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Our visit to S.O.S Children’s Village was a very remarkable experience. As a graduate student my research is mainly focused on providing services, such as education, to youth in developing countries. Upon arrival, I was curious and concerned about a few things related to the children’s livelihood. Luckily we were welcomed by a host who was just as concerned for the children. This made me feel a sense of security to know that these children are around people who genuinely care for them.

Initially, upon arrival I was amazed by the community’s structure. The way that the village was set up it made me feel at home, as a visitor. There were multiple housing units but they were all set up in a circle, with the midpoint being the playground where youth interact daily. I know that this may not seem very important but the way a place is designed in very crucial in how welcomed the youth will feel. In my opinion they seemed very comfortable. This was confirmed when the buses from school came back filled with youth and they all met up on the playground to exchange warm welcomes.

Afterward we were taken to an open area, with our host, and encouraged to ask questions. My main concerns were related to the youth exposure to education, and welfare. I was please to find out that youth attended local formal institutions. Although, they are able to attend school with other youth in the community, through further questioning, we found out that teachers in the school system are not offered any additional training on how to encounter the youth of SOS. I think that it is important for teacher to be able to understand the various traumas that these youths face so that they may be able to teach them in effective ways.

Later on, we proceeded to meet one of the families. A typical SOS family is completed with a mother who is responsible for 8-10 children on average. The mothers are offered compensation but it is preferred that a mother does not have children (outside of the village). The logical explanation given by the host is that, they are not in favor of having a mother leave her children to come take care of the children at SOS. We raised a question about the Children at SOS being exposed to a father figure and they acknowledge that they are working towards having father figures a part of the SOS children’s village. One of the ways that children and mothers are paired is based on religion. Although they do not have a household for Muslim children due to the low demand, they have households for other religions. The household that I visited included four children. There were three girls and one boy. The mother that was there was a new mother, their other mother retired. In the home, we were able to see the awards and trophies that the youth had. On the wall in the living room was a photo of a former youth who was awarded for having the highest grades in her school. One of my most cherished memories was being able to exchange childhood games with the youth.

We stayed with the family until it was time for the youth to engage in their daily sports. Some of the Cornell students played soccer with the youth. After a very competitive game of soccer, the Cornell students did not win. My encounter with the youth helped to confirm that the work I am doing in graduate school to help better education for youth in developing nations, is worth it.


As we began our journey into the mountains of Munnar, I was awe struck by the beauty of it all. As far as the eye could see there were rolling hills covered in tea plantations. In a valley between some of the plantations was the Shristi initiative, a program funded by Tata Global Beverages that provides schooling and skill development for the differently-abled children of the local tea plantation workers. The initiative had four different units where differently-abled people were able to work in and make an income. There was a strawberry preserve unit, bakery, paper product plant, and natural dyes lab. Through selling their products, Shristi hopes to become self-sufficient as they don’t always want to depend on funding to stay open. To achieve this goal they hope to expand into online sales so their customer pool will increase. 

Shristi was very interesting to me as it catered to a vastly unrepresented population, and empowered them to become productive members of society. Many teachers remarked that prior to this program students and workers were left alone in their family home all day, but now they were given the opportunity to become educated, gain skills, and socialize in a supportive environment which I feel is hugely important. Also, I enjoyed that the program had a long term plan to become independent from its current funding because often initiatives like these can lose funding over time and be forced to close down, but with the profits from their products Shrist can avoid that fate.

On another note, when coming into Munnar, people around me people were remarking on how it was a biodiversity hotspot. But over the course of our long drive through the mountain range I saw mainly tea plants and when there were forests, they were filled with nonnative plants like eucalyptus, which obviously serves a threat to the native plant populations. While it seems there are conservation efforts here, I am curious on the efforts beyond protecting land from being developed into ag land as the native plants can still be overtaken by the many non-natives in the area. 

Stunning. This word alone describes my overall impression with the region around vibrant Munnar in the Western Ghat mountains, a relatively small mountain town surrounded with tea plantations and forest reserves which are recognized as a UNESCO Global Biodiversity hotspot.  Saturday morning we were surprised to find a line of five 4WD Mahindra Commanders (Indian Jeeps) waiting to take us further into the mountains to the Research and Development Centre of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Co (KDHP). Nearby, a couple of inches of snow had fallen just the day before (!) and as we approached the R & D facility we saw that the tops of some of the tea shrubs had taken on a reddish hue as a result of the frost damage that occurred over the past week. The scenery along our route was truly breathtaking and like no landscape I had ever seen. Cultivation of tea began in this part of India less than 150 years ago, and yet the mountains are literally covered with tea bushes interspersed with silver oak, which provides partial shade to the plants.

