Penn State Extension provides clients with 'study-abroad' opportunities

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Visiting other countries to cultivate relationships and exchange information about innovative agricultural practices and research — with the intention of imparting that knowledge to clients back home — has been a long-standing endeavor of Penn State Extension educators.

However, there is nothing quite like being on-site, seeing processes and people in action, and learning by doing. With that in mind, Penn State educators are looking beyond borders when it comes to outreach by offering Pennsylvania growers and industry personnel a firsthand look at agriculture in other countries.

"Our students have incredible opportunities to see the world, learn about other cultures, and expand their horizons, and we want to provide extension clients with the same," said Greg Roth, professor of agronomy in the Department of Plant Science.

"While there are many differences in agricultural systems and practices in other countries related to climate, disease and pests, there are many more ways in which we share common ground, and we can learn from each other to improve crop health and yield."

Roth and doctoral student Giovani Stefani Faé, a native of Brazil, orchestrated a recent trip to study state-of-the-art crop management in Brazil — one of the world's leading producers of soybeans — for Pennsylvania soybean growers and industry representatives.

This tour was the third of its kind organized by Penn State Extension, with the support of the Office of International Programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences. A trip to New Zealand to learn about the hard cider industry, and another to Costa Rica to study dairy practices, took place last year. Tours were promoted via industry channels and on the college's web site.

To ensure that educational and cultural objectives were met, Roth enlisted the help of Explorations by Thor, a travel company specializing in custom agricultural tours, and EMBRAPA, a unit of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. and the Brazilian equivalent of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

In late February, Roth and 14 growers and industry professionals embarked on the 10-city excursion, which started in the Cerrado region in central Brazil and then worked its way south to the states of Parana and Rio Grande do Sul.

The days were filled with field visits to high-yielding soybean production and no-till pioneers in different climatic zones, from family-operated farms such as the 1,730-acre Sementes Falcao in Encruzilhada Natalino, RS, to a large corporate farming operation, SLC Agricola, which at one of its locations manages more than 54,000 acres in Cristalina, GO. They also visited cooperatives and research stations.

Greg Roth Brazil

Greg Roth, professor of agronomy, left, and Giovani Stefani Faé, doctoral student, had the chance to observe a soybean harvest at SLC Agricola in Cristalina Brazil. 

Image: Greg Roth

During these visits, the group learned about local production systems, disease and pest control, indicators of sustainability, farmer's cooperative management, infrastructure issues, and more.

Roth noted that another interesting stop was a Monsanto field demonstration site. James Valent, a Penn State alumnus and channel technical agronomist for the company, who traveled with the group, organized this visit, where participants discussed adoption of precision agriculture and biotechnology in Brazil.

Valent's view on the trip's value mirrored Roth's, saying that it provided a unique forum to discuss issues that farmers everywhere face — such as agronomic challenges, business management and government regulations.

In particular, he said when growers talk about the soybean market, "Brazil always comes into the discussion, but what do most of us really understand about their market in regards to what they face? When you can understand the global or macro level, our local interest can make more sense at times."

The tour provided a few surprises for Valent, whose experiences growing up on a dairy farm led him to pursue a college degree and professional career in agriculture.

"The diversity and importance of their cooperatives in the southern region were very interesting, but the most surprising for me was probably the amount of white mold in the high-altitude, more-temperate climates — a disease that I thought was primarily an issue in the cool, wet regions of the northern corn belt and the northeast," he said.

It wasn't all work and no play: Peppered throughout the journey were opportunities for sightseeing, including a scenic train tour through the Atlantic rainforest to the tourist city of Morretes, and social gatherings with hosts, growers and scientists.

"One of the important outcomes has been the professional and social connections made, which we believe will lead to future scientific collaborations," Roth said. "Everyone we met was friendly, helpful and eager to share their knowledge. We couldn't have asked for a better trip."

The positive feedback is encouraging to Jeffrey Hyde, acting director of Penn State Extension, who supports international engagement because it helps faculty, staff and professionals have a deeper understanding about the drivers of markets for Pennsylvania's agricultural products as well as new production practices or technologies that could benefit the state's farmers.

"It isn't enough to understand what farmers in another county or state are doing to increase competitiveness, we must understand what farmers on other continents are doing," Hyde said. "This understanding allows us the best chance to manage a successful farm operation in Pennsylvania."

The college's Office of International Programs and the Pennsylvania Soybean Board provided funding for the trip.

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Last Updated April 18, 2018