A joint project between Cornell and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM) is preparing agricultural students to develop skills, knowledge and abilities in sustainable agriculture and natural resource management for Puerto Rico. Through the Student Internships and Faculty Training in Sustainable Management of Agricultural Systems (SuMAS) project, students and faculty from Cornell and UPRM engage at the intersections of agricultural and social science disciplines on a diverse range of topics, from natural resources and crop sustainability to integrated pest management and animal-livestock science production.
Funded by a USDA-NIFA Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education grant, the course and summer internship led by Maricelis Acevedo, research professor of global development, connects students with Cornell faculty for experiential learning and research focused on sustainable agriculture and natural resource management.
In 2023, six students from UPRM spent their summer at Cornell for an intensive internship with faculty from across the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Here, they share their reflections on the experience, and how it impacted their academic and professional readiness to better serve Puerto Rico’s agriculture and food system needs.
Natalia D. Vargas Román
I have no words to thank the dedication, commitment, affection, time, and education that I have received during these six weeks under the SuMAS internship program by the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus and Cornell University. The project consisted of both an academic and professional aspect as well as a personal and cultural one. As an intern with the Pro-Dairy Team program, under the mentorship of Dr. Jason Paul Oliver and his team, I developed a fact sheet, regarding the use of sulfuric acid for the mitigation of greenhouse gases to promote agricultural sustainability, environmental well-being, and the reduction of climate change. In addition, I made an educational video with the help of Dr. Lauren Ray, regarding the economic and beneficiary analysis of the flare and cover system for all dairy farms, or in other words, a unit on sustainable management practices for the global well-being of both humans and animals and of nature itself.
The second part of the internship consisted of strengthening our personal and cultural skills and being able to share them, in a reciprocal way, with the residents of the state of New York. In this we embarked on a journey to learn different cultures (Chinese, Mexican, Venezuelan, Guatemalan, etc.) of habitants in the state of New York and how these same people have managed to persevere on the land; by this, I mean the various sustainable management practices that have been carried out in the city in order to connect with their roots, their ancestors, their past, their relatives, and the nature that surround them. I am still ecstatic at how this international community allowed us to step foot, help and learn from their lands and their culture, without first knowing about us. It is noticeable that they are guided by the trust, respect, effort, and words of affirmation from their entire community. This internship allowed us to connect to agriculture and to gain an understanding of how to protect it for future generations. I encourage all students to participate in this program so they can have a different perspective of livelihoods associated with agriculture. Without a doubt, it has been one of the best experiences I have had in my life, and I will treasure it for a lifetime.
The opportunity to be part of the SuMAS internship at Cornell University opened me this immense window of opportunities and provided me with a whole different mindset. This summer I collaborated with the Pro-Dairy Team to develop a case study on the effectiveness of manure management at their Teaching Dairy Barn. I evaluated the use of recycled manure solids as bedding and fertilizer. To do so, I worked on acquiring the manure samples, understanding the flow of the solid-liquid separator system, and collaborated with multiple professionals from a variety of departments at Cornell University, like the Animal Health Diagnostics Center and Animal Science Department, to develop the case study. The goal of the case study is to provide valuable information regarding the system of manure management at the Teaching Dairy Barn with the intent of providing details on their bedding utilization, quality, and herd protection from diseases. I hope this case study fuels interest in evaluating the effectiveness during the winter when things get complicated for dairy producers as the temperature drop or it opens an opportunity to reincorporate myself on the Pro-Dairy Team.
The other side of this internship was exposing ourselves to sustainable agricultural management practices in NY. There is a whole world of sustainability, and seeing how Ithaca, New York City, and the Finger Lakes region value and recognize the need for sustainable practices not only in agriculture but also in social aspects provided a great perspective on a topic I was not aware of before starting this internship. This internship allowed me to establish my professional priorities and where I visualize myself living, working, and collaborating with others. All the people I met contributed in some way to my personal and academic growth, and I am forever grateful for this opportunity. My colleagues helped me see other points of view and were able to see their own development throughout the summer as future professionals. I gained a lot of knowledge and experience to bring back to our island, Puerto Rico, and regain our roots in agriculture, incorporate sustainability, and advocate for more opportunities like this for the other students. I encourage everyone to lose their fear and apply to opportunities like this one. You gain a lot as a student, but you also gain wonderful experiences and develop wonderful acquaintances.
