Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 011 - Making A Difference: Teaching Sustainability featuring Xiochi Ma and Krista Jacobsen

Xiochi Ma: I hope to build strong connections among farmers in different countries, different places to let them work together. Because in the future, I think agriculture will be a global work and environment issues will be everywhere.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future. A podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Xiochi Ma, also known as Max, is a graduate student at Washington State University researching efficient irrigation systems for grapevine cultivation in drought-ridden areas. He says a lot of his work building connections across borders and localities starts with young students in the university setting. Krista Jacobsen, an agroecologist and professor at University of Kentucky, couldn’t agree more.

Krista Jacobsen: When I weigh the impact of my research life versus my teaching life, there are so many papers out there and publications, and you work in your own little corner of the world, and there might be ten people who read that paper in your entire life. And then I look at the students that I face every day in the classroom, and being able to open doors to sustainable agriculture and inspire them to walk through them. When I look at real impact, that’s probably what I could make a most lasting impact on. And that’s why I spend a lot of my time teaching.

Mallory Daily: The role of agricultural educators is not a simple one. Both Max and Krista need to have a firm handle on the latest research in their fields, but they say that’s not any more important than knowing how to translate that knowledge to the students they work with on campus.

Krista Jacobsen: Yeah. So my research is really, I guess I could best articulate it as being focused on how do we sustainably intensify organic and sustainable production systems. So if we, if our hearts are in this idea that we want to kind of optimize yield, minimizing environmental impacts and those kinds of things, where are the levers that can be pulled that back off on environmental impact and ideally increase yield across those, a suite of systems, organic farming systems. And to some extent, sustainable conventional systems. So I'm an agroecologist by training and work in a whole bunch of different kinds of crops. But I'm a faculty member in a horticulture department. So when I came there, I decided: well, I need to look more horticulture-like, and I like to eat vegetables. I'm gonna do organic vegetable work. And so it's kind of been, like you, Kind of finding the right crops and systems that fit this puzzle that you're trying to put together of what's your background, the kinds of questions that you're interested in, and how do you find a model crop that fits that. And I just love working in the systems that I work in, so you know, working with farmers and really low-input production systems who've been, you know, family farmers transitioning from tobacco-based systems that are really phasing out in our region in Kentucky, at least in our, in our part of the state. And then they've switched to organic vegetables. And so they are kind of our low-input model in this gradient of intensification where they are doing grass-based grazing of primarily beef cattle but a suite of other animals. Then they'll grow this forage-based system and they'll plow it in after five years and then grow organic vegetables for two to three years with no additional inputs. And so the answer is, to where those levers are really different for a system like that versus a, you know, more commercial scale input intensive organic vegetable production systems, where our answers there may be--actually can kind of back off the yield. You look a little bit more like maybe a conventional system where the inputs are really intensive.

Xiochi Ma: That's cool.

Krista Jacobsen: Yeah. It's been really interesting. I've learned a ton last few years.

Xiochi Ma: So you are an Assistant Professor at University of Kentucky. How could you get students involved in your project? How could you raise their interest in sustainable agriculture research?

Krista Jacobsen: Yeah, well I think by talking about it from a case study perspective, because like with you, I can dive into talking about the carbon and nitrogen cycling and for them, they're going to glaze over at that. So I'll bring, you know, for example, this project into my agroecology class and we'll talk about it from the farmer's perspective. So we'll say, "Well, why does the farmer farm this way?" And then when we think about trade-offs economically and why over the course of history, they have chosen to go down this path and we say, "Okay, what's the subsequent effects on the environment? So what does the ecological footprint look like? So I collaborate with ecological modelers and they say, "Okay, well this may look tremendously dirty when this farmer plows in this past year, it's a huge, you know, huge efflux of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and things like that. But when you look at the overall fossil fuel footprint, because he's not bringing in all these other things, it's a fraction of a system that may measure this other way. And so if I were to just dive into the nutrient cycling pace, I would lose my undergrads. But if we talk about it from a case study perspective and say, "Let's compare these two systems, both of which are considered sustainable." How do we peel back the layers and then we can kind of get at this question of tradeoffs and measuring different things. There's no one universal currency for sustainability. It's not about carbon or money or nitrogen or whatever. So it's a way to kind of like talk about tradeoffs and interdisciplinarity and how we think about sustainability. So, and then I tried to put them to work in my lab grinding soil. I'm doing really mundane things, too.

Xiochi Ma: It's pretty fundamental work, huh?

Krista Jacobsen: It is, yeah. Do you get to interact much with students?

Xiochi Ma: Oh yes. So I am the mentor for three undergrad students at Washington State University. And I helped develop their research project and work with them for both the project and the scientific presentations. I really enjoying the work related to viticulture and wine grapes. So we built a pretty good connection with each other and we inspired each other.

Krista Jacobsen: Sounds like you really love it, that mentorship aspect?

Xiochi Ma: I really like to work with students. I mean the similar age with similar interest and I think it's like a fire. We can't increase our interest in agriculture research [alone].

