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Course comparing Indian and U.S. agriculture helps make students and faculty 'globally relevant'

Cornell Chronicle writer Krishna Ramanujan traveled to India last month with the International Agriculture and Rural Development 602 field course. This is the third of five articles from that trip.

On Jan. 7, Cornell and Indian students and faculty crouched with burlap bags in the hot sun to take part in a tea leaf-picking contest at a tea plantation in Ooty, southern India. The exercise offered a sense of the manual labor that goes into processing tea and showed how pickers select only the top three leaves of each tea plant.

This was one of many interactive experiences in India -- other such activities included transplanting rice; plowing and leveling rice fields using bullocks; and weaving on artisan looms -- for 28 Cornell students and 21 Indian students from four universities enrolled in the International Agriculture and Rural Development 602 (IARD 602) field course. As part of the two-module course, both Indian and Cornell students took a prerequisite course (IARD 402) in the fall at their respective universities and then met in India to tour together, Jan. 4-17. They are now preparing and presenting papers related to research from their trips.

The group visited Chennai, Coimbatore, Ooty and Hyderabad to see such agricultural sites as a cut flowers facility, an organic research farm, a Monsanto research facility, a watershed project and village cooperatives. The Indian students had visited Cornell in September for two weeks and toured upstate farms to learn about New York state agriculture.

The 41-year-old course, which has centered on India since 2002, helps make students and faculty "globally relevant," said K.V. Raman, an IARD and plant breeding professor and associate director of international programs in Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

"It is a life-altering experience for most students, as it was for me when I participated in 1969," said Ronnie Coffman (Ph.D. '71), international professor of plant breeding and director of international programs in CALS. "Students are exposed to the many and varied issues of the globalizing economy and international development, broadening their perspective, raising their awareness and inspiring them to engage further as their career evolves."

For example, "in interviews, Cornell students can now talk about international experience" they have gained, Raman said. Also, Cornell faculty members return to Ithaca with "quality lesson plans they can use," and many past IARD instructors have developed collaborations with Indian researchers they met on their trips, Raman added.

Indian agriculture students often come from rural backgrounds where global experiences are limited. Prithwiraj Deb, a master's student in agricultural biotechnology at Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University in Hyderabad, said he and other Indian students who take the IARD course are top students but lack exposure to global perspectives and modern research strategies. The course "made me confident; the exposure was huge," he said.

"Indian students who have done the IARD course think more holistically, and industries here have recognized them," said K. Vijayraghavan, director of Sathguru Management Consulting and regional coordinator for CALS in South Asia. He noted that recent Indian IARD-course graduates got jobs with 50 percent higher pay than their peers.

Along with such tangible advantages the course offers, students also learned about intangibles related to farming in another culture.

"There's a spiritual aspect surrounding agriculture [in India] that you don't find in the U.S.," said Janelle Jung, a Cornell Ph.D. student in plant breeding and genetics.

For example, American students were struck by how Indian agriculture was fused with spirituality. During the Indian harvest festival Pongal, Jan. 14-15, Indians painted patterns in front of their doorways and prayed for their cows, a sacred and necessary animal within Indian culture. Also, rural farmers often schedule new projects and plantings based on astrological signs. And during a trip to the organic Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) Horticultural Research Station in Ooty, the lead investigator there discussed the relationship between cosmic energy and soil health.

Similarly, Indian students were struck by the mechanization and size of American farms. "Small farms in the U.S. were like big farms here in India," Deb said. Tanay Joshi, a master's student in horticulture at Govind Vallabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar, India, said he was astonished by dairy farms with 1,000 cattle and how mechanized American farms operate with "very few laborers for such big farms."

P. Jai Sridhar, a master's student in agricultural extension at TNAU in Coimbatore, noted the soil testing labs and widely available portable soil testing kits in the United States and how advanced technology transfer was in the states. "Each and every farmer [in the U.S.] knows how to operate the Internet, but here, most farmers are illiterate," he said.

During the Indian tour, students focused on one of four areas: agricultural systems; value addition and global marketing; animal sciences; or rural infrastructure and agricultural development, and visited different sites accordingly with faculty experts in that area.

Cornell faculty and staff who took part in the course included Ronnie Coffman, Peter Hobbs, Jane Mt. Pleasant, Baseema Krkoska, K.V. Raman, Anusuya Rangarajan, Syed Rizvi, Anthony Shelton and Miguelina Tabar.

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