चाय – Tea


I am sitting in the lobby of a hotel that doesn’t have heat save for space heaters in the rooms, and the temperature in Ooty is dropping fast.  The Indians are shivering.  The internet that I had to purchase doesn’t work in my room.  Not that I could get into my room if I wanted to as the hotel won’t give me a key, and my roommate with the key is in a different section of the group on a different schedule.  For the dinner hours (7:30-10:00), the hotel has brought in a guy with a mini electric keyboard.  He’s turned on the automatic background music and has been improvising to the same tune for the past two hours.  There is an actual piano twenty feet to the right of me, but no matter…

A frustrating day.  We took a massive bus up several terrifying switchbacks to the hill station of Ooty within the Nilgiri Hills.  At over 7,000 feet, Ooty was once home to tribal groups before the British took it over and converted it into a vacation destination of sorts during the colonial days.  Today, Ooty is a popular tourist destination as well as a major tea-producing region.

Our first stop in Ooty was a horticultural “research” station.  I’ll use the word research loosely.  The entire time we were there, they couldn’t provide us with any data or experimental evidence for any of the “projects” they were working on.  First we were shown the vast array of herbs that grow in the Nilgiri Hills.  They looked healthy and tasty, but again, the demonstration was devoid of anything pertaining to research.

We were also provided a short introduction to “panchagavya,” an organic “pesticide and fertilizer” made from cow urine, milk, yogurt, butter, and dung.  It’s a traditional concoction that’s been around for some time and is meant to both ward off pests and act as a growth promoter.  The horticultural station we visited promotes it, but when we asked whether they’ve done any studies to understand which components of the mix are doing what to the plants and pests, what microbes and nutrients are involved, etc., they said they hadn’t.  When my professor asked how they know it actually works, our host’s rational was that the farmers are buying it, so it must be good.  Skeptical…


By far the most interesting thing they showed us is their work with cultivating mushrooms.  They designed a method that involves inoculating grains such as millet or sorghum and introducing them to a bag of wet wood chips.  When the mycelium fill the bag, a small hole in the bag can be cut, and mushrooms will start to develop on the outside.

Towards the end of the visit, we hiked up a hill to their vermicompost facility.  We got to see the worms, but again, we didn’t learn a whole lot here.  As far as I could tell, farmers in the area can buy the compost from this facility.  When we asked if they have problems with other insects proliferating in the compost, they said that birds will fly through the windows and eat the worms.  Communication was an issue today.

After leaving the horticulture facility, the same hosts took us to a “tea park” where we had a short tea harvesting competition, although here again we didn’t learn anything about the tea or plantation itself.  We were given mesh bags and twenty minutes to hand harvest, taking only the bud and the first two leaves.  Apparently I was taking my sweet time because I came in last place with 105 grams harvest.  The first place winner harvested over a kilogram.  I’d like to think I was going for quality over quantity.  Actual harvesters earn 4 rupees per kilogram harvested.  Right now there are about 62 rupees in 1 USD.  That means I would have earned just over half of one American cent for twenty minutes of work.  If I had worked an 8 hour day at that pace, I would earn 16 American cents for the day.  Whew!


Hopefully we’ll be learning more about tea production in the area tomorrow when we visit a tea estate.  And believe it or not, tomorrow is our very last day in India.  We’ll have a dinner with a large program (or should I call it a production?) that inevitably we have to put on complete with singing, dancing, and a competitive runway show for the female students in sarees.  There have been a few other elements of this trip that have felt forced and contrived.  Wishing we could simply have a fun night and reflect on all of our experiences together.



पोंगल – Pongal


Pongalo Pongal!  Happy Pongal from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu to those near and far.  Today the Cornell students all had a chance to celebrate Pongal, a traditional Tamil harvest festival, in a village.

Our schedule for this morning read “Pongal celebrations in a village,” so what I took that to mean was that we would go to a village outside of Coimbatore and observe some of the festivities already taking place.  Naturally I was surprised when we arrived at the village and were greeted with this:


The village was in fact putting on the celebrations just for us!  It was an extremely nice gesture, and all of us learned a lot and enjoyed ourselves immensely.  However, the video cameras and excessive fanfare made the whole production feel slightly contrived from time to time.

Regardless, the first activity was a blast!  The villagers picked out five of us girls to prepare the rice in traditional clay pots.  The clay pots were initially adorned with flowers and colored patterns called kolam.  Next, over a fire, the pots were filled with the water that the rice had been soaking in.