Krista Jacobsen: Do you see yourself doing that in the future? Going down the professor path and engaging students?

Xiochi Ma: I think no matter what the career I would choose, I still have a big interest in sustainable agricultural work, both from the industry side and the academia side. I really want to help improve the quality of crops. Also, the production to feed the next generation because the population will increase rapidly, I guess. So sustainable agriculture is really important both for the development of human society but also for the environment. So I think that's the longterm goal for us.

Krista Jacobsen: Do you think you want to stay in the U.S. or you think you want to go back?

Xiochi Ma: I think I will go back to China, but I want to enhance connections between the U.S. and China regarding sustainable agriculture. I hope to build strong connections among the farmers in different countries, different sites, different places to let them work together. Because in future I think agriculture will be a global work and the environment issues will be everywhere. So people from different countries, different places should work together to solve issues and help improve human life.

Krista Jacobsen: So I have a question from working with international students as graduate students and then taking students abroad. Oftentimes sustainability and sustainable agriculture is framed really differently than the way that we think about it here. Where it's people, planet, profits. Or you know, environmental stewardship, social responsibility. Economic profitability. And is it framed the same way in China? You know, is it the same as kind of the three pillars or when you talk about sustainable agriculture back home does it mean the same thing or is it articulated in the same way?

Xiochi Ma: I think the fundamental things are pretty similar. People want to improve environmental quality and help save natural resources and improve the crop production. But since we have defunded the cultures--the way, the techniques, the concept we have may be different when we treat the same issue.

Krista Jacobsen: What about the issue of scale? So that's something that I've noticed like with working with students from other countries and although we're a small farm state in Kentucky--our average acreage is about 160 acres, 50 hectares-ish, which is small by US standards. But when you tell that to people abroad, regardless of where they're coming from, particularly from East Asia and Southeast Asia, it blows their minds. They're like, what are you--how many people work on that farm? You know? I mean, so what about the issues of scale?

Xiochi Ma: I think, let me use the farmers in China as an example. You really have small scale of farmland for their crops and now people in the U.S. use mechanical things to carry weight and harvest crops. But in China because of the population, I guess, and the development of city area, the land for farming decreases. So it limits the farmers to do the work in a big area. So I think that's the difference. [That's] why farmers in the U.S. can use the mechanical things and do the farming with the same time in huge areas.

Krista Jacobsen: Because we need to, right? There's not enough labor. Oftentimes you're dealing with this issue of scale so you kind of have to find mechanical options

Xiochi Ma: Yes. And Chinese farmers may have small lands and they do their [land] individually. So I think we should do the things together to help crop production.

Krista Jacobsen: Yeah. Farmer-to-farmer exchanges or something.

Xiochi Ma: They need to collaborate with each other.

Krista Jacobsen: Yeah. You know, we've talked a little bit about high tunnels and I do a lot of work in high tunnels and it's something that I think, although it's, although that technology was developed in the United States, it was kind of abandoned for a long time and it's grown tremendously in China and Spain and, you know, other kinds of places that do a lot of specialty crop production. And I think we have a lot to learn about productivity and perhaps we have a lot to contribute to in terms of thinking about this idea of what is sustainable intensification in these really intensive systems.

Xiochi Ma: Yeah. Do you teach class?

Krista Jacobsen: I do. Yeah. So I teach an introduction to sustainable agriculture course, which is a broad interdisciplinary, sustainable agriculture and food systems course that quite frankly is sometimes a little bit outside of my comfort zone because I'm, you know, I'm an agroecologist working in nutrient cycling kinds of areas. But it works. I teach it largely through a local food systems kind of lens and I have a really interdisciplinary group of students in there, everyone from agriculture educators to sustainable agriculture majors and natural resource and environmental sciences students. So I can teach it at a pretty broad level, based on the student body and it's an intro level course. And then I also teach an agroecology course. And then I'm the Director of Undergraduate Studies of our undergraduate degree programs. So I end up doing more paperwork than I would care to most times. But I work on administrative side as well.

Xiochi Ma: So, which part are they most interested in? What kind of questions do they ask you during your class?

Krista Jacobsen: You know, a lot of the questions--it depends on the class--but a lot of the questions are about food, you know, and that's something that's been really not what I expected. You know, particularly in the introductory course where I, you know, students are often wanting to, they want to get out on farms and they want to, you know, get more in depth experience in those kinds of things. But the kind of questions that I often get that everybody asks are about, well, how is this type of food produced? Or why does it cost this much? Or, um, you know, where can I get that local food availability? Those kinds of things. So a lot of times I end up teaching the, like the mechanism behind what's going on or the broader environmental piece from a food lens and then coming back to the farm rather than kind of farm-to-table. It oftentimes goes table-to-farm. And I think that speaks to the nature of the students that we have, too. They're becoming more diverse in their interests in sustainable agriculture. It's not just farm kids who want to go back to the farm and maybe takeover. It's not necessarily a transitional issue. It's new people that want to get into agriculture who maybe have no agricultural experience at all or people who grew up on the farm and they may not have seen these kinds of labels before. They want to know, what does that really mean? What does that say? How hard is that do? They have more nuts-and-bolts kinds of questions.

