OOS 46-7
Agroecological research, education, and extension: An integrated approach to improving educational engagement in food systems

Thursday, August 14, 2014: 3:40 PM
308, Sacramento Convention Center
Alex E. Racelis, Biology, University of Texas Pan American, Edinburg, TX
Carlo R. Moreno, Biology, University of Texas Pan American, Edinburg, TX
Mike Morris, National Center for Appropriate Technology, San Antonio, TX
Robert Maggiani, National Center for Appropriate Technology, San Antonio, TX

Many of today’s major societal challenges—including global food security and hunger, nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity, sustainable energy, climate change, and even challenges in science education—can be inextricably linked to agriculture.  Universities with programs in agroecology provide a platform to not only identify and understand patterns, processes and functions in agroecosystems, but to foment the development of intellectual capital and future workforce that ultimately is required to help address these challenges.  An institutional experiment is being conducted at the University of Texas Pan-American, situated in southmost portion of the Texas-Mexico border, to better understand the potential impact of an integrated approach in research, education, and extension in agroecology on student engagement in agricultural sciences and outcomes in regional food systems.  In 2013, a new integrative agroecology program was started at UTPA, with the intention of making measurable impacts in student development through education and experiential learning, and positive impacts in local agricultural practice through participatory research, extension and action. 


Through directed discussion through focus groups and follow-up interviews with thirteen sustainable farmers in the region, we identified key challenges for organic farms in south Texas, which center around the lack of relevant, timely, and accessible information needed to effectively deal with insect pests, persistent weed pressure, and degrading water quality and access.  Not much accessible research exists for these subtropical farmers (Zones 9B and 10A), who are challenged by year-round pest pressures and an insecure water supply.  Small farmers (<100 acres) acknowledged that modest local demand for their products, a lack of social capital to organize volumes for commercial markets, and deficiencies in technical support and extension services specific to small-scale and/or organic agriculture limit their competitiveness and viability.  Based on this information, we launched a research program where graduate and undergraduate students at UTPA work closely with research scientists and extensions agents to devise and implement discrete on-farm experiments to uncover usable information that farmers can use in real-time.  Data collected each season are analyzed and disseminated immediately through accessible media, such as short videos available online in English and Spanish.   The collaborative, integrative partnership among students, researchers, farmers, and extension have had clear positive impacts at each level, demonstrating a form of university-community engagement required for positive impacts in local food systems.