For her leap of innovation, CALS International Programs would like to recognize graduate student Angel Cruz for her research in El Salvador and for her commitment to the empowerment of small farmers. We also congratulate Angel on winning first place among CALS Students at the 12th Annual Graduate Research Symposium for her project and presentation.
Angel is a diligent grad student dedicated to improving agricultural practices and making conservation techniques relevant and accessible. Analyzing the relationship between soil health and food security, Angel decided to conduct research in El Salvador where soil conservation and food security are clear challenges. She spent nine months with twelve Salvadoran farmers conducting field trials on soil conservation techniques on their farms and exploring challenges to fertility in group discussions.
"Nobody has really measured the relationship between soil health and food security," Angel explained. "Theoretically the best place to measure it is in an agrarian community."
Angel decided to take her research to a rural part of El Salvador and test conservation techniques and variations of soil composition with a community of small farmers. The region she chose, however, lacked the comforts of electricity, cars, and even running water.
"It was an adventure. Every day, was something new and exciting, which often meant new challenges," Angel said. "Sometimes I would take soil samples and I'd be carrying forty pounds of soil up a hill. One day I had to rent a mule for my research." With a playful smile Angel added, "I think I had more interesting research conditions than most graduate students."
Not only was Angel's research location unique, but so too was her method of experimentation. Where Angel could have had full authority over the course of her research she invited the twelve farmers to help make all the decisions. Angel stressed the importance of participatory research throughout the interview and went on to describe exactly how the farmers got involved.
"They decided the treatment of the soils, chose what kinds of fertilizer we would apply, which conservation techniques we would use, what nutrients, and were a part of the evaluation part of it," Angel described. "It wasn't like they were conducting research for me. I wanted to see if farmers saw [the techniques] as relevant but also applicable. What's the point if farmers don't view it as valuable?"
The farmers took ownership of their plots. She explained that they chose the nutrients, the types of manures, the kinds of cover crops, the styles of conservation to be implemented. Their participation continued even after the growing period. In the final stage of the research Angel depended on the farmers for crop analysis. Angel recalled that during the evaluation the farmers would have their own evaluation sheet that they would use to essentially grade the crops of the farms.
"[T]hey would ask, 'Angel is this good, very good or okay,' and I told them , 'No,' that 'you're the evaluators, that you know more about corn than I do, that they're the experts.'" Fondly, Angel added, "They started calling themselves 'Agronomists' and discussing [the results] among themselves. That's what we want in participatory research. It's about empowerment, that they become their own teachers."
Angel's experience was a unique adventure that got her hands dirty in Salvadoran soil, manure, and allowed her to sweat it out in a local women's soccer team. As she continues to analyze the results of her research, Angel hopes that the techniques that the farmers learned and applied to their small plots will continue to be used. She recently heard from some of the farmers that they are preparing to continue the trial plots with some of their neighbors and communities this year. One farmer participant is even organizing a group of young farmers to try out the soil conservation and fertility methods he tried last year with Angel and her research.
"I'm still analyzing some of the data," Angel said, "but economically they were spending less, and there wasn't a decrease in yield as many of the farmers expected… All of [the farmers] said that they wanted to try it out on bigger plots which is what we recommended to do."
We at CALS International Programs wish Angel well on her research. We look forward to see what other innovations Angel will bring to the Department of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources in the future. Congratulations, Angel Cruz.
Intern, CALS International Programs
Communications Student, Appalachian State University