Next, the girls coaxed their fires, hoping to have the first pot to boil over.  The overflowing of the pot symbolizes abundance and prosperity.  It is good luck if the pot overflows to the north or the east, so the clever Tamil ladies typically place the pots upon the fires leaning ever so slightly to the northeast.  Here, the first pot boiled over, at which point it is tradition to shout “Pongalo Pongal!”


Sarah, the lucky lady to have the first pot boil over, was rewarded with a beautiful red shawl, which one of the male villagers fixed up into a kind of hair wrap for her.  As it turned out, each of the five ladies received a shawl when their pots boiled over.

Next it was time for Uri Adithal, a kind of south Indian form of a piñata.  A clay pot was affixed between two palms, and the five ladies who helped cook the rice were blindfolded and each took a shot at breaking the pot.

Here is Sarah giving it her best shot.  She actually got fairly close to breaking it!


Unfortunately none of us ladies were able to break the pot.  The president of the local Lions’ Club (that was a surprise) was invited to give it a try, as we were told he has broken many a pot in all his years.  He made it look easy and was rewarded richly.

The festivities devolved into dancing to Tamil tunes, which Peter Davies was happy to engage in.


Finally we had a Silambam performance.  Silambam is a martial art from Tamil Nadu.  The main weapon is a bamboo staff.  I am not sure how common the addition of fire to the ends of the staff is, but it made for an impressive effect.


Lastly, we enjoyed a traditional Pongal meal on a large, green banana leaf.  The traditional Pongal dish is a boil rice cooked with cardamom, jaggery (a molasses-like sugar from sugarcane), raisins, Green gram, and cashew nuts.  I got to practice eating rice with my hands for the first time, a south Indian custom.  Overall I really enjoyed the spicy sambar (the red stuff), but the other items were far too sweet for me.  A young pup in the village feasted on that which I was unable to finish.



Pongalo Pongal!  It was a great experience in the village for all of us.  The Indian students and faculty accompanying us had mentioned they were sad they could not be in their homes sharing the harvest festivities with their families, but at the end of the day today, they all remarked how happy they were to have the opportunity to share Pongal with us.  The farmers in the village were also both proud and overjoyed to be able to share their customs with us.

After lunch at the hotel, the real fun started.  In 2012 a young student named Arun Viswanathan, a Coimbatore native, participated at this very same Cornell agriculture trip.  Soon after he completed a two-year Masters of Professional Science in Food Science at Cornell.  Upon completing his MPS, he had the opportunity to stay at Cornell and pursue a PhD.  Instead he made the decision to return to his home in Tamil Nadu and work for a dairy.  Before long, however, he grew tired of working for someone else and decided to take a leap of faith and pursue his passion: chocolate making.

Arun completed a training program with a Belgium chocolatier in the art of ganache-making.  A ganache is the flavored filling inside of chocolates and pastries.  Arun chose to focus on making quality ganaches to make up for the sub-par quality of chocolate he would be sourcing in India, most of which he buys through Mondelez.  Upon returning to India after his training, he set up shop in none other than his parents’ house and recruited his mother as his one and only trainee.

Arun the chocolatier introducing us to a couple of his ganaches.

Arun the chocolatier introducing us to a couple of his ganaches.

Upon arriving to Arun’s house, we first got to interact with a cacao farmer from the Western Ghat Hills near Coimbatore.  Suffice to say this was the first of many freak outs of the visit.  As I mentioned in my last post, I designed a huge theoretical breeding project for cacao this past semester and have read just about every publication on the species from the last ten years.  This farmer was really amazing!  Initially he wasn’t a farmer, but within the last ten years, he moved back to his father’s farm to cultivate cacao, nutmeg, and coconuts, trying his hand at farming.  He uses an agroforestry system in which coconut occupies the upper canopy, cacao occupies the lower canopy, and nutmeg crops up in the middle.  Despite the prevalence of disease pressure in cacao production, he successfully manages outbreak with biological control.  After harvest, all of the pod shells are fed to a few cows on his farm.  This which the cows do not eat are trampled and fed to vermicultured worms.  The cows are allowed to graze among the trees, which supposedly promotes nutrient addition to the soil via dead roots after the tops of the plants die due to having been eaten by a cow.  The cow dung, cow urine, and vermicultured worms are added to the soil, as well as additional mulch.  All of these inputs act as organic fertilizers to the trees, and the mulch and dead leaves and husks provide integral feed and a home for the tiny flying midges that pollinate cacao.  He’s planted both Forastero, for bulk chocolate production, and Criollo, which is believed to be the original type cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans and makes higher quality chocolate.  Criollo suffers severely from disease and is therefore hardly grown, so I was surprised to hear that his Criollo trees are yielding just as well as his Forasteros.  It would have been great to have a chance to see his farm!

