Peter’s work with World Renew began in 1973, shortly after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in Horticulture and Agricultural Economics . “I wanted to be a potato farmer in Canada upon my graduation,” Peter recalls. “I was asked by two agencies if I would consider Bangladesh. Both times I said ‘no.’” But God had other plans. Although Peter was not—at first—interested in going overseas, he became convicted by God’s spirit to help others—namely Bangladeshi farmers. “The phone rang and World Renew wanted me to go to Bangladesh as their pioneer,” says Peter. “If I said ‘no’ again, I felt I would end up in trouble like Jonah in the whale! Within three months I was in Bangladesh!”
“If I said ‘no’ again, I felt I would end up in trouble like Jonah in the whale! Within three months I was in Bangladesh!”
Together with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Peter worked with World Renew/CRWRC to lead an agricultural program focused on crop diversification. They introduced, evaluated and ultimately promoted dry land crops such as wheat, soybeans, potatoes and vegetables and worked closely with the local extension service and the national research system.
Getting to know and love the people of Bangladesh was a critical part of the team’s success. “I developed many close friendships with farmers and Bengali scientists. Relationships were the key to survival in Bangladesh,” Peter says. “The local newspaper always put stories in the paper about our work!”
The team’s work of renewing resources and restoring livelihoods was eventually acknowledged by the country’s leadership. After severe flooding in the summer of 1974, for example, the Secretary of Agriculture in Daka asked Peter to meet with him. At first Peter hesitated—he was far from his residence, so he couldn’t change his clothes as he visiting farmer groups by motorbike, and dressed very casually—in shorts.
“I told the MCC secretary that I was not appropriately dressed to see such an important person,” shares Peter, but “the response was: ‘I don’t care what he looks like, I want to know what is in his brains!’”
As it turned out, the secretary and his colleagues wanted to start a national vegetable program based on what the World Renew/CRWRC team had been doing on a smaller scale. The Director of the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Council regularly visited the sites of Peter’s experiments and extension work—and eventually helped nationalize their methods.
By the grace of God, World Renew’s agricultural work in Bangladesh continued to flourish and expand. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) visited the country annually to review the program. They were so impressed they offered their generous financial support. A reporter from the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail also visited, and later wrote an article profiling Peter and World Renew’s agricultural initiatives.
Another highlight for Peter and the team was being acknowledged by the President of Bangladesh, who awarded them the annual gold medal that went to the individual or organization that most helped developed the country. It was quite amazing for a young Christian group to develop such credibility with the leadership of a Muslim country—and Peter knows God was working through each and every person.
“Our team of young North Americans was enthusiastic and very professional,” remembers Peter. “Our impact was huge. Our efforts were multiplied across the country.”
Peter’s time in Bangladesh also had a profound impact on his personal life. His wife, Carla, was the daughter of missionaries in Bangladesh. They met there and were married in 1975.
The VanderZaags both had a passion to continue on in development work. They went to graduate school in Hawaii to help equip them for more opportunities to serve. Peter obtained a Ph. D. in Tropical Agronomy while Carla received an M. Ed. degree in early Childhood Education. Yet, World Renew/CRWRC was never far from their hearts.
After graduating, Peter and Carla joined the International Potato Centre (CIP). Their first assignment was in Rwanda, Africa, to develop national potato programs there. They spent many more years overseas, studying and developing potato production methods throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. They introduced new varieties, helped improve crop management, and trained young scientists in short-term, specialized training and at the graduate degree level.
In 1990, however, the couple decided to return to Canada to start their own potato farm.
“Carla and I were ready to go to Canada and raise our children and start farming—to practice what I was preaching!” shares Peter.
And that’s what they did. They established their own farm and also raised six children—three of them adopted Rwandans orphaned as a result of the genocide.
Even in this next chapter the VanderZaags also continued to work with World Renew. Peter served with World Renew/CRWRC on a short-term basis in Burundi to help resettle refugees; and in Ethiopia with food production and food for work activities. He also went to North Korea with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
In fact, Peter’s connection to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank formed the foundation for his next years of service with World Renew/CRWRC.
“When I was in Bangladesh, the other staff members and I would talk about the poverty in Bangladesh compared to the full barns of grain in Canada,” said Peter. “At one of our retreats, we read the story about Joseph in Egypt building barns for the grain and sharing it. We concluded we were now in a similar situation. The idea of a Food grains bank was really born at those retreats in Bangladesh in the mid 1970’s. MCC started doing this initially and received matching support from CIDA. The CFGB was formally started in 1983 and World Renew – then CRWRC - was one of the founding members.”
For the past 15 years, Peter has helped to organize and lead a community growing project with farmers North of Toronto, Ontario. The farmers grow crops on donated land and are supported through offerings from their local churches. Once the crops are harvested, the proceeds are donated towards CFGB. They call their project “Loaves and Fishes” and World Renew is one of the primary recipients.
"Just by people putting a few dollars in the collection plate at church, we get the Loaves and Fishes miracle rolling."
“For every dollar given in the collection plate on a special Sunday offering, we produce $3 from grain sold. Each of those dollars then multiplies to about $10 with the CIDA matching funds! People give the money, farmers give the land and businesses help with the inputs. It truly is a loaves and fishes miracle!” says Peter. “$1.6 million was raised right here in 14 years and about 40% goes to the World Renew account - just by people putting a few dollars in the collection plate at church, we get the Loaves and Fishes miracle rolling.”
Peter has spent much of his lifetime serving World Renew/CRWRC, and he encourages others to join him.
“If you serve with Word Renew you will be blessed beyond your wildest dreams. I can say that,” shares Peter. “I surrendered my will to our Lord, and He has taken me on incredible journey—so enriching.”
To learn more about World Renew’s sustainable agricultural initiatives, past and present, click here. You can also find out more about the VanderZaags’ farming business, Sunrise Potato, at www.sunrisepotato.com