The vegetable market in vibrant downtown Munnar
A sample of the astonishing landscape on the way to the tea plantation












Upon arrival at KDHP, we enjoyed an excellent presentation describing the unique company culture.  KDHP is the largest tea company in South India, and it’s extensive land holdings comprise 60,000 acres of tea plantations that yield 25 million kg of leaves per year. The plantations encompass a wide range of microclimates, with the best quality tea growing at the highest elevations with the least annual rainfall. The 11,500 employees are part of a unique participatory management business model and own 55% of the company shares.  The best employees are identified each year and elected to the director’s board to participate in decision making for the company. Employee housing, primary education, and scholarship opportunities are all provided for free.  Employees and local “Muthuvan” tribe members alike are provided with free healthcare.  Altogether, 40,000 people in the area benefit directly or indirectly from the company’s activities.  And, if KDHP’s social mission wasn’t impressive enough, the company has a strong commitment to environmental conservation in the region and encourages biodiversity research and reforestation initiatives.  It’s hard to believe that such a benevolent company exists in today’s world, but KDHP is proof that such a business model can and does work effectively.

The presentation went on to describe the agronomic and biochemical properties of the tea plant.  We learned that the key to robust tea flavor was the high levels of polyphenols in the leaves, which are highest in the top three leaves and emerging buds of the plants. The five different types of tea that were described to us (white, green, oolong, black “orthodox”, and black CTC – “crush, tear, curl”) differed not in their cultivars but in their processing. By processing in different ways, tea leaves are oxidized differently and emit a diverse variety of volatile flavor compounds.  We learned that white tea is a perfect example of a “value-added” product, in that only the topmost leaf is harvested and then minimally processed. Only 400 kg per year of white tea is harvested.  In comparison, classic green tea is collected at the rate of 40-60 kg per day, and is sold at a price approximately a hundred times less than that of white tea. The biochemical properties of each tea are carefully measured with an impressive array of analytical instruments onsite, and tissue culture facilities are available as well.

Students enjoying tea and cake outside the R&D building at KDHP

After the presentation, the group enjoyed some tea and cake before heading out to the tea plantation. The women working in the field demonstrated two alternative harvesting techniques: using their two hands to pluck the top three leaves plus the emerging bud, or by using special shears that had a sort of basket attached to harvest tea leaves more rapidly.  Hand-plucking occurs once every fifteen days, and workers pluck a maximum of 100 tea bushes per day.  The oldest tea bushes on the plantation date to 1877, and these are still producing tea leaves (!), although the more recent plantings yield tea leaves that are more consistent in their overall quality.  After the demonstration, the students paired up for a tea plucking contest! It was a very competitive match, and although most students followed the rules, some of the more unscrupulous students may have colluded with some of the fieldworkers based on the enormous amounts of tea leaves collected by a certain few.

Workers demonstrating tea plucking







Student tea plucking contest!







Tea leaf plucking contest weigh-in







Workers along the road with their harvest







Next, we headed to one of KDHP’s factories to see how CTC tea is processed, which comprises 60% of the company’s sales.  The tea leaves are at 35% moisture when plucked, and upon arrival at the factory they’re first fed through metal rollers to crush the leaves.  Afterwards, they’re placed on mesh to remove the moisture from the crushed leaves using large fans.  This oxidizes the leaves and turns the color from green to black.  As the “fermentation” process proceeds (not “true” fermentation) the leaves are continuously monitored for taste and smell, then the reaction is arrested at 130º C at the appropriate time to retain the desired aroma and flavor.  The leaves are subsequently sorted by size; course tea leaves are preferred in North India and result in a lighter cup of tea, while finer leaves or tea dust is preferred in South India and produces a bolder, darker tea.  The leaves are then quickly vacuum-packed.  Before leaving the factory, tea quality is assessed by tea experts at the company using evaluation parameters such as leaf appearance, tea color (both with and without milk added), and most importantly, taste.