Xiochi Ma: So yeah, when I was one of the grad students, I also asked my teacher about questions related to food. So I'm, I'm a food lover. I really like delicious food. But when I read the news, it talked about how environmental pollution affected the quality of food and how they poison their soil, damage human habits, and the whole food system. So I realized, as students, if we want to pursue a graduate degree and want to do some research, I think it's worth it for us to focus on a sustainable way to help solve environmental issues and improve food quality.

Krista Jacobsen: Do you find that that's a concern among the students that you work with as well? That they're kind of keenly aware of this? The environmental impacts of agriculture?

Xiochi Ma: I think many students are aware of environmental issues and they really want to do something--no matter what way they choose, really want to help improve environmental health. So teachers are really important to inspire their interest in sustainable agriculture research. So I had pretty good advisers and they always taught me about the stories, like how important is your research will be to make a contribution to human societies. I didn't think I could do that kind of job. But as time goes on and I do my research step-by-step, I realized the importance of my research project.

Krista Jacobsen: You're in your third year of your PhD. Do you have your elevator spiel or, you know, some of your key findings as you're preparing your manuscripts?

Xiochi Ma: So Washington state is the second the largest premium wine producer in the U.S. And most of the vineyards are located in central Washington. They just got eight inches of annual rainfall, making irrigation and water rights of paramount interest to the Washington wine industry. And due to the unstable climate patterns, the water shortage becomes a big issue leading to the decrease of wine production. So our research group introduced our first generation of new irrigation systems. It's called "a direct routes and irrigation system", which [brings] water directly into the lower roots and to help save water and improve grape quantity. So I think water is a big issue--water rights, I know availability is a big issue for crop production. So if we can help save water by using either ones' irrigation strategy, that will be a huge success for sustainable agriculture.

Krista Jacobsen: Have you been working with farmers on this?

Xiochi Ma: Yes. We conducted our experiment in commercial vineyards in central Washington. So we collaborated with local farmers, growers. They evolved that the project started from experiment design to a final report.

Krista Jacobsen: And are the farmers excited about the results?

Xiochi Ma: Yes, they're eager to collaborate with us. And I think it will also provide more chances for students like me to work with farmers in real industry sites to get more hands-on experience, which we cannot get during the class and in school.

Krista Jacobsen: So in terms of your results, how much, I mean, how much more expensive for grape producer is this system that you all have developed? Is it more expensive than what the standard practice is?

Xiochi Ma: For our irrigation system, it costs around $1,000 per acre. It's expensive compared with the traditional surface drip irrigation. But we will continue to decrease the cost of the irrigation system. And also we think these systems, this irrigation strategy can help decrease the use of herbicide because we're restricted weed growth. We deliver the water into deep soil and weeds cannot get that water so we can help growers reduce their use of herbicide, which can help improve the soil health, I guess. And also helps save water and restricting the vegetative growth of grape wines can help save their labels for pruning.

Krista Jacobsen: Oh right. Okay. I mean that's great experience as a PhD student to be able to work on a really mechanistic question, but have it well-framed within the broader context of the whole system, right? You've got a labor and economic piece and you've got, you know, the weed piece. I mean you may be looking at this one little bit, but I think it speaks to you a lot as a student that you can articulate that within the kind of the broader socioeconomic context of why someone would adopt a sustainable agriculture practice and it's not just about the resource conservation piece.

Xiochi Ma: Yes. What's the goal for your career in sustainable agriculture? What do you really want to do?

Krista Jacobsen: That's a big question!

Xiochi Ma: I know! Like you really want to inspire young people like us?

Krista Jacobsen: Yeah. I think that would be my goal, right? I mean, when I weigh the impact of my research life versus my teaching life, there are so many papers out there and publications and you do, you work in your own little corner of the world in nitrous oxide emissions or whatever you do and there might be 10 people that read that paper in your entire life. And then I look at the students that I face every day in the classroom and being able to open doors to sustainable agriculture and inspire them to walk through them. When I looked at real impact, that's probably what I could make a most lasting impact on. And that's why I spend a lot of my time teaching. But when I think about career legacy and those kinds of things, it's seeing those students faces and where they end up that I think is going to be the most gratifying thing versus some certain number of citations and other things that kind of like peak your geek factor, but they don't really lead to meaningful impact in society in as tangible and inspiring a way as working with students.

Xiochi Ma: Yeah, I think teachers are really important to inspire students for their future career.

Mallory Daily: That’s it from these two academics. You were listening to Krista Jacobsen of University of Kentucky and Xiochi Ma, or Max, of Washington State University. We’ll post links to their projects in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE.Thanks for listening! We'll catch you next time.