Diego J. Rodríguez Quiñones
During my participation in the SuMAS internship I collaborated with the New York State Integrated Pest Management (IPM) team. My focus was invasive species, specifically with the Spotted Lanternfly (SLF). This pest arrived in the United States approximately 10 years ago and represents a great danger to different agricultural industries, especially grapes. A large part of my work was with the team of Dr. Ann Hajek, who collaborates with the IPM team. Her laboratory is searching for a fungus that could serve as a biocontrol for this fly. My work consisted of the collection of nymphs, preparation of cultivars for fungi, PCR tests, DNA sequencing, and building traps.
Participating in the SuMAS program has been a very rewarding experience, both professionally and personally. Being able to meet and work with such talented people has allowed me to expand my knowledge in sustainable agriculture. This is thanks to the different activities carried out to see how sustainable agriculture is worked in different places in the state of NY. At the same time, participating in different activities allowed me to meet wonderful people and get to know Ithaca “as a local” would. Some of these activities included volunteering at different farms, attending different meetings of agriculture, field trips, and other activities related to the community. I think that this program should remain active so that other students from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez can take advantage of similar experiences to the group this year.
Sadiel A. Negrón Santiago
I had an immense opportunity where I was able to expose myself daily to formal and practical learning situations. Through the SuMAS program, we evaluated sustainable practices in agriculture and other areas of the industry. We often found ourselves looking at these practices and asking about the way in which they could be made sustainable. In the end, I can say that I have a better idea about what sustainability means. It is something that not only deals with natural resources but also with labor, cultural and economic environments. In the same way, we could see agriculture being put into practice in multiple different ways. This is also important to mention because there is not necessarily a single way of practicing agriculture, it can vary greatly depending on factors such as people, methods, available resources, purposes, etc. In the second part of the internship, I worked with a scientific team at Cornell University where I was part of the NMSP program (Nutrient Management Spear Program).
The team, led by Dr. Quirine Kettering, is focused on researching nutrient management in the soils of Ithaca and other nearby areas to create guidelines and extension efforts for farmers and ranchers. They work closely with the public to involve them in many soils related projects. Thanks to the program and the very helpful and cooperative team at Cornell, I was able to gain practical experience that would not be easy to acquire otherwise. From day one they made sure that I made the most of my time. I worked with multiple people on the program, from sampling and field evaluations to data processing and analysis in the labs. This internship provided me with opportunities that will surely be very helpful for the rest of my professional career and personal life. For this reason, I am very grateful that they have allowed me this opportunity and I hope that in the future other students can also go through the same thing.
Kamille Padilla Jusino
Since the beginning of my university career, I have had clear goals and a strong interest in science. The theme of sustainability has surrounded me throughout the years, forging a sense of belonging to Earth. In my internship at Cornell Agritech, I focused on researching the pathogen Downy Mildew, which causes significant economic losses in plants like grapes. My main task involved evaluating the effectiveness of potential fungicides as commercial products for treating Downy Mildew in Chardonnay Grapes. I used the Li-600 instrument to measure temperature, plant stress, stomatal conductance, and fluorescence, preparing data sheets for comparing the efficacy of each fungicide.
During the internship, I honed my management skills and learned Python, a software language. I also developed an app with potential as a lab tool, a project I will continue with my mentor in the fall semester. I am thrilled to share that I have been offered a position as an employee at Cornell Agritech for the coming summer, allowing me to advance my research further. My passion for protecting the planet has undoubtedly been strengthened through the weeks. From the moment I arrived, my mentor Kathleen Kanaley in Dr. Katie Gold’s Lab was of great assistance. She provided a safe space where I could share my doubts and ideas, allowing me to take the initiative in personal projects and even assist other mentors with their respective endeavors, thereby gaining knowledge in other scientific aspects.
Having the opportunity to work at Cornell Agritech in Geneva, especially in the Gold Lab, I witnessed individuals from different countries coming together at the table, where their viewpoints are accepted. This filled me with pride and made me feel welcomed by all members of the laboratory. Inclusion is ingrained in their culture. As part of the SuMAS program, we explored various aspects of sustainability, enabling me to properly evaluate potential solutions to major issues such as climate change and determine the approach we, as students, should undertake. Thanks to these experiences, I can better prepare myself to be part of the solution and provide opportunities to those who previously lacked them, while promoting the health of the planet, always mindful of its current reality.
Edwin Santana Rivera
From the beginning, coming to Cornell University for an internship felt like an incredible achievement that would help me immensely, just by having this experience in my resume. Now having had this opportunity, the experiences, and the chance to communicate and understand other people’s cultures along with their practices and different ideas, enhanced and opened my mind to a whole new perspective. Having the opportunity to visit and learn about community gardens in New York City, how they play an essential role in the community connecting them to nature, other people, and their culture is something that is not often considered but that we must do to create the agriculture system that is going to feed the world in the future. The community’s support does not only come by having a garden where they have a plot and grow their vegetables; it comes with the help of the community around it.
The CSA and Farmers Market, for example, are two models for how the customers stay connected to farmers and how farmers can compete against more significant markets. It is also important to highlight that systems can change if larger supermarkets are willing to buy fresh, quality food from local farmers. During these six weeks, I worked with “Futuro en Ag,” a program that supports Latino, Latina, and Latinx farmers under the Cornell Small Farms Program. This experience taught me how to reach people, know their backgrounds, and understand their necessities. This perspective widened my view about agriculture by thinking about all the challenges faced in the agricultural sector and how to contribute to a sustainable system that supports not just the local demand, but also the global cause.
How will the students implement what they learned at Cornell in Puerto Rico?
- Ibiza Lebrón gained valuable knowledge about sustainable and environmentally friendly manure management, and her goal is to bring this education back to the island, where there is a clear need to improve manure management techniques. Ibiza, along with Natalia Vargas, propose to implement smaller-scale practices, such as pit storage and covers, more suitable for dairy producers in Puerto Rico, considering the specific scale and climate. Additionally, they suggest implementing an "Anaerobic Digester" on the island to utilize cow manure for producing renewable energy, reducing odors and greenhouse gases, obtaining bedding for cattle, fertilizers for crops, and retaining nitrogen in the residual waste from liquid and solid separators.
- Diego Rodriguez highlighted that his work with the New York State IPM team provided him with different perspectives on pest management, moving away from primarily using agrochemicals and seeking more environmentally friendly solutions for human health and the environment. Sharing this knowledge with farmers in Puerto Rico will offer various options to address problems and more effective ways to control pests, contributing to the development of a more efficient and resilient agriculture on the island. Drawing from Kamille Padilla's experience, she advocates for advanced fungicide management practices and promoting effective solutions through innovative technologies, such as robots using ultraviolet rays to eliminate harmful fungi, inspired by research conducted at Cornell Agritech. “Technology is not a negative aspect about our present, it is our greatest solution to the present problems in agriculture,” she said.
- Sadiel Negrón observed that there are multiple ways to approach a problem, noticing how people applied solutions based on their economic, cultural, practical, or general knowledge backgrounds, leading to diverse approaches to agriculture and research. He learned to make more informed and efficient decisions when evaluating which solutions best fit Puerto Rico's reality. Edwin Santana believes it is crucial to involve students more with farms, providing them with opportunities to gain firsthand experience in agricultural practices and understand the importance of agriculture in their studies. Allowing students to engage in the field will enable them to acquire valuable experience and knowledge, opening more opportunities for their future.
On behalf of all the members of this 2023 cohort, we wanted to thank, from the bottom of our hearts, those people who made this program possible. To Dr. Maricelis Acevedo for giving us her time, her dedication, and the affection of a mother during our stay at Cornell University. To Dr. David Soto Mayor for his efforts and guidance during the preparatory weeks for this program and arrival at Ithaca, New York.
To Dr. Leyda Ponce de Leon, Dr. Angela Linares and graduate student Ricardo Torres for their time and dedication during the teaching days regarding the topics of value-added products, historical perspective of agroecosystems, and performance indicators to assess agricultural sustainability. To Mengzheng Yao for his care and friendship, his time, and his unconditional support towards both the SuMAS program and us the students.
At the same time, we wanted to thank the time, dedication, mentoring, and opportunities provided to us, by the various mentors from the departments we worked with during these six weeks at Cornell. To Dr. Jason Oliver, Dr. Lauren Ray, and the rest of Cornell PRO-DAIRY department members for their hard work in reducing climate impacts across dairy farms. To Dr. Quirine M. Ketterings, Juan Carlos Ramos Tánchez and the rest of the members of the Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP). To Dr. Alejandro Calixto, Dr. Ann Hajek, and the rest of the members of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program for their work in the control of invasive pests to obtain a better management of agricultural systems. To Anu Rangarajan (Latinx Farmer Training Coordinator), Mildred Alvarado (Bilingual Communications Specialist), Timothy W. Shenk (Program Director), and the rest of the members of Cornell Small Farm Program. And to Kathleen Kanaley, Katie Gold, and the rest of the members of Gold Lab in Barton. Thank you all for making this past few weeks’ once’s that we will treasure a lifetime.
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