The farmer cut a couple of the pods open for us.  Again, it was incredible to actually see, smell, touch, and even taste that which I had poured so much time and energy into researching.  The pulp-covered beans were very slimy but tasty, and the bitterness wasn’t overwhelming.  Beans from unripened pods were even better because they were more sour and less bitter.

A sliced cacao pod.  The white parts are the pulp.  The brown part is the bean.

A sliced cacao pod. The white parts are the pulp. The brown part is the bean.

The farmer also explained to us about his nutmeg production.  After planting, nutmeg trees need ten years to develop before they produce fruit.  The trouble is nutmeg is diecious.  This means that each tree is either male or female.  Only the female trees can produce fruit, so it takes ten years after planting a seed before you can even find out if you having a fruiting tree!  There would be ways to sex seeds or young plants using relatively simple biotechnology, but unfortunately these haven’t been developed for farmers.  If I ever got a small start of grant for a international agriculture project, I would definitely want to develop this on-farm technology for farmers.

A gorgeous nutmeg fruit.

A gorgeous nutmeg fruit.

Finally it was time to learn about chocolate.  Arun’s mother showed us the inner workings of their mini chocolate factory.  The purchased chocolate is melted down in this giant vat and poured into small molds.  The molds are only filled halfway to allow for the addition of the ganache.  The chocolate towards the outside of the molds solidifies first, so after a few minutes, Arun dumps the still-liquidy center out.  This creates a depression where the ganache can be added.

The last bit of our visit was entirely unexpected.  Arun explained that he’s experimenting with a lot of different ingredients in his ganaches, like saffron and even wasabi.  His desire to be creative made sense to me, but what came next was a huge surprise:

A mini chocolate meal.

A mini chocolate meal.

Arun is also experimenting with incorporating chocolate into food.  The grand finale of this mini chocolate mean was a piece of garlic toast topped with cherry tomatoes, olives, mozzarella cheese, a dab of hot sauce, and of course chocolate.  Believe it or not, it was absolutely fantastic!

At first I thought Arun’s experimentations were strange, but eventually I came to admire his desire to be creative, break with tradition, and invent something completely new and enjoyable.  In a greater context, it was inspiring to see another young person, especially an India, cast off traditional conventions, follow a passion, make something out of himself, and push the boundaries within his industry.  Arun borrowed his motto from the chocolatier he trained with in Belgium: “The more mistakes you make, the more successful you will become.”  This is what are generation needs to do, to create something new.

Well now I am sitting here in bed having skipped dinner due to all the chocolate in my tummy.  We’re off to the hill station of Ooty tomorrow morning so I better get some sleep.  Feeling happy from all the chocolate and cacao and inspired by the driven, resourceful, and risk-taking Arun Viswanathan.




केला – Banana


America, you’re missing out.  I tried a banana today at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University’s (TNAU) banana research garden that tasted like a sweet citrus candy.  Due to short shelf life, this variety is not available for export to the U.S.

Today the agricultural systems group visited the banana breeding and research program at TNAU.  As we pulled up to the grounds, we were greeted by a stunning 114-year-old banyan tree. Ficus Benghalensis, or the Indian banyan, is the national tree of the Republic of India.  Older trees, such as this one, develop aerial prop roots that establish into woody trunks that are almost indistinguishable from the trunk of the tree.  It was fascinating to behold a such a large, powerful tree, and my classmates enjoyed attempting to swing from the aerial prop roots.

Bananas are grown on 70,000 hectares in India, producing 25 million tons annually.  Interestingly, India is the world’s largest producer of bananas, but the vast majority are consumed locally.  A minuscule 1 to 2 percent are exported.  In the United States, we have consumed a variety of banana called Cavendish ever since the 1950’s when the Gros Michel cultivar succumbed to a devastating disease.  In India, however, a wider array of cultivars are available to consumers.  Around 660 cultivars exist in India with 15 to 20 of those under major commercial cultivation.  What’s most notable about the banana in India is that regional preferences in taste, size, color, shape, etc. are static and tend to change very little.  One region may prefer a small, red, sweet variety while a neighboring region might care for a larger, yellow, more acidic variety.  As such, exports of Indian banana are almost impossible, and plant breeders of banana must not alter quality characteristics in any way.  Breeders are therefore focused on introducing traits such as disease resistance into existing regional cultivars.

