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Ag abroad program: Dr. Carol Miles shares experience in Mozambique

Dec 6th, 2016 | Category: Community

Volunteers share knowledge through farmer project

by Carol Frey

Hippos politely plod along established garden paths without damaging the crops. Elephants, on the other hand, do not care about paths. They blunder straight through corn and collards alike, leaving behind a wide swath of broken stalks and trampled leaves. The farmers of Guara Guara, Mozambique, cope with a lot of obstacles in their efforts to raise food for their families, and oblivious elephants are just the beginning.

Dr. Carol Ann Miles, a Professor of Vegetable Horticulture at WSU Mount Vernon, recently volunteered in Mozambique, teaching about integrated pest management. This photo (above) includes Miles and a group of students holding their graduation certificates. The certificates are important to have when applying for microloans as proof of their qualifications. A typical market day is shown below. PHOTOS BY DR. CAROL ANN MILES

Dr. Carol Ann Miles, a Professor of Vegetable Horticulture at WSU Mount Vernon, recently volunteered in Mozambique, teaching about integrated pest management. This photo (above) includes Miles and a group of students holding their graduation certificates. The certificates are important to have when applying for microloans as proof of their qualifications. A typical market day is shown below. PHOTOS BY DR. CAROL ANN MILES

According to Dr. Carol Ann Miles, who recently returned from a volunteer trip to Mozambique, nearly everyone who lives in Guara Guara is a farmer. In a region where money is scarce, families have no choice but to grow the majority of their own food. “So if you’re a taxi driver, you farm,” said Dr. Miles, a professor of Vegetable Horticulture at the WSU Research and Extension Center in Mt. Vernon. (Miles presented a talk about her experiences overseas during a Brown Bag Seminar event last month in Mount Vernon.)

The area does have its advantages, she said. The soils are naturally rich due to seasonal flooding of the Buzi river and the water supply is “generally adequate,” although most families have to haul it to their fields by hand. Taxi drivers, shopkeepers, policemen, and their spouses and children all grow cassava, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and other crops, but they lack access to basic soil amendments, many tools, and primary agricultural knowledge. As a result, fields are sparse, the crops stunted by insect depredation, overcrowding, soil compaction, and water loss.

Hoping to learn more productive farming methods, the members of a farmers’ collective called CGRN, sought outside training in specific problem areas. In response, the USAID Farmer to Farmer program cooperated with an international non-profit organization, Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, to send four volunteers as educators and mentors. Dr. Miles volunteered to teach a course on integrated pest management (IPM), one of the specific topics requested by the collective.

As it happens, the primary pest that the farmers contend with is not a herd of marauding elephants, but the Diamondback moth. Larvae of the Diamondback feed on the leaves of cruciferous vegetables like collards, cabbage and other greens that are a critical food source during the dry season. Before her trip, Dr. Miles prepared illustrated fact sheets with simple pest management information translated into Portugese, including cultural practices like crop rotation, crop nutrition, irrigation  management, and spacing, as well as physical practices such as vinegar traps.

The class did not go exactly as planned, and the level of information she was delivering had to be drastically scaled back. Miles learned about the limits of infrastructure as well as farmers’ knowledge of agricultural practices, and adjusted her presentation from there. Her carefully prepared fact sheets were replaced with lessons about soil compaction from walking in wet rows, crop spacing, and basic insect life cycles.

With Dr. Miles modifying her topics on the fly, the class’s interpreter, Mateus Dapitaia, would prepare flip charts each night for the next day’s topic. A multilingual graduate of the University of Mozambique and the only educator who was not leaving the country when the class was over, Dr. Miles realized that his training was especially important, even though he wasn’t the intended audience, she said.

The group began their days with field tours in the mornings, followed by classroom sessions in the afternoon. When she saw an onion field mulched to prevent moisture loss, Dr. Miles wondered why other crops were not similarly treated. The farmers informed her that onions are one of their most valuable crops, and since there is not enough available grass and vegetable matter in the area to mulch the rest, they concentrate their resources where they will be most effective. In such a tight economy, almost no one owns livestock, so manures for fertilizer are not available. Those with money can buy pesticides, but they are sold as unlabeled liquids decanted into reused bottles and jars. No label means no indication of exactly what the bottle contains, no safe usage guidelines, and no withdrawal period.

She found the farmers enthusiastic learners, excited to adjust their practices in pursuit of healthier crops. “I am always amazed at how hard people work at everything,” Dr. Miles said.

While there were some communication issues – not all of the students were literate and shyness made some reluctant to participate – Dr. Miles found ways to foster fuller engagement. She asked students to stand up in groups of three and “explain something to the class.” among others. This method of ‘teaching back” helps students to solidify their understanding.

 

Farmer-to-Farmer

Dr. Miles volunteered through the John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer Program. The program uses volunteers who have agricultural expertise to provide technical assistance for the specific, local needs of farmers and organizations throughout the world. Volunteers may be farmers, academics in an agricultural field, work for an agricultural business or nonprofit organization, or be retired from agricultural careers. For more information, visit: http://farmer-to-farmer.org/

 

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