The Andean mountains where Luis Elvae grows crops are as steep as they are fertile. 

The cake-batter thick volcanic soil is a perfect land for growing maize, potatoes, wheat, and the lucrative naranjilla fruit that is a ubiquitous crop in Ecuador. But the sheerness of the massive mountains that scratch the sky also pose challenges for Elvae and other farmers.  

Erosion, run-off, and deforestation have become serious problems in Ecuador over the past few decades as the South American nation’s population has expanded and more and more farmers are taking to the impossibly steep mountains to grow crops. Which is why Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students Corinna Clements and Austin Larrowe were talking to Elvae this summer as he took a break from harvesting hay.

Clements, a senior from Round Hill, Virginia, majoring in agricultural and applied economics, and Larrowe, a senior from Woodlawn, Virginia, majoring in agricultural and applied economics and agricultural sciences, spent two weeks in Ecuador talking to farmers about a project they have been working on to curb deforestation by using a better variety of the naranjilla plant. Photos and articles documenting their trip are posted on the Virginia Tech Research blog.

“This is an extraordinary country with a rich history of agriculture,” said Larrowe, who has traveled to 36 countries and now counts Ecuador as one of his favorites. “We want to help farmers here continue to succeed while addressing some of the many challenges they are facing.”

Meanwhile, Elli Travis, an agricultural and applied economics graduate student from Washington, D.C., spent the summer working with Ecuadorian farmers on ways to use text messages to improve the environment and boost profits by incorporating pest-management techniques into their practices. 

All of the students work with Jeff Alwang, a professor of agricultural and applied economics who has been working in Ecuador and other South American countries for decades on ways to improve the landscape and livelihoods of the countries. Most of his work has been funded by USAID’s Feed the Future Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management and Integrated Pest Management Innovation Labs. 

Alwang has also received funding for this work from the World Bank, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the McKnight Foundation, and the government of Ecuador.   

The work he and others have done in Ecuador over the years has helped empower women working in agriculture, reduce rural poverty, reduce the amount and toxicity of pesticides farmers use, boost production for potato and other farmers, and decrease the impact of agricultural practices on the natural environment. 

“By working with partners and farmers in Ecuador, we have been able to find simple but effective ways to increase incomes while helping to protect the environment in extremely fragile areas,” Alwang said. “It’s immensely gratifying to see how many students and researchers from Virginia Tech have been to the country over the years to work with local partners and find solutions to help Ecuador. I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings.”

Outreach, academics, and research

Alwang’s work incorporates all three missions of the land-grant university. 

He is conducting research focused on pest management and conservation agriculture. He conducts outreach by working with local governments and farmers to put his findings to use. And he has brought scores of graduate and undergraduate students to Ecuador to teach them about international development and let them gain experience by doing agricultural research in smallholder farmer communities. 

Which is exactly what Clements and Larrowe were doing this summer as they examined the complex yet critical role that the naranjilla fruit plays in Ecuadorian agriculture. 

Alwang has been working for years with the Ecuadorian national agricultural research agency Instituto Nacional Autónomo de Investigaciones Agropecuarias on ways to solve pest and disease problems faced by naranjilla growers. 

Although the lucrative plant grows heartily in the Andes, it is also susceptible to a vascular wilt, caused by the fusarium fungus and microscopic worms known as root-knot nematodes, which infect the plant and soil. The soil is then so laden with pests that farmers will simply clear-cut a nearby track of forestland to plant in a fusarium- and nematode-free environment. This continuous cycle of moving deeper into the forests leads to deforestation, erosion, run-off and a host of other environmental problems. It also creates an economic burden for farmers who are constantly trying to establish new crops of naranjilla and spray large quantities of pesticides in futile attempts to combat the pests. 

So Alwang and his Ecuadorian partners have developed a grafted variety that uses root stock of wild species of the naranjilla plant which is less susceptible to the pests. Clements and Larrowe were there to examine if and how farmers are adopting the new plant. On average the Virginia Tech-led team has helped farmers increase production of the fruit by 30 percent, which represents $500 in additional income per hectare.

Clements conducted an economic impact assessment to examine the aggregate benefit of farmers who have incorporated the grafted naranjilla. She spent hours in farmers markets and wholesale centers where she was surrounded by crates of naranjillas stacked taller than she while interviewing farmers about how much they could get for their products. 

She also worked with Larrowe to examine whether or not farmers were adopting the grafted variety over the traditional one. Over the two weeks, the pair bumped along countless dirt roads, spoke with scads of farmers, and sampled bushels of naranjilla as they conducted their research. 

“We found that there was a common misconception that growing the grafted variety was more challenging, so farmers were less likely to use it,” said Clements, who was on her first-ever international research trip. 

“I’ve been studying these issues in textbooks and classes for years, but being able to witness them firsthand — and to be part of a solution — is a remarkable experience,” she said.  

Texting for progress

Meanwhile, Travis was working with potato farmers in the northern region of Ecuador to encourage them to use integrated pest management, a strategy where farmers use sustainable practices to solve pest problems rather than relying on highly toxic pesticides that can damage the environment, the farmer’s health, and that of his or her family. Three times a week she sends the farmers a text message reminding them to try any one of number of techniques that have been tailored to the diseases and varieties of potatoes grown in the region.

While relatively simple, the new technology has proven effective in other applications around the world, such as reminding people to take HIV medication, and promoting savings among the poor. Travis is implementing a field experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of text messages in spreading a relatively complex message. She plans on evaluating the effectiveness of the text messaging strategy for her master's thesis and hopes that, if successful, it can be replicated in a number of developing countries around the world as a cost-effective way of providing extension services to the previously underserved.

“It’s amazing how this small reminder can make a big difference in the way that farmers adopt measures that will help them boost profits while protecting the environment,” Travis said. “Ecuador is such an amazing place and if we can do one little thing to help its people and its landscape, I think we have accomplished something important.”

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