Banana diversity.

Banana diversity.

In two to three decades of research, banana productivity has nearly doubled to 45 tons per hectare on average currently.  Interestingly, that growth was not achieved three breeding.  Rather, there were three major innovations brought about in banana cultivation that allowed farmers to be more productive:

  1. More plants per acre.  An increase in planting density allowed farmers to get more produce off of the same amount of land.
  2. Tissue culture.  Before tissue culture techniques were developed for banana cultivation systems, corms, or underground stems, were harvested as suckers from existing banana plants and established as new plants (therefore clones).  However, most of the diseases,  in banana affect the corm, so this type of propagation suffered from major disease problems and even spread the disease.  Tissue culture allows near banana plants to be generated from cells.  The new plants develop their own corms, which are inherently disease free.  In this way, much of the disease pressure in banana can be managed.

    Tissue cultured banana plants.

    Tissue cultured banana plants.

  3. Drip irrigation.  Drip has allowed for more sustainable management of water resources.  Additionally, nutrients can be added to the water and applied directly to the base of the plant.  This process is called fertigation.  Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are applied this way.

    Drip irrigation.

    Drip irrigation.

Most varieties require 11 to 13 months for cultivation. After 7 to 8 months, a single bunch of bananas is sent up. This is called “shooting.” Three to 4 months after shooting, the bunch can be harvested. At shooting, however, a single sucker should be left at the base of the plant. After the bunch if harvested, the mother plant should be cut in stages to allow nutrients in the stem to return to the below-ground corm. The leftover sucker will benefit from these nutrients and send up another shoot that can be harvested within 7 to 8 months.

A banana bunch.

A banana bunch.

Breeding in banana is extremely challenging.  Most banana cultivars are triploid, meaning they have three sets of chromosomes.  In general, triploid organisms tend to not produce seed.  When making a cross in banana, seed set is only 1 to 2 percent.

Banana seeds.

Banana seeds.

An additional challenge in breeding is, as mentioned, the static regional preferences of familiar tastes, color, shape, etc.  Therefore, breeders must strive to change traits like disease resistance without changing any of the quality traits.  Molecular markers could help with this, but the low seed set in banana would limit creating the segregating population needed to discover markers.  Instead they develop male parents with high pollen fertility and desirable disease resistance traits and then cross them with existing regional cultivars, hoping that only the disease resistance traits and none of the quality traits from the male parent will be introgressed.  As such, they must approach breeding with brute force.  Out of 15,000 attempts, only 250 have been viable, and out of those, only 4 were found to be commercially desirable.  Talk about a tough, long, and frustrating job!  Transgenics would allow a single trait to be introgressed into an existing regional cultivar without disrupting any of the other characteristics.  When we asked about transgenics, we were told that the station is working to develop the technology, but unfortunately the scientist was unable to say more.

To cross two banana plants, the flower is peeled back to access the pollen.  The collected pollen can be brushed against the female part of the flower, which is at the base of the actual banana.  Each banana has its own female flower.

Male flower parts that carry the pollen.

Male flower parts that carry the pollen.

The station was also experimenting with intercropping banana with sunn hemp.  Sunn hemp is a tropic to subtropic legume that could potentially fix nitrogen in the soil for the banana plants to use, which could theoretically reduce the amount of applied nitrogen required in a plantation.

Intercropping banana with sunn hemp.

Intercropping banana with sunn hemp.

Also on campus was a collection of germplasm growing in the field.  The station does not cryopreserve any of its germplasm, so it continuously grows the accessions in the field, which also opens up the possibility of evaluating them for various agronomic, quality, and disease related traits.  I was excited to find the Gros Michel, the banana my grandparents would have eaten, growing in the field!

The scientist hosting us was kind enough to take us around to view some of the other crops the station is currently doing research on.  I was surprised to find grape among the cultivated crops in this region.  We can grow grapes in Minnesota!

Grape cultivation.

Grape cultivation.

This past semester in my plant breeding methodologies class, I was tasked with designing a breeding program for a crop I was previously unfamiliar with.  I chose cacao and spent several days reading just about all of the scientific literature published in the crop within the past ten years.  You can imagine my excitement when we found cacao trees growing in the field.  Cacao exhibits a characteristic called “cauliflory,” in which the fruits develop directly on the trunks of the trees.

