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February 26, 2008

Extension agents learn much from Uruguay trip

Tiffanee Conrad-Acuña
Tiffanee Conrad-Acuña, right, of Richmond County listens as an organic grower in Uruguay describes his operation. (Photos by Natalie Hampton)

In December, a group of 23 students, faculty and Cooperative Extension agents traveled to Uruguay for a “Short Course on Organic Agriculture in Uruguay.” The trip was sponsored by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a research, teaching and extension program dedicated to sustainable agriculture.

The trip was a partnership between CEFS, the Universidad de la Empresa in Montevideo, Uruguay, and BIO-Uruguay International, a non-profit sustainable agriculture research and extension center in Tacuarembo, Uruguay.

The group visited a number of organic farms, as well as research centers of INIA, Uruguay’s agricultural research service.
Extension agents on the trip were Martha Mobley, Franklin County livestock agent; Tiffanee Conrad-Acuña, Richmond County livestock agent; Mary Helen Ferguson, Randolph County horticulture agent; and Kevin Starr, Lincoln County Extension director, with horticulture responsibilities.

All four said that through the study tour they had learned much about sustainable agriculture, made new connections with N.C. State faculty and other Cooperative Extension agents and renewed their interest in international extension work.

“The trip for me was very life changing,” Conrad-Acuña said. “I’ve never been exposed to organic agriculture before. After coming back from the trip, I have answered two questions about farms possibly turning organic and have taught one Hispanic farmer about composting horse manure for his pasture.”

Martha Mobley agreed that she learned more about sustainable agriculture and the resources available at N.C. State to support small farmers.

“I had the opportunity to speak with and interact with faculty members involved with various programming on campus that I had no idea existed, such as the wonderful sustainable agriculture program for the small farmer,” Mobley said. “The relationships that developed will be long lasting.”

Conrad-Acuña also connected with campus specialists who could provide information in the areas of meat processing and sustainable agriculture.

Kevin Starr commented on the similarities of sustainable production between Uruguay and the United States. “We witnessed a variety of partnerships among universities, INIA, BIO-Uruguay and farmers that are reminiscent of what is happening here in North Carolina,” Starr said. “Our big advantage (in the United States) is having Extension agents in the field.”

Mobley agreed. “Farmers and others in North Carolina are at a real advantage in having N.C. Cooperative Extension to provide information for a better way of life,” she said.

Mary Helen Ferguson
Mary Helen Ferguson, left, of Randolph County and student Suzanne O'Connell visit a plaza in Tacuarembo.

Mary Helen Ferguson was struck by how much growers in Uruguay have in common with growers in her own county. “It was interesting that growers there face many of the same issues as our growers do – erratic weather, labor shortages and disposal of plastic mulch for example,” Ferguson said.

During their trip, group members learned that – like North Carolina – much of Uruguay was experiencing a drought. While staying at BIO-Uruguay, they learned that the center was struggling with drought and was concerned with a shortage of water for crops.

“I was sort of hit in the face at BIO-Uruguay because we learned that if we didn’t conserve water while there, they would have to abandon their crops and several months of hard work,” Conrad-Acuña said. The experience made her realize how dire the consequences of drought could be in her own state.

Starr is looking into a squash variety – Zapallito de Tronco – that the group saw at a small organic farmers’ market and supermarkets in Uruguay. He believes that the variety could be grown in Lincoln County.

Prior to the trip, Ferguson had worked diligently on learning Spanish to help her serve the 9 percent of our county’s population that are Hispanic. After traveling in Uruguay, she felt her Spanish comprehension had improved. And the trip left her eager for more international experiences. “It did re-spark my interest in rural, international ag work,” she said.

Participants posted their insights and photos from the Uruguay trip in a Web log. To read more, visit: blogs.lib.ncsu.edu/page/uruguay.

This is project was supported by a USDA International Science and Education grant. For information about the program, visit www.csrees.usda.gov/fo/educationinternationalscience.cfm.

-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at February 26, 2008 11:43 AM