When she moved to Les Cayes in 2006 to teach animal health and husbandry and animal production at a local university, Dr. Kelly Crowdis joined a pair of legends in Haiti. Veterinarian Dr. Keith Flanagan and his wife, Jan, lived in-country for 26 years as workers for Christian Veterinary Mission (CVM), the same organization that sent Dr. Crowdis. Today, she leads a project called Give a Kid a Kid, educating Haitian youth and helping them learn to care for their own livestock, but “for my first two years, I called the Flanagans whenever I had a problem,” Dr. Crowdis says with a laugh. “They were my guardian angels.”

Dr. Flanagan passed away in the spring of 2013 after “a life of generosity, humility, selflessness, and charity,” says Dr. Max Millien, Director of Animal Production in Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture. “He was a very good friend of the Ministry of Agriculture, and he was known to the whole country.”

Millien first met Flanagan in 1998, and the two soon struck up a friendship, as well as a powerful partnership in eradicating hog cholera and improving animal health in Haiti. Beginning in 2003, Millien and Flanagan co-directed the Control and Eradication of Classical Swine Fever Program, which was funded by the US Drug Administration’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA – APHIS), and managed by the Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA).

Flanagan, along with many other workers with NGOs and missionary organizations, represents a level of cooperation that Dr. Millien says is crucial to agricultural growth in Haiti, one of the Western world’s poorest countries. Without collaboration, the responsibilities would be too great a burden on the Ministry of Agriculture’s limited resources. “If we have a total budget of $50 million, just 600,000 doses of rabies vaccine cost about $19 million,” Dr. Millien says. And health must come first.

Much of the battle in Haiti is currently bent against animal disease—African swine fever, Teschovirus, and rabies are all threats. “With the establishment of a system of notification, we have made a lot of progress in the field of epidemiological surveillance of diseases,” Dr. Millien says.

That system is basically an alert network capitalizing on the strength of word-of-mouth communication in Haiti. Groupe Sante Bet (GSB), or Animal Health Groups, are yet another way the Ministry of Agriculture collaborates—this time with its own citizens, rather than large organizations—in order to make the most of its resources and effectively vaccinate at-risk animals throughout the over 10,000 square-mile country.

GSBs capitalize on the hyper-local nature of Haiti’s communes, which are similar to US counties. Each GSB consists of about 25 people within a certain commune, consisting of one or two “veterinary agents” trained by the Ministry of Agriculture to be technical assistants to the producers. Countrywide, “the GSB is the eyes of the Ministry of Agriculture,” Dr. Millien says.

These tight-knit communes, in addition to being effective means for transmitting information about a disease before it spreads, are also promising centers of future small-scale milk production facilities, improved breeding stock, animal marketing, vaccination clinics, de-worming centers, and more.

Animal production is a clear area in need of growth. When asked about Haiti’s greatest accomplishments in the livestock industry over the last decade, Dr. Millien doesn’t mince words. “We haven’t made a lot of progress in the organization of the animal industry in Haiti,” he says firmly. “Animal production is backyard production. In spite of our efforts, we don’t have a lot of investment in the cattle sector in Haiti. And that’s a very big problem.”

Cattle production is an informal venture in Haiti. There are about 1.2 million cows in the country today, most of a mixed indigenous breed called Creole, and they belong to families who keep just one or two, mostly as an investment to be sold off in case of great need. “There are no large cattle herds as you see in Africa,” Dr. Crowdis says. Because grazing lands aren’t plentiful in Haiti, goats are the hardier, more practical choice. What cattle there are graze more or less freely, foraging on native grasses similar to Bermuda and bluestem and dodging neighbors’ machetes when they wander away from their owners’ property. Milking and slaughtering facilities with proper sanitation measures in place aren’t always easily available, and there is the ever-present threat of theft—probably the industry’s biggest cause of loss.

“I think the animal production sector needs a lot of investment—from the public sector and the private sector,” Dr. Millien says. “We need to create conditions to help people understand that agriculture is an activity that can make money. That’s not easy—but the government has to make some decisions in that direction.”

It won’t be quick or easy, and animal production isn’t the only issue requiring attention in Haiti today. The country’s infrastructure has been hit hard in recent history, from severe political instability still reverberating from François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s repressive 14-year presidency (followed by his son’s equally problematic rule until 1986) to a devastating earthquake in 2010. “Everything has changed in Haiti,” Dr. Millien says, remembering a time when Haiti exported not only rum and sugar, but also beef, goat, and pork to the United States. But, with the committed help of people like Dr. Flanagan, Dr. Crowdis, and other representatives of governmental and non-governmental organizations who see plenty of potential in Haiti, he’s ready to start again from scratch.