By Dana Ludvik
Agronomist Angela Bastidas spends a lot of time talking to farmers, and there is one thing she knows for sure. Agronomists need to translate their research findings to farmers in a meaningful way, or it stands little chance of moving beyond paper.
The former University of Nebraska-Lincoln master and doctoral student learned this firsthand while visiting with farmers alongside her adviser, Roger Elmore, DWFI Faculty Fellow and Nebraska Extension agronomist. For three years, she worked with Elmore to inform the state’s farmers of the best practices to plant cover crops. Cover crops are typically grown “off season” and help improve long-term soil health. The practice can help repair depleted or eroded soil, leading to reduced runoff and more sustainable farming practices.
During her time at Nebraska, Bastidas investigated two methods to enhance cover crop use: inter-seeding and planting strategies based on the use of different corn maturity groups. She worked directly with farmers to identify their goals and address their questions and concerns, honing her communication skills in the field. She helped them understand the benefits of adopting cover cropping practices – both to the environment and their bottom line.
“Step-by-step, we had to figure out the best way to introduce new technologies on the farm,” she said. “This required working closely with farmers to make sure they are successful in this journey and reap the long-term benefits.”
Cover crop adoption is not always an easy sell. Like the adoption of other farming technologies, it is unlikely to be 100 percent successful in the first year, and Nebraska’s conditions are not always ideal for establishing cover crops. According to Angela, her team was able to build trust and offer solutions to help the farmers overcome challenges by focusing on achieve productive growth with minimal sacrifices.
In addition to her projects with Elmore, Bastidas learned more about global food security and water management through her coursework. During the 2017 summer, she was a fellow of the Borlaug Summer Institute at the Center of Global Food Security in Purdue University. These experiences inspired her to seriously consider non-profit development work.
After graduating in December 2017, Bastidas decided to take a leap of faith. Rather than return to the private seed industry where she worked for years before coming to UNL, she chose to apply the knowledge she gained in Nebraska to help feed one of the most malnourished countries in the world, Guatemala.
“I reached the point in my life where I said, ‘I want to do something more meaningful for people,’” Bastidas recalled.
She joined Semilla Nueva in early 2018, an American non-governmental organization operating in Guatemala (http://www.semillanueva.org/) that brings seed technology to farmers in developing countries at an accessible price. Their mission is to develop, promote, and sell high-nutrient, biofortified corn as a sustainable solution to chronic malnutrition. In her role as senior operations director, she is establishing a non-profit seed company that will be the first worldwide to commercialize biofortified (with zinc and protein quality) corn hybrids in the country. Semilla Nueva’s goal is to improve quality of life for Guatemalans and positively improve one million diets by 2022. The need and the potential for impact is great, she said.
According to the World Food Programme, almost half the population in Guatemala cannot afford the cost of basic foods. Rural families compensate by eating a high amount of the cheapest food available—corn. With corn being deficient in key nutrients, 46.5% of children end up chronically malnourished—a rate that climbs as high as 90 percent in the hardest hit areas. It’s the fifth highest rate of stunting in the world, higher than any country in Africa but one.
Chronic malnutrition is one of the world’s most serious problems, explains Bastidas. “Bill Gates said he could wave a magic wand and end one problem, it would be nutrition. It’s very hard to change the culture and economic reasons that people eat the cheapest foods available. This is why we’re so excited with biofortified corn. We can help the farmer increase their income with improved yields and simultaneously improve the diets of hundreds of thousands of children.
Bastidas says the mission-driven work is challenging, but also highly rewarding. “We have a huge opportunity to make a difference. And I feel really excited for continuing doing research and also having an impact on farmers at a different level.”
Her responsibilities include coordinating with her team, other local seed companies, and farmers associations to bring the best corn genetics to Guatemala. Bastidas is already implementing a testing program to identify the best new biofortified hybrids for local conditions and creating an improved seed production system. The NGO also provides guidance to farmers beyond the seed, such as plant density, plant nutrition, weed, disease and pest control—where Bastidas is using technical training she brought from Nebraska.
Bastidas hopes the seed company will be a model for other food insecure and malnourished countries as well, such as those with high corn consumption in sub-Saharan Africa.
Her experience learning from Elmore and others in Nebraska continues to benefit her relationships with struggling farmers in Guatemala, particularly when it comes to the difficult work of communicating research effectively, and, ultimately, changing their behavior.
“This is the challenge of research, but the beauty of agronomy,” Bastidas said. “If the farmer is successful — we are successful.”
Drewnoski, M., N. Muller, R. Saner, P. Jasa, G. Zoubek, J. Rees, R. Elmore, D. Redfearn, and G. Lesoing. 2015. Cover Crop Survey of Nebraska Farmers. Crop Watch Newsletter. December. University of Nebraska, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Lincoln, NE.