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Virginia Tech team improves soil in Haiti

Virginia Tech researchers say the use of conservation agriculture could bring about a rebirth of productive farming in Haiti’s Central Plateau region.

As a woman walked by the project site carrying a container of water on her head, project advisor Jim McKenna, recently retired from Virginia Tech's Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, explained the features of conservation agriculture. “It’s a system of minimum soil disturbance and environmental impact. It includes minimal tillage, cover crops, and crop rotation,” he said.

   

Robert Badio, director of fisheries and aquaculture in Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture, looks on as Wade Thomason, Virginia Tech assistant grains specialist and assistant professor of crop and environmental science, takes a soil sample. Robert Badio, director of fisheries and aquaculture in Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture, looks on as Wade Thomason, Virginia Tech assistant grains specialist and assistant professor of crop and environmental science, takes a soil sample.

The five-year project, titled A Conservation Agricultural Production System for the Central Plateau, draws together Virginia Tech experts from a range of disciplines, as well as a gender specialist, a forester, a rural sociologist, and Haitian officials.

The benefits of conservation agriculture — greater water retention in the soil and better soil health — are not immediate, but this is because “it takes a while to create a new equilibrium,” McKenna said. Minimal tilling reduces soil disturbance, which increases soil carbon, something that is essential for soil health. Maintaining a year-round soil cover controls erosion and also increases soil carbon. And rotating crops improves soil health and discourages pests.

“Haiti was historically the garden spot of the Caribbean,” said Michael Bertelsen, an agricultural economist and associate director of Virginia Tech’s Office of International Research, Education, and Development. Over the centuries, intense cultivation has left the soil largely depleted of nutrients. Land in the Central Plateau is ringed by mountains and because of its remote location is less degraded. This is where the Virginia Tech-Haitian team has chosen to conduct its research at three locations.

   

This valley in Haiti's Central Plateau is one of the sites for the conservation agriculture project. This valley in Haiti's Central Plateau is one of the sites for the conservation agriculture project.

Each place -- Corporant, Boucan Carré, and Maïssade -- is at a different elevation and has different soil and water conditions. At each site, a small-farm resource and teaching center will be built.

“We are focusing on the highlands in Haiti,” McKenna said. “As in any country, the more inaccessible the area, the poorer it is.”

Researchers say that one hope in conducting the project in a rural area far from capital city Port-au-Prince is that if the venture succeeds, people will be encouraged to return to the countryside. This could relieve some of the population pressure on cities. Port-au-Prince, designed for 150,000 people in 1749, was home to 2.5 million people before the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

The Virginia Tech project involves more than working with farmers to implement conservation agriculture techniques. Researchers are also conducting trials to see if they can find varieties of beans better suited for the harsh conditions of Haiti.

“We are testing six black bean varieties, including three from the Caribbean that may have some adaptability to the region as well as disease resistance and three from North America with high-yielding potential,” said Laura Maupin, who assisted with the project. Maupin, of Altamont, Ill., graduated in December with a doctoral degree in crop and soil environmental science from the College of Agriculture and Life Science.

Experts often focus on numbers and results to prove a project’s effectiveness. How many roads were built? How many children were vaccinated? Intangibles are often just as critical, said Keith Moore, associate program director of the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program. “Trust is necessary to move forward. Including partners that have never before worked together will require patience and a willingness to negotiate strong, new relationships,” he said. Moore cautions that “social learning is not a linear process.”

Robert Badio, director of fisheries and aquaculture in Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture, said he is nonetheless optimistic. “I am very confident,” he said while standing in the shade of a mango tree. “So far, we are on a good path. We have some good partners; they are dedicated to work on the success of the project.” What’s more, he said, “The team works with the farmers directly.”

Haitian partners on the project include the Ministry of Agriculture, Zanmi Agrikol (Friends of Agriculture, a partner organization to Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health), and the State University of Haiti. Caritas/Hinche, a local Catholic organization, is also a partner. Steven Hodges, professor of crop and soil environmental science, was recently named principal investigator for the project after McKenna retired.

The project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the branch of the U.S. government that administers foreign aid.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Miriam Rich at (540) 231-4153.

Video: Sound bites from Haiti

    The Virginia Tech team talks with Haitian partners about how the conservation agriculture project will unfold.

Listen as Virginia Tech researchers talk about the work to bring conservation agriculture techniques to the country's Central Plateau.

A history in Haiti

    Former graduate student Laura Maupin explains to Haitian partners how to perform the bean trials.

Virginia Tech has been involved in Haiti since 1958. The following are two examples of other university projects in the Caribbean country:

 Read about the full array of projects.

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