One of the major diseases of cacao that I attempted to combat through my theoretical breeding program is called black pod.  I am no tropical plant pathologist, but I wondered if black pod was what I was seeing here.  It so very exciting to see, smell, and touch in the field that which I had spent so much time researching this past semester!

Possible black pod on cacao?

Possible black pod on cacao?

Other crops we saw in the field today:

Finally, many of us Cornellians got to meet our nemesis for the first time.  In the 1990s, papaya ringspot virus was devastating plantations in Hawaii.  With no known mechanism for resistance in papaya, researchers had to look for alternatives in order to save the islands’ papaya industry.  Dr. Dennis Gosalves of Cornell University introduced a gene fragment from the virus itself into papaya using a gene gun, which was developed by John C. Sanford, also of Cornell University.  The virus-resistant transgenic papaya was deregulated in Hawaii in 1998, saving in the industry.

In India, transgenic papaya has not been deregulated by the government.  Even if it were to be, the biotypes of ringspot viruses in India are different than those in the U.S.  Indian scientists would have to develop their own transgenic papaya but could use essentially the same methodology as was used to create the U.S. type.

Papaya ringspot virus.

Papaya ringspot virus.

In regards to both banana and papaya, here again we see the incredible potential for improvement with the deregulation of transgenic technologies in India.  The more research institutes we visit in India, the more I am amazed by just how different Indian agriculture would look with the deregulation of transgenics.  It also seems that the scientific community is getting to a point where the technologies are completely developed and ready to deploy.  They must simply wait for the government to budge.

Tomorrow morning we will be rising early to bus out to a village to celebrate Pongal, an annual harvest celebration.  Bananas play an integral role in the festivities, so stay tuned to learn about the cultural implications of banana in India.

बाज़ार – Market


Farmers' market scene.

Farmers’ market scene.


I believe this is rice flour.  It's used to create decorations on the ground for festival/religious purposes.

I believe this is rice flour. It’s used to create decorations on the ground for festival/religious purposes.


One bunch of the little roses (on the right) goes for $3 USD.

One bunch of the little roses (on the right) goes for $3 USD.


Fresh pom.

Fresh pom.

Our visit to a Coimbatore farmers’ market was an experience that engaged all of the sense.  We visited a small market that was set up by the government to benefit farmers’ directly.  This was not a wholesale market, so no middleman was involved in the delivery or sales of the goods.  The farmers themselves are unionized and pay a small yearly fee to get guaranteed a place at the market.  They (or their family members) come to the market directly from the farm to sell their goods at fixed prices set by the governing body.  Thus there is not a particularly competitive atmosphere among the sellers.  Any produce left unsold at closing time are picked up for a slightly lower price by the hotels and other institutions that need to buy food in bulk from around Coimbatore.  Anything that is defective is purchased as cattle feed.  With this system, the farmer avoids middleman markups, she doesn’t have to compete with her neighbors on price, and she’s essentially guaranteed a buyer.  Hurrah for development!

A clever side effect of this development scheme was that all of the farmers that we interacted with were so nice.  They were happy to tell us about their farms, introduce us to produce we had never seen before, and, in one case, offer up a sample for free, even though we couldn’t interact with them directly in Tamil.  It was clear from our interactions with them that this government system had helped them immensely.

A farmer gave me a specialty red banana for free!

A farmer gave me a specialty red banana for free!

For me, I just wanted to cruise the market and see all the diversity.  In contrast with typical American cuisine (at least the kind I grew up with), Tamils use such a diversity of crops in cooking.  Here’s a little overview of all the vegetable delights I found throughout the market and how they’re used:

The specialty red bananas!  There was only one farmer in the market who had these, and he only had a small little bunch left.  He saw me admiring them and gave me one for free.  I expect to learn a lot more about them today on our visit to a banana cultivation institute.

Specialty red bananas.

Specialty red bananas.

Banana diversity.  Again, I can’t wait to learn more about all the different kinds today on our next visit.

Lemons and bananas.

Lemons and bananas.

Banana leaves are used in South India to serve and eat food.  Traditionally, a banana leaf is laid on the floor, and all the food is served on top of it.  When the meal is complete, the leaf can simply be disposed of.  I spoke with Akashi, one of the Indian faculty with us about this, and she said that some Indians feel this is more sanitary than using plates and other kitchenwares because the water used to wash them is not clean.

