Virginia Tech students interview farmers in Ecuador on conservation agriculture

Michael Barrowclough, Casey Gresham, Frankie Dowd, Stephanie Myrick, Amy Hubbard, and Catherine Goggins

From left: Michael Barrowclough, Casey Gresham, Frankie Dowd, Stephanie Myrick, Amy Hubbard, and Catherine Goggins

Six undergraduate students from Virginia Tech traveled to Ecuador in May and June to conduct research on conservation agriculture. Their research was part of a collaborative program among agricultural scientists and students from Ecuador and the United States. The program is led by Virginia Tech and is part of a sustainable agriculture project supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The purpose of project is to design and test conservation agriculture practices on limited-resource farms. These practices include minimum tillage systems, cover crops, and crop-residue retention. The students spent two weeks in Quito fine-tuning their language skills before traveling to Guaranda in Bolivar province where they conducted a survey of farmers in the Chimbo watershed.

The survey obtained farmers’ views on various factors affected by conservation agriculture such as yields, costs, labor use, erosion, soil organic matter, and risk. The purpose of the survey was to assess the importance that farmers place on these factors. The data will be used by graduate student Michael Barrowclough in his Ph.D. dissertation. The students interviewed more than 200 farmers under the guidance of Barrowclough and professors from the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. At the end of the program, the students presented their results to the farmers in the upper part of the watershed. Catherine Goggins, a junior in AAEC, said, “Getting to meet many individuals and families was a clear highlight. Even though the interviews were short, I feel privileged to have met and worked with so many nice people. And the whole experience put students in a great position to learn a lot first hand, through the development of the survey, Spanish lessons, survey distribution, and discussions.”

The trip was not all work. On weekends, the students visited other parts of the country such as the coast, Baños, Otavalo, and the equator. They also climbed the Chimborazo volcano. Student Frances Dowd said, “I really liked how we were not babysat. I enjoyed being able to work collaboratively on different aspects of the project and to travel to other areas. The trip was an amazing experience.”

Students said they gained insights from the experience about farming in Ecuador and their future as well. Casey Gresham, a student from Urban and Regional Planning, said, “As someone studying international development who had never been to a developing country, this experience was a must for me. It really allowed me to discover my strengths and weaknesses when working on a project abroad, and it assured me that I chose the right degree path and interest. I absolutely loved the experience.”

AAEC senior Stephanie Myrick said, “I really feel a great connection and understanding of farming in Ecuador and the troubles they face. I enjoyed talking to the farmers every day. It gave me a great perspective on global issues and the similarity of farmers in Ecuador and America.”

“I enjoyed being able to use both majors, Spanish and Ag Econ, every day. I thought the Spanish lessons to prepare students for the survey aspect of the trip was key in understanding and getting adjusted to the culture, accents and new surroundings. Another positive aspect was working with the local scientists; they were very helpful and fun to be around. It was a great experience to get a sense of the true non-tourist side of Ecuador,” said Catherine O’Donnell, a junior studying Spanish and agricultural and applied economics.

The program was funded by Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) program at Virginia Tech with Funds from USAID, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, AAEC, and the University Honors program. Faculty members on the trip were Jeff Alwang, Darrell Bosch, and George Norton.

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