Over 2,000 miles south of Blacksburg lies a country where the length of nights and the length of days is roughly equal year-round, where the mountains stretch up to 20,000 feet, and people donned in brightly colored ponchos farm on steep, grassy slopes that reach the clouds.

It’s the site of a 20-year partnership between Virginia Tech Professor Jeff Alwang and his Ecuadorian collaborators, and also where Virginia Tech agriculture students have gone to learn about international development work and human-centered research firsthand.

Seven students followed Alwang there this summer to begin a new five-year project, funded by a United States Department of Agriculture workforce development grant, that examines sustainable farming practices in Ecuador’s Chimborazo province and will develop research capacity of undergraduate students in agriculture.  

The students from departments across the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences spent six weeks in the Andean highlands learning first about the country’s history and culture and then interviewing Andean farmers about their agricultural practices to gather baseline data for the ongoing project.

“It’s not a vacation — it’s hard work, but that’s what makes it fun,” said Eli Mefford, a senior in agricultural and applied economics from Arlington, Virginia. “First, you learn about surveys – how to create them, how questions should be worded, and how to code the survey – so you feel a lot of ownership over the survey. And then you go out and enact it. You work with the local partners to perfect it and gather the data.”

The students developed and coded the survey during a three-credit course last spring prior to departing for Ecuador over the summer.

“We’re economists, so surveys are at the heart of any field work we do,” said Alwang. “We devote an entire semester to teaching these students how to develop and code a household survey so they have the skills to conduct future field work and so they know the survey like the back of their hand when they go into the field.”

Cultivating compassion

While the students learned the analytical survey and coding skills in a Virginia Tech classroom, they picked up cultural awareness, relevancy, a global perspective, and compassion on the ground in Ecuador. 

For Madi Dynes, a senior in crop and soil sciences from Orange County, Virginia, seeing the way people live and the landscape itself and getting a taste of agricultural development work,  led her to reflect more deeply about her future.

“I felt insignificant in such a good way,” said Madi Dynes. “I like feeling like I’m part of a bigger picture and being among those huge mountains engulfed in clouds in the middle of nowhere gave you that sense. It put me in perspective of the entire world. Nothing revolves around me; I’m just one tiny little piece.” 

Many farmers in Ecuador pay large sums just to get their product down the mountain to sell, which often reduces their margins to less than a living wage. Learning this and the alternative  devoting time and energy, which could be used on further cultivation, to transport product down the mountain opened her eyes to the travails experienced by producers throughout the developing world.

Learning about this less-than-lucrative process to get product to market and spending time in underprivileged communities in Ecuador pushed Dynes further toward wanting to work in international development and begin searching for positions within sustainable food companies after she graduates this December.

Other students were struck by the cultural differences they experienced in distinct ways. 

Nicole Salinas, an ethnically Peruvian senior in food science and technology, arrived in Ecuador expecting to hit the ground running with her prior knowledge of Andean culture, but quickly noticed the differences between the mountainous regions of Ecuador and the Peruvian lands she grew up exploring.

“Cultures are different in the smallest ways and it’s incredibly important to notice those differences,” said Salinas. “I noticed that there were small things that the Ecuadorian students knew a thousand times better than me.” 

The Ecuadorian students the team partnered with from the Escuela Superior Politecnica de Chimborazo, known as ESPOCH, accompanied the Virginia Tech students on their interviews with farmers, teaching them about cultural sensitivities and oftentimes putting local farmers at ease during intercultural exchanges as they offered a sense of familiarity and home to fellow Ecuadorians.

The students also partnered with a team from the Ecuadorian government agency Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias, known as INIAP, which provided further expertise on the local communities and ethnic differences the students witnessed during survey rotations.

“We’re taught in America to speak up, but in this kind of work, it’s really important to first listen and let other people talk,” said Benjamin Garber, an agricultural and applied economics student who has spent most of his life in Appalachia. “It helps you get a better idea of what the norms and priorities are on the ground and helps endear you to people. You’re a guest, so always be willing to listen before you talk.”

Whereas the rest of the first cohort are now juniors and seniors, Garber graduated in May and is now a graduate student in the department, where he continues to work with Alwang and other development faculty involved in the project George Norton, Susan Chen, and Catherine Larochelle. 

Putting it together

Employing the students in both survey development and data collection allowed them to experience the process from start to finish, resulting in a deeper understanding of the how and why behind international service. 

“I have a better idea of what farmers need when I’m looking at the data and the numbers now because I went and got that information, and I understand so much better the struggles these farmers have,” said Dynes. 

The students also got a sense for what working a full-time job after college will be like, especially those related to international development.

“You have to think of group dynamics and how you can use different abilities consider how you work with others and how you can contribute without leaving people out,” said Salinas.

For six weeks in Ecuador, the students lived and worked alongside each other, gaining interpersonal, language, and technical skills.

Using tablet technology to record survey responses, the team was able to speed up the process and remove the step of transcribing responses from paper to statistical software.

ESPOCH students also benefited from the partnership as they got to work with renowned development economists, were introduced to the tablet technology, and could use the data for subsequent research.   

Development for tomorrow

In addition to learning skills and lessons that transcend ethnic, cultural, and geographic borders, the trip also fueled friendships and nourished alliances for future development work. 

“I now have six best friends because of this experience,” said Megan Wilkins, speaking of the other students in the first cohort. 

Through the project, Alwang is nurturing Virginia Tech’s longstanding partnership with agricultural researchers from INIAP, looking to them for advice on survey language, selection of communities to interview, and assistance with in-country transportation and logistical support.

While the students learned from local educators in Quito during the first part of their trip, Alwang was invited to the Escuela Superior Politecnica Agropecuaria de Manabi (ESPAM), where he delivered a keynote speech on the cocoa value chain in coastal Ecuador and received an award from the director general of INIAP thanking him for more than 20 years of research support to Ecuadorian agriculture.

Alwang said, “this research partnership with INIAP allows Virginia Tech, its students and faculty, to engage with the highest quality scientists in Ecuador on projects of utmost interest to farmers and decision makers in Ecuador and the U.S. Research on Ecuadorian agriculture provides a unique experience for students to address critical questions while being completely immersed in a developing country environment.”

Engaging the students in each step of the process from survey creation to execution to data collection and analysis Alwang and his co-investigators are preparing the next generation of international agricultural researchers and giving them a holistic picture of what development work is like.

“No one does an experiment just to do an experiment, they do it because they’re trying to help a cause, and this experience helped me see the cause first-hand,” Kaitlyn Gallagher, a senior in biochemistry said.

The cause of the project is ultimately to help poor farmers in the region.

But while this year’s survey work was intended to provide a baseline of data for the next four years of the project, the first cohort was able to present initial findings to one of the communities they interviewed, demonstrating to local farmers the benefit this research can bring to them.

The aim over the next four years is to analyze the feasibility of bringing more sustainable farming practices to the Chimborazo region in terms of food security and economics. 

“This project will allow us to use farm and household data to address questions about how effective new agricultural technologies can be,” said Alwang. “At the same time, it gives students an opportunity to gain experience conducting research while helping to build a database that will enable further multiple-dimension analyses of the adoption and impacts of new resource-saving agricultural technologies.”

The department will lead new groups of students over the next several years in continuing the work established by the initial cohort. 

*Applications for the second cohort are now being accepted. Apply online before Oct. 25.

- Written by Jillian Broadwell