Banana leaf seller.

Banana leaf seller.

Banana stalks.  Who would have guessed!?  These are chopped up and fried, and I had the pleasure of giving them a try while we were staying at ICRISAT last week.  They don’t taste like banana at all and instead are incredibly starchy like a potato.

Banana stalks.  These are cut up and cooked.  They taste starchy like a potato.

Banana stalks. These are cut up and cooked. They taste starchy like a potato.

Banana flower.  Again, I could never have guessed that was what I was looking at.  These are even prepared in Indian cooking.  Akashi mentioned that even the little reproductive parts of the flower on the inside are prepared and consumed.  It was fascinating to learn how each part of the banana is utilized!

What are these called again!?  I had a chance to talk with this farmer directly, and she mentioned that her farm is only about 15 km from the market.

Little onions!  What are those called again???

Little onions! What are those called again???

Pigeonpea.  This is one of the staple crops that the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad focuses on.  It was great to see it at the market because at ICRISAT I only saw it in plant and grain form.  The diversity of colors was beautiful and also indicates that the farmer grows a landrace, a heterogeneous mix of different genotypes, in his fields (in contrary to what we do in the US, ie. one or only a few varieties in one field).

Pigeon pea, one of the crops of interest at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

Pigeonpea, one of the crops of interest at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

“Have you seen squash?” Akashi asked me.  I said, “Yes of course,” but she grabbed my arm and led me over to another farmer’s stall.  This is a squash I have never seen before!  It looked slightly fuzzy or hairy, and when I asked how it was grown, Akashi said that it’s almost like a climbing vine.

They call this a squash.  Apparently it climbs.

They call this a squash. Apparently it climbs.

Coriander, one of the major flavors in Indian cooking.  This farmer said he had two types, a hybrid and a non-hybrid, but Akashi whispered that in fact one was just simply too far matured.  Behind him and to the right are curry leaves, which are found in many curry dishes around India.

Coriander farmer.  Behind him and to the right are curry leaves.

Coriander farmer. Behind him and to the right are curry leaves.

A white radish.  Dr. Davies said these are available at Wegmans and also that this vegetable is commonly used in Japanese cuisine.

White radish.

White radish.

I don’t like eggplant, but these looked delicious.  Cornell University is working to get transgenic eggplant deregulated in India.  Currently, farmers must dip the vegetables in buckets of pesticides several times throughout the growing season, which is safe for neither the consumer or the farmer himself.

Gorgeous eggplant.

Gorgeous eggplant.

Finally we found my favorite stall in the market: the grains!  This seller had a variety of grains, legumes, and spices available for purchase.  Pictured here are millet, sorghum, and mustard.  I purchased a little pack of very fragrant cinnamon bark for about 20 cents from this seller.  My classmates went all out and got big bags of all the Indian spices.  I wish I were that ambitious in the kitchen!

Left: millet. Center: sorghum. Right: mustard.

Left: millet. Center: sorghum. Right: mustard.

The tan, clumpy piles are actually processed tamarind.  I broke off a little piece and tried it for myself.  ><  Extremely sour!

Chillies and some tasty tamarind.

Chillies and some tasty tamarind.

We had a chance to try some of these oranges.  The skins were almost loose around the fruit inside, making it very easy to peel.  Orange breeders around the world take note!  The fruits inside, however, contained a lot of seeds.

Tried some of these.  They were delicious but came with lots of seeds.

Tried some of these. They were delicious but came with lots of seeds.

And finally a toss up!  I don’t remember what this is.  Anyone with a guess is invited post in the comments!

Some kind of squash or cucumber?

Some kind of squash or cucumber?

Oyster mushrooms.  This farmer spoke English.  I asked if they were foraged or cultivated, and he said they’re cultivated and that his farm works with all their own inoculum.

A very happy farmer with his oyster mushrooms.

A very happy farmer with his oyster mushrooms.

After the market, we made our way to a sugarcane breeding institute in Coimbatore.  Sixty percent of the sugarcane in India is processed into white sugar, while the other 40 percent is made into almost a solid molasses called jaggery.  The woman taking us around was an extension agent and therefore not very knowledgeable about breeding or biotechnology.  As such I didn’t get as much out of the visit as I would have liked, but I did leave with a major insight:  Last year India produced a surplus of 2 million tons of sugarcane.  As a breeder with a mantra of “yield, yield, yield,” this statistic made me look at sugarcane improvement from a different angle.  Maybe the cultivars grown in India are productive enough already, and the institute could focus more of their time and energy on improving water-use efficiency.  As we saw in their breeding nursery, the crop is very unproductive with regards to water.

