Undergrad helps teach orphans about hydroponic farming

There are capstones, and there are capstones.

For his capstone—a discipline-spanning research project required of all students graduating from CALS—soil science student Jacob Kruse BS’16 spent a summer working with orphans in Lima, Peru, to set up and run a hydroponic growing system.

More than 60 children from the Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II orphanage—a mission of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin—participated in growing crops that included tomatoes, peppers, bok choy and lettuce. The kids learned all about hydroponics, the art of growing plants in water, sand or gravel instead of soil, adding nutrients as needed.

But the project’s overarching benefits ran deeper. Beyond producing and learning about healthy food, “The goals were to teach children about water and natural resource use and reuse, help build connections between families and friends through common interests and projects and help the children develop responsibility,” says Kruse.

Kruse spent three months helping build the system and offering hands-on instruction on the basics of hydroponics—one class for older children and another for the younger ones. The kids learned about the environmental benefits of hydroponics, how to build home hydroponics out of household items and how to care for the garden.

A manufacturer of specialty chemicals for construction and industry, Sika Peru S.A., funded the project and built the garden structures with recycled materials. Mantisee, a nonprofit organization, provided the system design and plants. Both organizations, Kruse says, are concerned with natural resource use and social development, and they see the hydroponic system as a way to teach water use and nutrient efficiency—an important point in Lima, the world’s second-driest capital city.

Sika has also set up a scholarship and internship program for children at Casa Hogar who complete the hydroponic classes. “Sika’s scholarship and internship program will truly be life-changing for our children, and this collaborative project will have a lasting impact on our orphanage and the children who call it home,” says Jordan Zoroufy, Casa Hogar’s director of development.

Kruse’s faculty advisor, soil science professor Phillip Barak, is both impressed and delighted with the project. “We like our capstone experiences to be very hands-on and to have a service component,” Barak says. “Jake’s self-designed capstone sets a very high bar—food, children and education. Helping build a hydroponic food system from the ground up and turning it over to the children in the orphanage is quite an accomplishment.”

Field Notes: Potato Exchange Benefits Peruvians

In the growing region around Puno, Peru, farmers hedge their bets.

Located 12,000 feet above sea level, on the side of an Andean mountain, Puno has a growing season that’s short, cool and prone to frost. The staple food of the area is potato, and local farmers plant dozens of different varieties on their plots—some that they relish for their flavor, as well as some less palatable, frost-tolerant types.

In good years everything grows well and families have plenty to eat. In bad years—when there is an unseasonable or particularly hard frost—their preferred plants fail, and they must rely on the small, bitter potatoes produced by the hardy survivors.

Soon, however, they will have a better option. For the past two growing seasons, farmers near Puno and in three Peruvian highland villages have participated in a project to grow and test frost-tolerant versions of their favorite local varieties, with great success.

These special potato plants were developed in Wisconsin by a team of CALS plant scientists and plant breeders using germplasm stored in the U.S. Potato Genebank, located in Sturgeon Bay.

“I think this is the first case where a potato developed in the U.S. has been accepted by local farmers in these communities in the Andes,” says project coordinator Alfonso del Rio, an associate scientist in the lab of John Bamberg. As an employee of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Bamberg serves as director of the U.S. Potato Genebank. He is also a professor of horticulture with CALS.

The plant materials used for the project, like the vast majority found in the U.S. Potato Genebank, were brought to the United States from the Andes, the potato’s site of origin. This makes the project a special opportunity for potato breeders in the United States to give something back.

“We’re interested in returning the benefits of our genebank to Peru and the broader Andean region because that’s the area that supplied our country with germplasm,” says Bamberg, who led the project’s breeding effort. Earlier work by CALS horticulture professor Jiwan Palta, the third member of the team, made modern marker-assisted breeding for frost tolerance possible.

To make the new potato lines, Bamberg took an exceptionally frost-tolerant wild relative of the potato family—a weed, basically—and crossed it with seven popular native Peruvian potato varieties to generate frost-tolerant versions of the native potato plants.

Although the new potato lines were originally meant to be added to Peru’s national potato breeding program as germplasm for further breeding, the farmers who were involved in the trials are eager to start growing some of them right away. And no wonder. This past growing season in Puno, after a late, hard frost, a few of the new frost-tolerant lines far outperformed the local varieties, yielding twice as many pounds of potato per plot.

