Perspectives Online

Adventures in Agro-Ecology - CALS students learn about sustainable agriculture in a global context through ecosystem exploration.  By Natalie Hampton

A lush and rocky terrain in Costa Rica awaits exploration by participants in the study-abroad course, ‘Sustainability of Tropical Agro-Ecosystems.’
Photo by Reeves Peeler

For a group of students from N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (and three other universities), a three-week trip to Costa Rica this summer proved to be a life-changing experience.

Twelve students from N.C. State, the University of Georgia, California Polytechnic State University and Michigan State University participated in the study-abroad course called “Sustainability of Tropical Agro-Ecosystems.” Instructors were Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno of N.C. State and Dr. Wayne Allen Parrott of UGA. The group started its journey in Liberia, Costa Rica, and moved eastward across the country, exploring ecosystems that included a tropical dry forest, cloud forest and tropical lowland rainforest and a variety of tropical agriculture operations.

Students learned from local growers about the production of tropical crops such as papaya, pineapple, cocoa and coffee.
Photo Courtesy Michelle Schroeder-Moreno
Schroeder-Moreno, who leads the agro-ecology minor program in the College, said a similar trip that she took as an undergraduate first sparked her own interest in agro-ecology and tropical agriculture. This the fourth year she has participated in this study-abroad program with UGA, one of only a few that focuses on agricultural sustainability.

“We try to introduce the concept of sustainability from a global perspective,” Schroeder-Moreno said. “We do this by exploring the production of tropical crops such as cocoa and coffee, products the students are familiar with but have no idea what they look like in production.”

Schroeder-Moreno and Parrott are expanding their efforts into a new consortium of eight universities, focused on sustainable agriculture and development education in the tropics. The eight universities involved, in addition to N.C. State and UGA, are the University of Florida, University of Missouri, Michigan State, Purdue University, Cal-Poly/San Luis Obispo and EARTH University in Costa Rica.

The students involved in the summer program brought a diverse range of experiences and interests, and they came away with many new insights. Reeves Peeler, a CALS senior majoring in agricultural business management, admits that he knew little about sustainability or tropical agriculture when he signed on for the trip. He was looking for a study-abroad experience that involved agriculture, and this one fit the bill.

Peeler was surprised by the large scale of agricultural production in Costa Rica; he expected farms to be smaller. And he was also surprised to learn how little farm workers there earn – only about $8.50 a day. And yet the people of Costa Rica, he observed, “seem happier that we are” in the United States.

Course instructor Michelle Schroeder-Moreno (left) and student Krista Peterson make use of a bridge in a tropical forest.
Photo Courtesy Michelle Schroeder-Moreno
Eric Ballard of Wilmington, a senior majoring in agricultural communication with a minor in agro-ecology, saw this as a great study-abroad opportunity. When he saw a flier about the trip, “right then, I just knew that was something I wanted to do,” he said. He has returned to N.C. State with great enthusiasm for international travel and a desire to return to Costa Rica to study Spanish.

The people of Costa Rica have an overwhelming pride in their work, he said. Along with other group members, Ballard was surprised by the level of development taking place, even in rural parts of the country. “It made me realize how much development is taking over,” he said.

Rose Caldwell, a Raleigh senior majoring in horticulture and a part-time soil science technician at N.C. State, said she had been to Costa Rica on vacation and decided to make the trip to learn more about global issues and about permaculture design (agricultural methods that integrate human activity with natural surroundings to create efficient, self-sustaining ecosystems). Caldwell said she was fascinated to see the production of tropical crops such as pineapple and coffee. The class group visited one of the largest organic pineapple plantations in Central America. Now, when she sees a pineapple selling for $4 in grocery stores, she thinks of all the time and labor that went into growing it.

“Through this program, we hope that students will become global citizens, understanding the whole range of sustainability issues of food production from farm to fork,” Schroeder-Moreno said.

In addition to tours and farm visits, the students all spent two nights staying as guests in a Costa Rican family’s home. For many —

especially those with limited Spanish — the experience took them outside their comfort zones.

“That was probably the best thing we did,” Ballard said. “It gave you a sense of being on your own, and it was a great way to experience the culture.” The only English word that Ballard’s host spoke was “lunch.”

Amanda Robertson, senior multimedia specialist with N.C. State’s Distance Education & Learning Technology Applications (DELTA), accompanied the group to Costa Rica to capture video and photographs. She has created a Web site for students in the course to share and communicate about issues in sustainable agriculture and development before, during and after the course.

Robertson said she decided to join the group because she wanted to promote international experiences and explore ways that technology could broaden those experiences. But she says she learned as much as the students in the group.

“It was a struggle for me,” she said. “I was a faculty member, but I felt more like a student. My role in this project as a learner was very important. We all learned so much from the students who went on this trip.”

The Web site will serve other related courses at N.C. State, distance education courses and related courses from consortium partner institutions. “It is still a work in progress, but students can blog about specific issues, share their case study assignments, photos and student videos from Costa Rica,” Schroeder-Moreno said.

After the rigors of getting up early, sometimes hitting the road by 6 a.m. in Costa Rica, the students were glad to return to a more relaxed schedule just before starting fall classes in August. But all talked about how the trip changed their worldviews and sparked the desire for more international travel experiences.

“I continue to teach this course,” Schroeder-Moreno said, “because what excites me is bringing students to Costa Rica and seeing how much the experience changes them.”