Here’s an album of the institute:

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I’m off to learn about bananas!  Cheers.

ॐ – Aum

Ommmmm!  It was a memorable day for those of us who visited the Isha Foundation’s Isha Yoga Center in the foothills of the Velliangiri Mountains outside of Coimbatore.  The hour long bus ride from our hotel in Coimbatore carried us through vast banana and palm plantations, depositing us at the base of a lush green mountain in front of a large stone gate.  We had no idea what to expect once inside!

The Isha Foundation is actually a non-profit, non-religious organization founded by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, who is a 57-year-old Indian yogi and mystic.  The foundation operates two centers for yoga: one outside Coimbatore and one in McMinnville, Tennessee.  The centers are run entirely by volunteers (some of whom are foreign) and are visited by thousands of practitioners each week.

Once inside the gate, we were informed immediately that photography is prohibited, so all images included here (except for the first one below that I snuck on my way out!) are from the internet (sources are included).  At the reception area, we checked our cameras, cell phones, and shoes before entering the ashram and being briefed on how to participate.

Immediately when you walk in, there is a large copper almost roof-like structure that covers a huge bathing pool with a “sacred ellipsoid” in the center.  The pool is called the “Theerthakund,” and wetting one’s body in it makes the practitioner more receptive to energies.  The Theerthakund was our first stop at the Isha Yoga Center.

The copper roof covering the gents' Theerthakund pool.

The copper roof covering the gents’ Theerthakund pool.

First of all, there are separate ladies and gents Theerthakunds at the Isha Yoga Center.  We were herded into a small changing room and handed a heavy, faded, and very damp orange gown.  We were instructed to change and take a quick shower before entering the Theerthakund.  Wet, chilly, and feeling awkward in the heavy orange gowns, we made our way down the stone steps to the Theerthakund tank.

The Theerthakund pool. Source: http://www.dhyanalinga.org/theerthakund.htm.

Wow, it was such a beautiful place.  The ceiling was painted with a colorful, spiritual mural.  The water was crystal clear, and at one end of the pool a gentle waterfall replenished the tank.  In the center, the sacred ellipsoid was anchored, submerged under the water.  I can’t really describe what it felt like to descend into the water.  It was so cold but not cold like getting into Lake Superior in the summer, where it’s so frigid you almost can’t stand it and your bones ache.  It was sort of a kind of cold that makes your body breathe very deeply.  The air felt heavy and extra oxygenated, and it filled up my lungs with a very full sort of feeling.  It felt amazing!  Breathing had perhaps never felt so good before.  First I made my way over to stand underneath the waterfall before joining a line of my classmates and other Indian ladies to touch the ellipsoid and complete a tradition dunk underneath the water.

Feeling reinvigorated and ready for meditation, we headed to the Dhyanalinga yogic temple.  The dome-shaped temple was constructed from burnt clay bricks and houses a “lingam,” a great ellipsoidal stone that essentially represents God.  In Hinduism, the lingam typically represents Shiva; however, since the Isha Foundation is technically non-denominational, the lingam generally represents the energy of a higher being.  Practitioners enter and exit the temple at the sound of a bell and sit on the stone floor around the lingam.

At 11:50, we arrived at the Dhyanalinga for an “offering of sound.”  We took our seats on the stone floor, closed our eyes, and meditated to the sounds of vocals and singing bowls.  The music was beautiful and mysterious, but afterwards we all agreed that we weren’t that successful at meditating.  There were so many people in the temple for the service that it seemed somebody had to cough every two seconds or so.  The man sitting about three inches in front of me was also having periodic spiritual convulsions, which made for an interesting practice to say the least.

The lingam inside the Dhyanalinga yogic temple. Source: http://cdn.isha.ws/images/stories/newsletter/2009/apr/pancha11.jpg.

