Roy Beckford, Ph.D., of Cooperative Extension, is one of the N.C. A&T faculty who providing workshops for farmers and officials in and around San Ignacio, Belize, this summer.

In agriculture, it’s not just the science but the inter-personal connections that matter. That’s why a group from the CAES has traveled, for the past three summers, to the small, Central American country of Belize: to make connections.

“Our students get to step outside their comfort zone and have a good, global experience,” said Kenrett Jefferson-Moore, Ph.D., chairperson of the Department of Agribusiness, Applied Economics and Agriscience Education. “The faculty go to do workshops, learn and offer suggestions.”

Funded by a three-year capacity grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a group of CAES professors, instructors and students have traded techniques and experiences in both Belize and Greensboro. In 2018, a group from Belize came to campus for Small Farms Week, while 17 students – four of them this year – have been able to study abroad there, experiencing Belizean culture first-hand and learning lessons about agriculture practiced the slow way.

“Agriculture is completely internationally connected, and the pace of change is very fast. Yet, many of our students have never been on a plane before or had a passport,” Jefferson-Moore said. “We want them to realize that they’re global citizens, and that there’s more than just our little niche of the world. Belize is not far from the U.S., and its main language is English, so it’s a fairly easy first international experience for them.”

This year, six faculty members from a variety of CAES units, including agribusiness, animal science, natural resources and Cooperative Extension, went to the Belizean town of San Ignacio and its surrounding area to facilitate workshops.

At the request of the Belizean group, Guochen Yang, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Design, led a workshop on ginger cultivation as a potential cash crop, and Roy Beckford, Ph.D., of Cooperative Extension provided a workshop on integrated pest management. Jefferson-Moore, John Paul Owens and Millie Worku, Ph.D., provided information and consulting on animal health, agribusiness marketing and other topics requested by the farmers.

Meanwhile, the four graduate students had their own experience in San Antonio, a village of around 1,000 people that has the largest Mayan settlement in Belize. Kishaa James, student support specialist for the college, went with them.

Rhondine Petrof of Toucan Education Programs facilitated the experience for both groups, making contacts and providing logistics and cultural information for the A&T delegations.

“Just like here, the two most important industries in Belize are agriculture and tourism, and this year, we did one and the students did the other,” said Owens, an instructor in the Department of Agribusiness, Applied Economics and Agriscience Education. “You have to appreciate the culture before you can help anyone. All the farmer we worked with were Mayan.”

Belize is a tropical country on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the farms are small, producing vegetables such as watermelons, tomatoes and lettuce for a family’s personal consumption and for sale in open-air markets.

For all its seemingly foreign nature, Belize and North Carolina agriculture have much in common. Season extension, pest control and weather-related issues are prevalent in both places.

“We are glad to be able to help them with what we know, and then, we learn from them,” Owens said. “Everything they do is organic, and there’s an inherent knowledge of value-added agriculture, such as the medicinal qualities of plants, that we can learn from.”

After the grant funding ends, Owens said, the connections the groups have made may continue as the group works on a proposal to formalize a long-term relationship through faculty exchange or common research projects.

“Everyone was so happy we came,” Owens said. “We just loved working with the people and made lots of contacts. Just being around the people is something we definitely want to continue.”