Rutgers students travel abroad to study Belizian ag

Special to The New Jersey Farmer

NEW BRUNSWICK — Sweat coated students’ faces as they took turns trying their hands as laborers. Dirty nail beds and browned knees betrayed those who kneeled in the soil and planted seeds under a merciless sun. For others, sticky hands grasped knives as they sliced through pineapples that would later be dried and packaged.
Satisfied smiles flashed across a room as students ground cacao beans and a chocolate aroma filled the air.
Welcome to Belize.
Fifteen students departed for Belize on March 10 to begin a weeklong international field experience for a newly developed International Relations course at Rutgers University.
The course, “International Rela-tions: Leadership for Sustainability Development Practicum,” is a four-credit course that is part of a leadership skills minor developed a year ago by Dr. Mary Nikola, director of leadership and organizational development at Rutgers University.
“This particular course is intended to give our students broader global knowledge and provide them with the opportunity to have direct hands-on experience working in an international context,” Nikola said.
The primary objectives of the course were to apply principles of group dynamics, leadership and problem solving in a multi-cultural setting, in addition to experiencing a different culture and examining sustainability in that environment, Nikola said.
Four of the educational intensives taught students about agriculture, with the first lesson focusing on micro-enterprise.
Jack Nightingale is the director of his business, Fruit-Fill Dried Fruits where he, his wife, and an assistant plant and produce dried fruits such as pineapples and mangos, among other crops.
“My farm is 21 acres. I have only ever farmed 10 acres of it. All of my organic farming relies on crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing green crops. Other than that, I have decided to go for semi-permanent and permanent crops,” Nightingale said. “I have grown rice, corn, beans, cassava, sesame, flor de jamaica (sorril) and papaya.
“Now I will grow pineapple, mango, sorril, sesame, banana and mahogany.”
In addition to the visit to Nightingale’s farm, the trip offered three other agricultural components. Students visited a cacao farm and listened to a presentation by Juan Cho, owner of Cyrila’s Chocolates.
They also participated in a school garden program at Silver Creek Village, and contributed to a mahogany tree reforestation program by bagging soil and planting seeds for TIDE (Toledo Institute for Development and Environment).
“We went to (Silver Creek School) and worked with schoolchildren ... the program that is going on there is run by Plenty Belize called the GATE program (Garden-based Agriculture for Toledo’s Environment),” said Gisela Moore, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “We did a craft where we were making paper cups to hold seeds and we also cultivated the soil and prepared the mulch for planting.
“We also planted seeds and we did all of this with children helping us and they were extremely hardworking and loved every minute of it so it was a lot of fun.”
The purpose of the GATE program is to create school gardens and promote nutritious diets, help to end poverty, and provide food for the children as well as educational opportunities, Moore said.
At Cyrila’s Chocolates, Cho gave the students a tour of his organic cacao farm in addition to a chocolate making demonstration, allowing them to gain a better understanding of the process of making chocolate that begins after removing the cacao pods from the trees to providing finished products like cacao butter and hot chocolate to consumers.
“Shockingly, what you would define as chocolate in America such as Hershey’s doesn’t actually taste the same as cacao, which is chocolate strictly from the organic roots of the plant” said Richard Moses, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior.
As a farmer and chocolatier, Cho discussed the challenges of his business, specifically in the form of competition from American companies and the importance of balancing his business with his culture as a Mayan chocolatier.
“So all of these chocolatiers that are in the country, they’re Americans,” Cho said. “However, what are we doing to control or to have say over our own product? Yet we have been used, misused in several ways as Mayans.
“Nobody knows the tears in our eyes, and the pain we go through to grow (cacao trees).”
As the students interacted with the various speakers, they were able to identify commonly acknowledged agricultural problems such as inadequate use of Belize’s plentiful resources, lack of markets for small farmers and the obstacles of expanding their businesses, and in some cases a lack of an entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen.
“This course has been the highlight of my Rutgers career because I’ve never done anything like this. It’s definitely opened my eyes, not only with people but with other countries and how we need to be more open-minded …” said Halaine Lato, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior. “... and the fact that I was able to become so close with 14 strangers in a matter of a week, I think that was amazing as well.”
Nikola, still satisfied from her successful experience in Belize, is already planning for next year’s trip, currently considering a travel seminar to either Costa Rica or Panama to offer unique, new experiences for next year’s students.
Nikola emphasized the importance of having international field experience in the workplace as well as the vast opportunities to make connections as students formed networks not only with speakers in Belize, but with each other.
“Once again, we saw Rutgers students bonding together as a solid learning cohort, supporting each other in the work they were doing and in their own learning,” Nikola said.
“I learned a lot and I hope to apply it in my life,” Moore said. “I did not know much about agriculture and other environmental issues so that also provided me an opportunity to learn from the class and also from the trip. ... The trip was well planned, we had great professors and if it continues, it will continue to be a great course.”