Jeff Alwang knows his potatoes and his economics. That expertise is enabling him to teach both Virginia Tech students and farmers high up in the Andes mountains of South America.

You can hear about his story and many others that are part of the work done through the Office of International Research, Education, and Development at the University Open House on Nov. 12.

Alwang and his students focus on improving the livelihood of the Bolivians and Ecuadoreans who, although they have grown the starchy vegetable for thousands of years, must now learn how to grow it in precipitous areas sometimes as high as 9,000 feet. The push of exploding populations has necessitated learning new farming methods to cultivate the mountains instead of the valleys.

The Virginia Tech team includes undergraduate students enthusiastic about research. They accompany Alwang to Ecuador and Bolivia to help the native agriculturalists improve production with cutting-edge techniques. The students work side-by-side with the farmers to learn and to show them how to deal with poor soil, erratic rainfall, and pests, including the fungal disease that caused the Irish potato famine, the Andean potato weevil, and the Central American tuber moth.

The Hokies teach the native farmer contour plowing, use of live barriers of bushes or trees, diversion ditches, natural terracing, and intercropping — the planting of annual and perennial crops in strips. Because the farmers know their crop, they have some of their own best practices so Alwang and his team try to combine the two approaches.

“Andean farmers have grown potatoes for thousands of years, and they know how to do it,” says Alwang, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It’s important that when we develop new practices and technologies, they fit in with the types of practices they normally do.”

The Bolivians and Ecuadorians now use less pesticide and more crop rotation to prevent the pests from building up a resistance to the chemicals used to control them. Formerly, the farmers sprayed pesticides as many as 14 times a growing cycle; now it’s just four times.

The work that Alwang and his team do helps not only the South American farmers, it also helps Alwang and his team with their research.

In field trials, Alwang compared conventional, chemically based methods to the researcher-introduced techniques. In all cases, the costs for pesticides and fertilizer were much lower on the areas that used the scientists’ newly introduced methods and the profits were higher with the net benefit of the integrated approach between $600 and $800 per hectare, which translates to 2.5 acres.

Alwang hesitates to claim credit for these advances, as local scientists and partner research organizations played a key role in the projects’ success. But after working with the mountain dwellers for a total of 13 years, they have come to trust him. He has included a group of half a dozen undergraduates to Ecuador for six weeks every other year since 2007.

Alwang’s work is under two large-scale projects, one on integrated pest management, the other on sustainable agriculture and natural resource management, both of which are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and managed by the Office of International Research, Education, and Development. The office will have an informational booth in Squires Student Center during the University Open House.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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