the initial spread of the virus, other challenges appeared.  

A couple tends to their crops near Dragovici. Photo by Isaac D. Pacheco
A couple tends to their crops near Dragovici. Photo by Isaac D. Pacheco

Regional border closures that limited food imports created a sense of fear that led to hoarding of food staples and rumors of possible food shortages. Strictly enforced limitations to inter-city movement threatened domestic food production as agricultural supplies such as seeds, seedlings, and potato slips (shoots from a mature potato) became impossible to obtain. The increasing demand for these items and limited cross-border commercial trade greatly increased prices for critical farming supplies in rural areas. The immediate negative impact on domestic income caused by a severe drop in coastal and rural tourism, Montenegro’s primary economic driver, compounded the situation direly.  

While Embassy Podgorica turned its attention to protecting American citizens living abroad, it also sought to identify means to assist this small but important NATO ally of 630,000 people in effectively dealing with the effects of the pandemic. The country team determined that a critical need could be filled by supporting domestic food production, especially in the country’s rural interior, where not only was the need greatest, but resentment still lingered from the 1999 NATO-led bombing campaign. Helping Montenegrin farmers would play a role in making Montenegro more self-reliant by addressing food security concerns exacerbated by the pandemic and would demonstrate America’s role as a friend, partner, and ally.

The embassy team—led by Defense Attaché Lt. Col. Craig Perry, Public Affairs Officer Nicole Gallagher, and Economic Officer Kyle Hatcher—partnered with the U.S. nonprofit Spirit of America to provide seeds, seedlings, and potato slips to households involved in rural tourism. The immediate aim of this effort was to alleviate food shortage fears among at-risk populations and to increase domestic production of food items with a long shelf life that could provide nourishment through the winter months. In addition to this short-term objective, the embassy and Spirit of America saw this endeavor as having the long-term impact of supporting rural development, economic growth, women’s empowerment, and entrepreneurship. In partnership with local implementing NGOs Paradigma and the Regional Development Agency of Bjelasica, Komovi, & Prokletije (RDA), the Montenegro Seed Project 2020 was born.  

While global travel restrictions hindered face-to-face meetings, the newly formed team adjusted quickly to coordinating through video conferences and phone calls. Overcoming numerous obstacles in such an ambitious project was labor-intensive, exacerbated by the new reality of the pandemic world. 

U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Judy Rising Reinke (left) harvests potatoes to be provided to needy families and organizations at the mountain village of Čakor on the border with Kosovo. Photo by Lt. Col. Robert C. Perry
U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Judy Rising Reinke (left) harvests potatoes to be provided to needy families and organizations at the mountain village of Čakor on the border with Kosovo. Photo by Lt. Col. Robert C. Perry

“The importance of developing personal relationships within the U.S. interagency, the host government, and non-governmental organizations before the crisis occurred was critically important to overcoming coordination limitations due to COVID-19,” said Perry. 

Despite these challenges, the team rallied and produced an actionable plan.

“Speed was critical for this project to be effective due to the planting season happening during the lockdown. This project would not have been possible without proven partners locally and internationally,” he said.  

After an extraordinary logistical undertaking, deliveries of seeds began to arrive by May 15, destined for 68 farming families in rural municipalities across the country. Working with Paradigma and RDA, the project team got to work delivering seeds and supplies to farmers identified through an online application process.

“The response from the recipients during the distribution was more positive than expected,” said Perry. “The program enabled the embassy team to gain access and to build relationships in some of the hardest to reach communities that have traditionally been skeptical of the West.” 

During the distribution, the team was overwhelmed by the generosity of the farmers who participated in the project. Participant families pledged to donate a portion of their harvest in turn to needy members of their communities as an expression of their appreciation of the Seed Project’s willingness to help during a time of need. The program estimated that one ton of food would be donated to those in need for every seven families that participated.

“It was essential to work with proven farming families when seeking to grow more food for their community and the vulnerable,” said Brit Boone from Paradigma. “However, the pledged generosity went above our expectations. Helping others help others is proving to be a powerful model.”   

U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Judy Rising Reinke (far left) shares lunch with local farmers at a katun or shepherd cottage. Photo by Brit Boone
U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Judy Rising Reinke (far left) shares lunch with local farmers at a katun or shepherd cottage. Photo by Brit Boone

By September, the yields of the project’s efforts began to show. U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Judy Rising Reinke, accompanied by the embassy Seed Project Team, Boone, and representatives of the cooperating NGOs, participated in a symbolic harvest of the last of the season’s bounty, Sept. 28. Traveling through the mountains to the rural municipality of Plav, near the village of Murino, the ambassador and the team were honored to be the guests of the Jokić family at their katun (mountain cottage). After a lovely greeting, they then set to harvesting the product of this international cooperative effort started six months earlier. As of mid-September, with one-third of participant families reporting, 3.25 tons (6503.64 lbs) of food had been donated from the harvest to families in need, soup kitchens, food pantries, and other community organizations.  

U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Judy Rising Reinke (right) works with a volunteer harvesting potatoes to be provided to needy families and organizations at the mountain village of Čakor on the border with Kosovo. Photo by Lt. Col. Robert C. Perry
U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Judy Rising Reinke (right) works with a volunteer harvesting potatoes to be provided to needy families and organizations at the mountain village of Čakor on the border with Kosovo. Photo by Lt. Col. Robert C. Perry

The fact that private U.S. citizens and organizations pitched in to assist embassy efforts to address the secondary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Montenegro made this endeavor even more extraordinary. These donations enabled Spirit of America, an organization that embodies people-to-people ties between Montenegro and the United States, to empower rural households to help feed themselves and assist their communities during a time of great need.

Building on this success, the embassy secured the allocation of approximately $130,000 in funding from Assistance for Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia to bring the project to scale. The resulting COVID-19 Montenegro Food Security Project, which Paradigma will implement throughout the country, seeks to facilitate community-based cooperation to significantly boost domestic food production, making it more available to those in need. This new project supports the construction of community greenhouses and garden towers, the education of local farmers and organizations on innovative farming techniques, and community engagement to motivate individuals to volunteer to help the most vulnerable. 

Michael P. Murphy is vice consul at Embassy Podgorica.