Perspectives Online

Studies in Sustainability - A group of CALS faculty, students and Extension agents heads to Uruguay to learn about organic agriculture on an international scale.
 By Natalie Hampton

A Montevideo street market selling fruits and vegetables
Photo by Natalie Hampton

On a five-hectare operation near Montevideo, Uruguay, the Bentancur brothers raise organic vegetables, as well as grass-fed beef they sell to area supermarkets through the Punte Verde organic group. Nearby, Dante Villarino and his family are the fourth generation working a 20-hectare vineyard that has recently begun producing organic Merlot sold through the family winery.

Five hours north at BIO-Uruguay International — a non-profit research and extension center dedicated to sustainable agriculture — growers share their knowledge of organic vegetable and meat production.

An organic market in another part of the city operates on Sundays.
Photo Natalie Hampton
These are a few examples of the sites that a group from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences experienced in December as part of the Short Course on Organic Agriculture and Culture in Latin America. The trip was organized by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, with funding from a U.S. Department of Agriculture International Science and Education grant. Twenty-three faculty, students and Cooperative Extension agents traveled to Uruguay for a 10-day trip.

Partners for the short course included the Universidad de la Empresa (UDE) in Montevideo and BIO-Uruguay in Tacuarembó. One goal of the USDA grant program is to provide international experiences for U.S. faculty. “As a land-grant, we wanted to represent that fully,” said Dr. Paul Mueller, the College’s interim assistant dean for international programs, professor of crop science and an organizer of the Uruguay trip.

In addition to farming operations, the group visited two research stations of INIA, Uruguay’s equivalent to the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Dr. Armando Rabuffetti, director of INIA’s Las Brujas center near Montevideo, earned his doctorate at N.C. State University, and the late Dr. Doug Sanders of the Horticultural Science Department had strong ties to Las Brujas.

CEFS faculty members decided to travel to Uruguay because of prior relationships between CEFS and Dr. Alda Rodriguez, director of BIO-Uruguay, Mueller said. Rodriguez was a partner in the Agromedicine Institute, based at East Carolina University, and had visited CEFS on two occasions.

“When the opportunity for this USDA grant became available, it seemed like a good match to work with her and connect with UDE,” Mueller said. Rodriguez had worked with UDE, so the university proved to be a good second partner.

Dr. Alda Rodriguez of BIO-Uruguay (Top photo, in front) leads the CALS group on a tour. In the middle are lettuce seedlings at an organic farm the group visited. A colorful sign (Bottom) points the way to an organic produce market.
Photos by Natalie Hampton
“I think the trip went better than anyone expected,” said Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, crop science professor and one of the trip organizers. “Our goal was to learn about organic agriculture on an international scale, which we were able to do in Uruguay.”

Mueller said Uruguay’s organic vegetable production is about where the U.S. industry was 10 years ago — represented at a few local farmers’ markets and small sections of grocery stores. However, the country’s organic meat industry is very progressive. “They’re ahead of us, with a grass-based system, no feedlots (for beef cattle). And their meat processing is very advanced,” Mueller said.

While visiting the farming operations in Uruguay, three groups conducted case studies on the sustainability of each operation. The case studies were presented to the entire group, including collaborators from UDE and BIO. Three students who earned credit hours for the trip also developed written case studies of the operations focusing on economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Each group included students, campus-based faculty and Cooperative Extension agents representing disciplines ranging from food science to horticulture to crop science to animal science. “The goal was to put together diverse groups to develop case studies with multidisciplinary perspectives,” Schroeder-Moreno said.

Extension agents who participated in the Uruguay trip appreciated what the experience brought to their individual programs. Two livestock agents and two horticulture agents were among those on the trip. One individual who was chosen for the trip while she was a graduate student at N.C. State was working last fall as an Extension agent in Minnesota.

Agents said that they learned more about sustainable agriculture by participating in the study tour, 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,” said Tiffanee Conrad-Acuña of Richmond County. “I’ve never been exposed to organic agriculture before. After coming back from the trip, I answered two questions about farms possibly turning organic and taught one Hispanic farmer about composting horse manure for his pasture.”

Martha Mobley of Franklin County and Kevin Starr of Lincoln County said they were reminded of the value that Cooperative Extension provides to U.S. farmers.

“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.

At the Las Brujas research station (top photo), Dr. Armando Rabuffetti, the director and an NCSU alumnus, explains a swine research demonstration. With translation help from CALS’ Dr. Jean-Marie Luginbuhl (left, middle photo), a farmer (center) explains his organic operation. Dr. Paul Mueller (bottom, left) translates for vineyard owner Dante Villarino.
Photos by Natalie Hampton
All trip participants had to commit to spend some time learning Spanish. Though no funds were allocated for Spanish language training, Mueller said he was impressed with participants’ commitments to learning the language.

Mary Helen Ferguson of Randolph County had worked diligently on her Spanish prior to the trip to help serve the 9 percent of her county’s population who are Hispanic. After traveling in Uruguay, she felt her Spanish comprehension had improved. And the trip left her eager for more international experiences.

One goal of the program is to continue the relationships between N.C. State and Uruguay with student and possibly faculty exchanges. This summer, three student interns from UDE will come to participate in N.C. State projects. Discussion is underway on sending several N.C. State students to work on projects in Uruguay.

Emily Vollmer, graduate student in horticultural science, said she was aware of plans for the Uruguay trip when she decided to come to N.C. State. She wanted the chance to improve her Spanish, especially by working in South America.

Vollmer’s graduate project involves summer cover crop selection for subsequent organic onion production. While visiting INIA’s Las Brujas station, Vollmer came across onion variety trials and a rotation study that included two of the same cover crops she is using in her thesis project: cowpea and foxtail millet.

She hopes that she will be able to return to Uruguay during the next summer growing season – January 2009 – to work on projects at Las Brujas. She was also eager to return to BIO-Uruguay to share her farming skills. With its traditional thatched-roof buildings, a dining facility that served fresh local foods, a vegetable garden, livestock and poultry, BIO captured the hearts of everyone who participated on the trip.

“They were doing especially amazing things at BIO,” Vollmer said. “Their innovation and dedication was very impressive.”

Participants posted their insights and photos from the Uruguay trip in a Web log. To read more, visit: