- Author: Brenda Dawson
At the end of a long year, sometimes it helps to reconnect with what motivates your work.
For Karin Albornoz — a Ph.D. student who works in the Diane Beckles Lab at UC Davis on molecular biology related to tomato postharvest chilling injury — that means getting out into the world to work directly with small-scale farmers.
"I spend so much time in the lab," she said. "Sometimes I spend a whole day in the lab extracting RNA or writing a paper. This reminds me why I am doing this work: to make a real-world impact."
Just over a week ago, she returned from a trip to Uganda where she did exactly that. In partnership with a local organization called Ndibwami Integrated Rescue Project (NIRP), Albornoz shared her expertise with farmers through several hands-on workshops about improving harvest practices and postharvest handling of pineapple, passion fruit and tomatoes. Her work was supported by the Horticulture Innovation Lab, an international agricultural research program led by UC Davis with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative.
Though Albornoz has worked with rural farmers before, this was her first time working in Africa.
"Everywhere I looked, things were growing. There were people working in the field, women cooking, and everyone was working with food," she said. "I know there's a lot of stigma – when you talk about Africa, you see people's faces change and they're thinking about things like drought and famine and starving children. But what I saw doesn't fit that stereotype. The challenges they are facing seem to be about not having access to opportunities."
The workshops she led are part of the NIRP organization's efforts to connect farmers with more lucrative markets that pay higher prices for quality produce.
In this 2-minute video, Karin Albornoz visits a pineapple farm, leads a pineapple training and discusses next steps for this project led by NIRP in Uganda. The video clips and photos were taken by Karin while she was working and edited by Hallie Casey for the Horticulture Innovation Lab.
For months, Albornoz has been in contact with NIRP and making plans for the farmer workshops. She prepared postharvest handling manuals for each crop — pineapple, passion fruit and tomato — and asked questions to better understand local resources and the farmers' existing knowledge.
During her 2 weeks in Uganda, she visited farmers' fields and led three full-day workshops. The first workshop for about 50 farmers focused on pineapple — starting with understanding local quality parameters for this fruit, then best practices for harvesting, sanitation, storage and transportation. The second workshop was focused on tomato, with a similar structure, and the third workshop on passion fruit.
Her favorite moment? The farmers' first chance to use a refractometer, to measure soluble solids and learn about sugar levels in the fruit. The refractometers were part of a small toolkit the organization will continue to use.
"They were excited to handle this device and see, in numbers, how the sugar levels of the fruit changed depending on the stage of maturity," she said. "Everyone in the room had a chance to try it."
The experience reinforced her commitment to working with farmers and solving agricultural problems.
"A major mistake is to think that you are going just to train or teach other people because those people are always going to end up teaching you too," Albornoz said. "I made a promise to myself years ago, a personal commitment to working with people in vulnerable situations. I have to do this. Working in agriculture can be a very powerful tool to have an impact in the world."
As Karin's mentor and an Associate Professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences and Agricultural Experiment Station, Diane Beckles supported Karin's work outside of the lab and views such an experience as important to scholarly development.
"Something magical happens when we teach and engage in outreach," Beckles said. "We often deepen our understanding of what we are teaching, and interacting and engaging with others changes us in that process. It alters how we view and think about science in a way that is positive and rewarding, even though it is not easily quantified."