Preparing to test tea quality

Overall, it was a truly fascinating and informative day, and if you ever have the opportunity to visit the Western Ghat mountains, do yourself a favor and experience this naturally beautiful part of the world yourself!

Kevin Ahern, PhD. Student,

Plant Breeding & Genetics




Throughout India, residents celebrate the end of the winter harvest and the beginning of spring. This four day holiday is especially important in southern India where the climate is conducive for winter production of crops. In addition to a special meal of rice and milk, sidewalks, driveways and roads are decorated with colored chalk.


I was intrigued when I learned that we would be visiting an orphanage in Kerala State. For many years I have organized groups of students to work at an orphanage near Antigua, Guatemala, so I was curious about the differences and similarities between orphanages in these two countries. I was mostly struck by the similarities. In both cases, the orphanage housed a little over 100 children, each placed into houses of six to twelve with a house mother for each. Children were delighted to have strangers visit them and they warmed quickly to anyone willing to give them some attention. In both facilities, children were well taken care of and were models for others to emulate. The house mothers in each clearly loved the children. There was not an impression that children were "institutionalized" in the negative sense of the word.

There were some interesting differences, however. In India we were asked not to take photos of the children to respect their privacy. In Guatemala, we were encouraged to take photos, share them with the children, and show them to others back home. The idea was that seeing the children would elicit more support and donations. The children in Guatemala certainly seemed to enjoy being photographed. I suspect the funding model (government vs. private) dictated this policy. Also, in India, visitors from the outside were welcomed but not encouraged to visit so that children would not feel that they were on exhibit. In Guatemala, the funding model was to have a steady stream of visitors helping support the orphanage by making contributions of time, supplies and labor.

In India, children of either gender up to 12 were housed together, based on their religion (Hindu or Christian), and they ate in the house as a family. Indian children were not eligible for adoption once they entered the orphanage. The Guatemalan model housed children based on age and gender (except for infants), and all were assumed to be Christian. All children ate together in a cafeteria. Children could be adopted out of the orphanage to Guatemalan parents, or returned to their biological families if situations improved.

In Guatemala, giving of gifts was encouraged. In India, gifts were not permitted and children were given a regular allowance to purchase what they needed.

Both models seemed to be working well as the children appeared to be happy and well cared for. Of course, managers of both facilities have to be concerned about separation anxiety from frequent but transient visitors, paying for education, and transitioning from the protected environment of the orphanage into the real world. India had the further complication of arranging marriages in some cases. Regardless, we should all celebrate and commend efforts of any private entity or government institution to assist, nurture and provide an environment of love for those who have been abandoned early in life.

Today the Agricultural Systems and Rural Infrastructure groups visited two farms in Manjaly village in Cochin. At the first farm we were able to see a common planting practice of intercropping cowpeas in the banks between the rows of banana plants. We were also able to see and understand the importance of plant breeding and the effects that it has on a community basis.  Two fields of cassava were planted no further than 50ft apart from each other- the first was stricken with cassava mosaic virus that caused the plants to be dwarf and have yellow blotches across all of the foliage. The second field had large and lush foliage that had very little presence of the disease. Cassava Mosaic Virus actively infects susceptible cassava plants and can reduce yields up to 70-80%. Little can be done once the virus takes hold of a plant, therefore preventative measures such as planting resistant varieties is key to controlling the disease.  We learned that the second field with little disease was a farmer breed variety of cassava! With a concentration in plant breeding, I think that this is absolutely amazing that farmers have gained the knowledge of simple genetics and selection processes and have created a variety of cassava that combats the threatening diseases of the areas. Naturally with simple genetic breeding and selections, there are trade-offs that impacted the flavor and yield in exchange for disease resistance and storage quality. Even with these trade-offs, the farmers are able to get almost the same market value for their resistant cassava in comparison to the susceptible cassava.

Cassava leaf infected with Cassava Mosaic Virus.

The second farm that we visited focused mainly on elephant’s foot, one of the many staple tubers that are high in carbohydrates. One of the main problems with eating elephant’s foot is the high levels of calcium oxalate that causes some people to have an allergic reaction from eating the tuber. Some varieties are present that have lower levels of calcium oxalate, but these varieties are not always available to farmers to purchase due to high demand. One of the things that resonated the most with me with this visit is the resilience and dedication that these farmers have to their community and occupation when faced with adversity. In August 2018, these farmers and many villages in Cochin were flooded up to 3 meters high and were evacuated to shelters. One farmer said that when he returned, there was a foot of mud in the first level of his house and snakes and other animals made it their home with the family’s absence. It was astonishing and inspiring to hear that the community came together to help each other with cleaning and repainting to make the muddy houses a home again. Without being told about the flooding, I would have never had guessed that there was a natural disaster three months ago in the village that has bight blue and green houses in the midst of vibrant banana plants and freshly planted fields. I think this is a prime example of how a community can bond and overcome many obstacles- an act of kindness and unity that can be overlooked or forgotten in the states.

