CIPA goes abroad: Reflections from SMART in Colombia

At CIPA, students enjoy a host of opportunities to get involved in hands-on experiential learning. One such opportunity is the Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Team program (SMART), which is led by the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. The SMART Program brings together teams of students and faculty from different programs and pairs them with firms, organizations, or community groups located in developing countries or developing communities. These hands-on projects challenge students to apply the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom in real world settings. This winter break, CIPA students participating in SMART traveled to research locations in Colombia, Kenya, Louisiana, Rwanda, and South Africa. In this post in our series about SMART projects, we have reflections from Lizzy who traveled to Colombia to do research on sustainable transitions into organic coffee farming. 

Sustainable coffee in Cauca, Colombia

SMART Participant:

Elizabeth (Lizzy) Sweitzer, International Development, 2018

What was your project?

My SMART group worked with the FCC (Federacion Campesino de Cauca) in Cauca, Colombia focusing on an evaluation of crop and soil status of coffee farms within the cooperative. The demand for soil analysis comes at a time when the cooperative is considering a transition to organic farming systems in order to become certified organic. The FCC, farmers, and other stakeholders have expressed the need for effective and low-cost monitoring metrics to make more informed decisions about their production regimes and farm management.

What was your role in the project? 

We compared coffee crops, which are grown using conventional methods against those which have already transitioned to organic methods, in order to determine relative health of the crops and soil using surveys and soil  health analysis; we will continue to analyze this data throughout spring semester. The goal of these analyses is to determine whether a transition to organic methods would be more beneficial for farmers, increase production or labor efficiency, or enhance beneficial soil qualities in a different way than the conventional methods. The analysis also aims to address the ramifications of such a transition.

I helped with this project by conducting interviews with farmers to understand production, best practices, and constraints to farming. I am also in charge of completing cost-benefit analysis and creating resources to allow for low-cost monitoring systems. This involved developing a register of farming activities, labor, costs of input and time, and overall production to help producers track resources and analyze efficiency for farmers to use.

Testing soil pH on Yaneth’s coffee farm
Lizzy and her SMART team
Lizzy and her SMART team

Further, with the production of low-cost monitoring systems, the improvement of metrics for long-term evaluation would be more feasible. This semester, I will continue this work by taking raw data from our soil sample tests to generate findings and run regression analysis to see if we can find a correlation between particular farming methods and soil health and output.

What was your favorite part of the trip?

Lizzy and team member Jenny speaking with Don Martin about his transition into organic farming

I loved meeting farmers in the rural zones of Colombia. The views from the farms were simply breath-taking, and the farmers themselves were incredibly kind and hospitable. The vast majority of farmers we interviewed lived at their farms. When we visited for interviews, they welcomed us into their homes, offered us homemade snacks, coffee, even meals!

What did you learn, or what surprised you?

I learned so much about soil health, community knowledge, and social capital. What surprised me was that, while our original metrics for success were based on a cost-benefit matrix involving soil health and the farms’ overall profit, we came to realize through interviews and talking more with farmers that many of them weren’t interested in profits per say. Instead, they were concerned that their coffee generated a sustainable business, promoted environmentally sustainable practices, and supported the well-being of their family. We are now considering the possibility of future projects to measure farmers’ level of contentment and the value of social capital, alongside soil health.

To see more from this trip, visit our blog:

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