Ecuador. Photo provided by Alanna Orsak

Learning Beyond the Classroom: Ecuadorian Agriculture Field Tour

A small group of University of Saskatchewan agriculture students and their professor set out to explore on a 10-day trip to the equator this past February.

Students William Kramer, Anne Nerbas, Allana Orsak, and Joceline Raisbeck (left to right) with professor Randy Kachur (centre) in Ecuador. Photo provided by Alanna Orsak

On the face of it, Ecuador could not be more different from Saskatchewan.

With a diverse geography that ranges from soaring mountains to steamy Amazon jungle to rugged coastline, not to mention the renowned Galápagos Islands, Ecuador is a world apart from the Canadian prairie. But a closer look reveals the South American country has a strong and growing agricultural sector; it is the world leader in the production and export of bananas, ships flowers to as far away as Russia, is the seventh largest producer of cocoa, and boasts additional significant production of shrimp, sugar cane, rice, cotton, corn, coffee and lumber.

It was that aspect of the country, and more, a small group of University of Saskatchewan agriculture students and their professor set out to explore on a 10-day trip to the equator this past February.

Plant Sciences Professor Randy Kutcher led the special Ecuadorian field tour to introduce students to horticultural crop production in the tropics but also to connect them with their counterparts at two campuses of ESPE University there. And it all grew out of a trip he made to Ecuador to recruit graduate students.

“The University of Saskatchewan has agreements with five universities in Ecuador and I was invited to visit in November of 2014,” explained Kutcher, who joined the College of Agriculture and Bioresources in 2011 after a plant pathology career with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “We met with many students and professors on that trip, which was really about recruiting, and we currently have a number of Ecuadorian grad students here with us now at the U of S.

“But it’s not just about signing agreements and scooping up their best students. It’s such an agricultural country; there’s a saying that you put a seed in the ground, it will grow. It has a very diverse agricultural economy and a burgeoning flower industry and that’s part of what I wanted the students to see.”

Having had opportunities to travel when he was a student, Kutcher also wanted students to get a taste of the experience, and the chance to soak up new languages, cultures and politics. It was an opportunity too good to pass up for students Anne Nerbas, Joceline Raisbeck, William Kramer and Alanna Orsak.

In preparation for the trip, Kutcher and the students met weekly to talk about what they would be experiencing, to hear from Ecuadorian graduate students and to begin work on presentations they would give at a student and faculty symposium in Ecuador.

Kutcher said his Ecuadorian colleagues were very helpful, organizing events, connecting him with companies to arrange tours and even providing transportation for the Canadians in their personal vehicles.

The first major event, after seeing a flower production facility, was the symposium. Kutcher spoke to the gathered academics and students about graduate studies and crop research at the U of S, while the Canadian students presented on their undergraduate thesis topics: Orsak on using synchrotron spectroscopy to understand stripe rust in wheat; Nerbas on the future application of apomixes (asexual reproduction) in canola; and Raisbeck on intercropping.

Kramer, a third-year agronomy student from Fairview, Alta., has not started his thesis so he chose to focus on his family’s farm operation—the crops they grow, crop rotation, the farm layout and the equipment. “The size of everything left them pretty amazed,” he said, describing the audience’s response.

The Canadians then heard presentations by Ecuadorian students and faculty, and language was definitely a challenge. “The students speak more English than we speak Spanish,” said Nerbas, a crop sciences student from near Maidstone, Sask., “but the science world is written in English.” Raisbeck, who hails from Redvers, Sask., and is studying agronomy, added one Ecuadorian student told her “the only papers that are considered credible (as resources for students) are peer reviewed and in English.”

The students also saw how agriculture programs at the Ecuadorian universities are structured, and they noted a lack of breeding programs. “We were at one university where there were just agronomists,” said Kramer, “but here at the U of S, breeding is a really important part of the process.”

Kutcher pointed out that with multi-year crops like cocoa, a single tree could be harvested for many years before a new tree is planted so new varieties take much longer to be adopted by growers. With annual crops, new varieties are critical to increasing yield and addressing problems.

The students did notice an unfamiliar divide within the sector compared to home where the university-producer relationship is paramount. “It was interesting how separate everything is,” said Raisbeck. “The farmers are the farmers and the people who work at the university are quite separate.”

Following the symposium, the group continued on to tour an organic farming operation, a field crop production research station as well as various production facilities and farms.

There was also a visit to a Tsachila village. The Tsachila are Indigenous people of the Ecuadorian province of Santo Domingo. “It was a chance for the Indigenous people to teach us of their culture,” said Kutcher, “and for the students to see the similarities and differences for Indigenous people in Ecuador and Canada. It shows there’s a lot of commonality in the world.”

With the trip over, the students went to work on the term papers, posters and oral presentations that rounded out the course.

And they all agreed they made the right choice in signing on.

“I’m hoping to do more travelling some day and this was a chance to get my feet wet,” said Nerbas. For Raisbeck, the travel experience was a good one but it was also important to see what agriculture looks like in Ecuador, from subsistence farming to giant multi-national fruit growing operations. “We do agriculture in a certain way here, but that’s not how everyone does it. Everyone has different issues to deal with.”

Everyone on the tour agreed it was made possible in large part by student bursaries from the university’s International Student and Study Abroad Centre and the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. That funding covered the cost of the airfare, the single largest expense for the participants.

Kutcher is hoping the course will soon be a fixture on the college calendar. When that happens, and if anyone asks Kramer whether they should participate, he has his answer already prepared: “I’ll tell them what people told me when I was considering this course—take advantage of any opportunity you have to travel anywhere. “

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