The CALS team hopes these more dependable potato plants will help bolster Peru’s vulnerable rural communities.

“If the farmers could send part of their harvest to market, even 10 or 20 percent, they could have some money to invest in community development—in things like clinics, schools and libraries,” says del Rio.

A Simple Sprinkle Improves Yields in Potato's Homeland

After proving he could increase the yields of some of Peru’s most popular potato varieties, Jiwan Palta still had a tough panel of critics to face: the Peruvian women who had been growing, cooking and eating the potatoes their entire lives.

“Initially there was some concern. They have all kinds of potatoes—all sorts of colors and flavors and textures—and didn’t want anything altered about them,” says Palta, a CALS professor of horticulture. “We set up a taste test and they couldn’t tell the difference. So then they were convinced.”

Palta first visited Peru, the ancestral home of the potato, six years ago after becoming head of the UW–Madison Potato Breeding Program. He was accompanied by colleagues John Bamberg and Alfonso Del Rio. His original goal was to set up a research collaboration with scientists at Peru’s International Potato Center (CIP) to improve frost tolerance in Wisconsin’s commercial varieties. Researchers at CIP study and breed the region’s stunning array of potato cultivars, which serves as a valuable genetic resource for potato breeders around the world.

But during a tour of the nation’s potato fields, which are located in the highlands of the Andes and cultivated by poor subsistence farmers, Palta quickly identified a second project for his team.

“When I saw the mountains, I said, ‘My goodness, those soils must be highly leached because of the high acidity and the way the rain washes down the slope of the fields,’” says Palta. “And it turned out the soils were very low in calcium, and that got us thinking: Would these native potatoes—which don’t yield a lot—respond to a simple calcium amendment?”

Earlier in his career, Palta cracked the mystery of how calcium gets inside potato tubers, where the nutrient is known to strengthen the integrity of the tuber’s tissues, reducing internal defects and making potatoes last longer in storage. His findings led to a major change in the way calcium is applied to Wisconsin’s potato fields.

In Peru, Palta decided to try adding gypsum powder—a cheap and locally available source of calcium—to the traditional Peruvian planting system. On his test plots, local farmers followed their regular procedure for the most part: placing a seed potato at the bottom of a hole and covering it with alpaca manure. But before piling dirt on top to form a “hill,” they also added some white gypsum powder. At harvest time, Palta flew back to Peru to assess the results.

“On average we saw about a 25 percent increase in yield,” says Palta. “We were startled because some varieties almost doubled in yield.”

Palta is now partnering with CIP, Peruvian universities, non-governmental organizations and USAID on a variety of projects to expand his lab’s work and spread its benefits to additional communities. Down the road, he hopes to help create and see distributed a “Top 10” list of popular native potatoes that benefit the most from extra calcium.

“It’s such a joy to see that we can make a difference in the lives of poor Peruvians who depend so much on potato as a food,” says Palta. “And for those who live near cities, perhaps some of them will even be able to sell their surplus.”

A Game Effort to Combat Poverty

For the small-scale cotton farmers who work the fertile valleys surrounding Pisco, Peru, there is usually little time for games. Cotton is a labor- and cost-intensive crop, and despite their best efforts, they often suffer significant losses due to the elements and agricultural pests.

But small groups of these farmers have made time recently to play a game of chance. No ordinary pastime, this game was designed by a team of CALS agricultural economists to teach the value of crop insurance—an entirely unfamiliar concept in places such as rural Peru. And it may just be one step toward breaking the cycle of poverty that often rules subsistence crop farmers around the world.

The game simulates farming cotton, with each round representing a growing season. Before each round, farmers decide whether or not to borrow money from a bank and pay for crop insurance. A poker chip and a ping-pong ball are then drawn to represent weather and crop health. As they play, farmers learn how economic decisions can lead to debt or help them survive a succession of bad seasons.

“It takes farmers about 10 to 15 years in the game to become self-aware of their decision-making patterns,” says Michael Carter, a professor of agricultural and applied economics who is spearheading the project, part of a federal program to understand and alleviate rural poverty in developing nations. “After they get the idea of it, about 70 percent choose to buy insurance each year.”

But Carter’s project has also turned the game into reality. The professor has worked with banks and insurance companies to establish a micro-insurance program, which has began offering real-life policies to farmers in the region. If those policies result in higher incomes for farmers, Carter aims to bring the entire program—game and all—to other struggling economies around the world.