Global insights: Trellis students work abroad

As seen in The Davis Enterprise.



They found themselves in Bangladesh, Malawi and Kenya.

Taking their research skills overseas, three UC Davis grad students recently returned from villages across the globe. From dealing with soils thick with chemical pesticides to helping market strategies, the students’ work is part of three month-long projects under the Trellis Fund, an arm of UCD’s Horticulture Innovation Lab.

Trellis works on a smaller scale than the lab, selecting students to partner with organizations on the ground for a few months before traveling there for two-to-three-week projects. This year, 14 different students traveled to nine different countries.

Using grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development, each student receive $2,000 for their projects as well as paid travel costs.

After months of preparation, three students journeyed abroad to take a crack at agricultural problems in the developing world. These are their stories.

Bangladesh’s chemical inundation

Brittany Pierce, a plant pathology Ph.D. candidate, wakes up early in the morning at PRIDE’s headquarters and enjoys a breakfast of tropical mangoes and lychee.

By 9:30 a.m., she’s out the door and headed for the village where she’ll speak to half-a-dozen farmers each day as part of the information-gathering phase of her first stay in Jessore, Bangladesh.

Farmers across the region are struggling with a worm that attacks the shoot of their eggplants, a staple crop that comprises many traditional dishes. To combat the worms, farmers spray chemicals by the gallon, sometimes up to three times a day, Pierce observes.

When one chemical doesn’t work, the farmers return to the shopkeeper, purchasing additional chemicals to find one that works. The chemicals rank up in the fields, with three or five chemicals in use at any given time.

And while the chemicals work with some success, it’s hurting the people.

Increased rates of cancer, infertility in women and asthma in children are just some of the ailments found in the village.

“Most of the farmers won’t eat their own veggies because of the chemicals,” Pierce said. Instead, they opt to sell their crops at markets in the surrounding cities.

As a plant pathologist, it’s Pierce’s job to find non-chemical alternatives to help the Bangladeshi farmers. Eventually these will take the form of integrated pest management training, conducted for free by PRIDE, a small NGO in Bangladesh.

“We’re giving them information that’s not coming from a shop keeper that’s trying to sell them something,” Pierce said.

Worms attacking the eggplant weren’t the only problem Pierce ran into. Fungal rot that spread through flood irrigation techniques and moths that would take flight from dried crops only to infest newly planted plants also plagued the farmers.

To combat this, Pierce is developing three different trainings to teach the farmers how to keep viruses and pests at bay. Training becomes even more important when illiteracy and language barriers make it hard to farmers to get information on their crops.

Pierce returns to Bangladesh next week to get the training rolling. She brings her laptop to finish her thesis during her downtime.

Malawi’s eroding hillsides

When Deirdre Griffin left Davis, she found herself on a bicycle once again, pedaling through lush hillsides to get the farms on the outskirts of her host village.

Griffin, a soil biogeochemistry Master’s student, just topped off her third year with a trip to Kundi, Malawi.

Journeying through hilly terrain dotted with red brick homes and thatched roofs, Griffin individually introduced herself to each new farmer she met, according to local customs.

“Mudzuka bungee (Hi, how are you),” she’d say.

“Netsuke bungee (I am well),” the farmer would respond.

Working with the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology, Griffin got her hands dirty, delving into her pool of soil science knowledge to help Malawin farmers with their maize and ground nut fields.

Facing erosion, salt build-up and weeds, lower crop yields aren’t just hard on wallets, they’re hard on stomachs.

“It’s challenging for people to think long-term when they need food in the short term,” Griffin said.

And while solutions like adding compost to enrich the fields may seem easy from a distance, when farmers have to travel 45 minutes by bike to get to their farms it can be a challenging addition to their farms, Griffin explained.

Working on curriculum offered by the Institute, Griffin suggested the use of contour lines in the fields that would add tall ridges to better direct the water. She also added input on water infiltration and soil stability lessons, Griffin said.

For Griffin, the two-week stay in Malawi was just the beginning of additional international work she hopes to do in the future.

“It was a good opportunity to get my foot in the door … a taste of what it could be like,” she said.

Working the Kenyan market

Chasing her down a red dirt road, the children cried out, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” to greet Belinda Richardson each time she road into the village.

“Mzungu,” which roughly translates to “European,” was a term of endearment in the village of Lowala, Kenya, where agricultural volunteers were met with a smile, Richardson recalled.

Richardson — an international agricultural development master’s student — spent her two-week stay working for DIG, a field school with centers across the African continent. With facets working in the fields as well as working to help empower women and provide healthy food for HIV positive individuals, the organization found that sometimes it’s hard to get all of the branches under one roof.

That’s where Richardson’s expertise came in.

“I think it was nice to have an outsider be able to look at the continuity of all these programs,” she said. Tasked with helping the field school develop itself more into a business school, Richardson worked to teach market skills to help DIG’s growers prosper.

“It’s not just about growing nutritious food for themselves, but also for selling,” Richardson said.

For example, if a grower has five beds of onions, they’re faced with an excess that they sell on the market. But what doesn’t sell on the market, ends up going to waste, Richardson explained. She worked with different farmers to plan out their crops so they could be more consistent with their buyers.

Yet with only a two-week stay, sometimes it’s hard to pack everything in. Trellis’ short timeline was a unique challenge to work with.

“It really keeps you on your toes,” Richardson said.

Yet when she remembers riding through the fields at sunset, the smell of the cooking fires and dust from the fields accompanying her commute on back of a motorcycle, she can’t help but wish she could go back.


Source: The Davis Enterprise.

Updated: September 18, 2015 — 9:18 am
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