Farmer in Manjaly village showing students how to plant elephant's foot yam.

Kaiparamb  is a  village in the thrissur  district in state of Kerala. Being a part of seventh day, IARD 6020 team we visited to the Unni krishna farm he is undergoing organic  cultivation  of different horticultural crops like chili, okra, Egg plant, ash gourd, yard long bean and watermelon( summer).

Interaction with the farmer(unni krishna)

In case of horticultural crops he is mainly growing hybrid seeds which are resistant to pest and diseases developed by TNAU and in paddy the varities are uma and jyothi developed from KAU. Spraying jeevaamrutha and Neem seed kernel extract as a prophylactic spray. Wherein case of pest above ETL( economic threshold level ) going for chemical spray and harvesting the produce  20 days  after spraying and his produce is certified by undergoing pesticide residue analysis thus ensuring quality and supply throughout the year. His produce is being marketed to elite supermarket and fetching an extra profit for his produce.

cultivation of paddy in Low lands


After unni Krishna farm  we were visited to paddy farms grown in areas lying below mean sea level. In month of june the area is flooded due to heavy rain and at the end of august the farmers drains water to the channels which are again utilized for paddy cultivation.

Kerala Agricultural University (Thrissur), January 8th

Today there were trade union strikes across Kerala but this did not delay our scheduled activities- with a police escort from the Joys Palace Hotel we reached Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) before mid-morning.   Upon our arrival we were greeted with introductory remarks by the Vice Chancellor Dr. Chandra Babu, and it was immediately clear that KAU is a premier agricultural institution whose improved crop varieties and extension trainees can be found across Kerala.   From developing the world’s first coconut hybrid with dwarfing genes that reduce the tree height for easier harvests, to introducing the use of biodegradable plastics, KAU is looked upon as a source of agricultural information and technology across India, and internationally.

Ag Systems students visit a vegetable research station- acidic soils in Kerala limit which vegetables can be grown.

The KAU Thrissur campus is sprawling and houses many diverse research stations, which are funded publicly through the state and the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR).  The hot and tropical climate of Kerala and ban on genetic modification of food crops across India pose unique challenges for plant breeders that we do not face across much of the United States.   I was particularly struck by one breeder’s grafting of tomatoes, otherwise susceptible to wilting disease in Kerala, to brinjal (eggplant) rootstocks that confer disease resistance (see photo).   KAU also helps run multiple Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK, Hindi for “Agricultural Dissemination Center”) across Kerala, which conduct frontline demonstrations of proven agricultural technologies and train farmers and self-help-groups (SHG).  We had the opportunity to meet representatives of a women’s SHG, who have received innovative trainings on topics such as integrative farming and formulating biocontrol agents. Integrative farming, which incorporates crop and livestock production in a complimentary and sustainable manor, is not common in the United States but across India is gaining popularity thanks to KVK trainings.

Each research station is run by multiple KAU faculty who conduct their research on local plots and/or in poly-houses. Students here are learning about grafting to rootstocks for disease resistance.
Healthy tomatoes growing in Kerala, thanks to KAU research investigating grafting practices with brinjal rootstocks.










We concluded our visit to KAU sharing tea and snacks with current undergraduate and graduate students. It is encouraging to meet fellow young adults eager to pursue careers in agriculture and make connections across our universities.

The Cornell visit to KAU was written up in The Hindu on page 3! Read more here:

- Ellie Taagen, Cornell Plant Breeding and Genetics PhD student


Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. - Psalm 82:3

To cater to the needs of the needy, orphaned and downtrodden children, Hermann Gmeiner, an Austrian philanthropist, established the first SOS village in 1949 in Imst, Austria. Since then, the organization has been active and expanding throughout the world. At present, SOS Children's Villages is active in over 133 countries with over 500 SOS Children's Villages and 400 SOS Youth Facilities striving for the welfare of the children in need of care and protection.

