Buried Treasure: Virginia Tech Programs Collaborate to Improve Potato Production in Ecuador
This post was submitted by Kelly Izlar, Communications Coordinator for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) at Virginia Tech.
The potato is often described as a “humble” root — grubby and plebian. But the potato literally feeds the hungry — it is the fifth most important crop worldwide and grows quickly and uses less water than most other workhorse crops. Working high in the Andes, Virginia Tech scientists, in partnership with researchers from Ecuador’s National Institute for Agriculture Research, are helping farmers grow this staple in the face of threats from climate change, erosion, and invasive species while better protecting natural resources.
“The Ecuadorian farmers have been involved in this project from the start,” says project researcher Jeff Alwang. “It’s important for us to integrate our recommendations into the methods that have been practiced by their ancestors for thousands of years.”
But these farmers’ ancestors didn’t face the same challenges. Climate change has introduced new weather patterns and new pests, and a growing population has forced farmers to higher ground. Ecuadorians who are now growing potatoes at high elevations have a tough row to hoe. Deforestation and erosion on precipitous slopes can eliminate a harvest in one sweep, and a horde of insect pests and diseases have a keen taste for potato.
Two Virginia Tech-led programs, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, pooled their expertise and began working with five farming families to grow healthier, more resilient crops.
The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has been developing a suite of techniques for crops that decrease the use of chemical pesticides while increasing crop yields and improving environmental, human health, and gender situations. In Ecuador, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management has been collaborating with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainble Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM), which preserves soil quality while scaling up food production for smallholder farmers.
“By combining soil management with safe and effective pest management technologies, we were able to deliver a package of potato production including comprehensive protection practices to the farmers in Ecuador,” says IPM Innovation Lab Director Muni Muniappan. “Both Innovation Labs are working for the improvement of farmer livelihoods.”
The integrated programs apply their techniques to all phases of potato production — preparing the soil, planting, and harvesting.
“We’re reducing the effects on the ecosystem and lightening the farmer’s load,” says Adrian Ares, Director of the Feed the Future SANREM Innovation Lab. “It’s good for the environment, and it’s good for the humans.”
When compared with conventional agriculture practices, the combination of integrated pest management and conservation agriculture practices – which focus on preserving soil integrity – pays off, says Ares.
“At those sheer angles, dirt is kicked up by weather and farming,” Ares says. “Erosion is a huge problem up there, but conservation agriculture reduces soil loss dramatically.”
The joint project trains farmers to lightly plow along the natural contours of the land to preserve soil structure, planting native shrubs and grasses to protect the topsoil, and rotating or mixing crops so that the land will have time to recover. When it’s time to sow the seed potatoes, farmers are encouraged to treat them with a beneficial fungus called Trichoderma that controls soil-borne fungal diseases.
Still securing and nourishing the soil is only half the battle. A healthy potato is the Andean potato weevil’s favorite food. Although the potato has other pests, the weevil is the most destructive of the pests and diseases that plague Ecuadorian potato farmers.
The weevil crawls through the soil from neighboring fields to feed on the potato plants and bore into the tubers. Because the pest is unable to fly, one of the most effective ways to combat it is simple: Dig a trench around your crop. The weevils fall into the trench and can’t mount the battlement of the ditch, which protects the plants like a fortress around a town.
A plant needs sun, nutrients, water, and time to grow. Modern agriculture practices often have disparate approaches to each of these needs. As farmers and researchers move into a more comprehensive understanding of evolving ecosystems, they are finding wisdom in synthesis.
“To be most effective and to be sustainable, you need a package of measures that work together,” Ares says. “This is the future of farming systems.”