In India, the organization caters to over 25,000 children and there are 32 SOS Children's Villages in 22 states in India


On the 10th of January, the IARD group of 2019 had an opportunity to visit one of the SOS villages located in Mulayam, thrissur.

Thrissur, also known as Trichur is a hub for economic, educational and cultural activities, where tourism, too plays a vital role in being a source of employment and income generation for many.  Even though the city if progressing, a large portion of people still continue to depend on agriculture and fishing to earn a living. Over the years, the city has seen a rise in the number of people living under poverty. Inspite of attempts to improve the standard of living, but owing to a huge rise in population, there has been an increase in the number of people living in slums and unsound living conditions.

The most affected groups of this condition are women and children, who are seen to be most prone to malnutrition and illnesses such as diarrhoea.

The SOS Children’s Village here started its activities in the year 1983 owing to better the conditions of these women and children. The village mainly takes in children after the age of 5 as before that period, there are possibilities for their adoption. At present, there are over 170 children in 17 family homes, who are living under the care of 11 SOS Mothers, two SOS Aunts and six Mother Trainees.  Each mother gets to take care of 10 children in a single house with all the basic amenities including television sets, refrigerators, and beds to sleep on etc.

The mother basically had to undergo training for two years and only those persons are selected to undergo trainings who has no family of their own or women who do not have the desires to get married. The village mainly consists of Hindu and Christian families. Family is the heart of society. Within a family, each child is protected and enjoys a sense of belonging. Here, children learn values, shares responsibilities and form life-long relationships. A family environment gives them a solid foundation on which to build their lives.

The children all gets proper education, vocational trainings etc. so that they become independent on their own later on in life. The village shelters boys till the age of 12 afterwhich they move to youth houses and all mothers are free to visit their children in the youth house whenever they wish to and so are the youth.

All festivals of national and international importance are celebrated in the village with fervour. On such merry makings, youth, mothers, children and all village co-workers gather together to celebrate; this helps to secure and protect the bond between all mothers and their boys in the youth house.

With the skillset they acquire, the students have to move out of the youth houses at the age of 18 and become independent on their own. This way SOS childrens village shines as a bright light in the otherwise dark futures of the oppressed children which would have been inevitable otherwise.


Manjaly, a tiny village in Ernakulam district of Kerala is transected by the Periyar river which serves as the main source of irrigation water. It is one of the places severely hit by the flood that happened during last year in Kerala. Being the second day of the visit, IARD 6020 team was able to visit the fields in the Manjaly village. Manjaly farmers have many specialities in their cultivation. The main crops cultivated include Banana and tuber crops.

                          In case of banana, the main varieties include Nendran and Robusta. They usually go for intercropping of cowpea (on ridges) in between bananas (on furrows) in order to fix nitrogen in  soil as well as to add on the income even if main crop fails due to any unforeseen reasons. Cowpea plant is even trampled into the soil after harvest as green manure and in the next season the ridges are converted to furrows and vice versa.
                         The second important crop was Cassava (Tapioca). They cultivate usually the local variety, Kottarakkara Local which is comparatively a viral mosaic tolerant variety with appreciable yield. In Manjaly, the cassava is planted on ridges to avoid waterlogging. Another peculiarity of cultivation is about the planting time. Usually planting is done during April and harvested by March. But here they plant during August- September  to avoid waterlogging during monsoon rains in June-July and harvest by May when the price is high.
                         Finally we saw the cultivation of Elephant foot yams (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius). He cultivates the local varieties taken from the high ranges. It is planted in the pits taken in the furrows 4-5 inch deep from the surface soil. He uses corm cuttings with single sprout weighing around a kilogram as the planting material. This can give approximately a 6-7 kg corm at harvest.
Some highlights of farming in Manjaly are the liming practice prior to planting, planting tuber crops especially cassava on ridges, intercropping of cowpea with banana etc. Except for the initial tillage (done by tractor), farmers' employ manual labour for rest of the works. According to the farmer we met, he runs a profitable farming.  Since he is also a member of VFPC-K (Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council- Kerala) he has assured markets for his produce. The farming community in Manjaly suffered heavy losses during the flood and in spite of all that, they are back to the track of farming to meet the ends with great struggle. I am sure my friends from Cornell had a great day in the Manjaly village where they might have traced the path of resurrection.
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