Afterwards we made our way to a separate meditation hall for an “Aumkar” meditation.  We filed into the hall and were directed to separate male and female carpets on the floor.  To start, a video of the Sadhguru giving an explanation of the Aumkar was shown in both Tamil and English.  So what is Aumkar?  The guru explained that there are three universal sounds that can be made without the movement of the tongue, and those are “ahhh,” “ohhh,” and “mmm.”  Basically, if you begin with an open mouth saying “ahhh,” you can transition through “ohhh” to “mmm” by simply closing your mouth slowly.  The transition is to be made within one breath and then repeated.  The meditation should happen naturally as your body becomes in turn with the vibrations.  The guru recommends a minimum of twenty minutes of chanting twice a day and claims to have known many people who were able to stop taking psychiatric drugs after adding Aum to their daily routine.

First, let me say this: the floor we were sitting on was hard.  All of my classmates and I spent the first couple of minutes or so trying in vain to find a comfortable position on the floor.  I would even go as far as saying it was painful, especially after having done a sit already in the Dhyanalinga.  It was so distracting!  As the leader chanted by himself for the first half, my mantra was, “When is this over?  When is this over?  When is this over?”

Finally we were invited to chant Aum along with the leader.  I didn’t have any strong feelings at first as I was still distracted by the pain.  But slowly but surely, the chanting, particularly the coordination of the chanting with the breath, took over my consciousness.  I became acutely aware of the vibrations quivering from my chest, through my throat, and out my nose and mouth.  I could really feel all parts of my system vibrating!  It was an entirely new human experience for me.  The pain soon melted away, and I left the hall feeling really energized!  It was a great experience.

Interestingly, quite a few of the volunteers herding practitioners in and out of the halls were caucasian foreigners.  Honestly, they really gave the place an Elizabeth Gilbert “Eat Pray Love” vibe.  While today was a great experience for us, I hope the regular attendees of the Isha Yoga Center saw us as people who are genuinely interested in learning about this thing and not as rich white Americans who have come to exploit India in order to “find ourselves.”

That’s all for today folks.  I’ll be back to talking about agriculture (sugarcane!) tomorrow.  In the meantime, ommmmm…

लडकियाँ – Girls

Greetings from Tamil Nadu!  The group got off to a bit of a rocky start this morning when our bus drive got lost on the way to the airport from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.  One of our trip organizers bribed the guards at the airport to let our huge coach bus pull up right in front of the door to save time.  The flight we were on was to Bangalore and would then carry on to Cochin.  We were to get off in Bangalore and change planes to go to Coimbatore, but while we were on the ground in Bangalore, the flight crew decided enough people on the plane were continuing on to Coimbatore, so our plane went there instead while all the Cochin-bound folks had to change planes.  It was a dicey morning.

After settling in to the posh Aloft hotel (there is an Aloft hotel on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis!), we got on a bus to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU).  TNAU is regarded as the best agricultural university in India and has been around for over a decade.


Our first stop was the brand new agricultural nanotechnology building.  Now I’ll admit, I had no idea nanotechnology had any application in agriculture, but apparently it does, and the center owned $2 million USD of equipment to prove it, including this fancy scanning electron microscope.

Scanning electron microscope.

Scanning electron microscope.

At the center, they’re working on a nitrogen fertilizer that adheres to nano-particles and is slow-released over the course of 40 days as compared to the 5-day release period for conventional urea.  The main problem is that nano-particles are dangerous to handle because they can be damaging if breathed in.  Our hosts argued that the particles could be adhered to the seed as a seed treatment, but if that were the case, my guess is that the nitrogen wouldn’t be able to disperse well once the plant grows roots downward.  Unfortunately the researchers didn’t have any definitive results to show us yet as they are unable to conduct field trials due to government regulations.

Next we heard about a nano-particle spray that can be applied in the field prior to harvest and a nano-particle fiber that can be included in produce packaging to extend the shelf life of produce.  Both the spray and the fiber contain the same compound that inhibits an enzyme that causes cell wall degradation.  The machine below is shooting nano-fibers out of a syringe to form a sort of fiber-based film, a square centimeter of which can be stuck on to the inside of fruit shipping packaging and will slow-release the compound over time.

Nano-particle fiber containing a cell-wall degradation-inhibiting compound.

Nano-particle fiber containing a cell-wall degradation-inhibiting compound.

The issue with this product is that a similar product has already been developed and has been used in the production of many horticultural crops for quite some time now.  Apples, tomatoes, bananas, melons, etc. are exposed to the gaseous MCP, which binds to the receptors in plants that typically bind the gaseous ripening hormone ethylene.  This allows fruits and vegetables to stay fresh for longer, and the technology has been approved and accepted in 34 countries.  The researchers at the nano-tech center argued that some countries have banned MCP for its potentially dangerous residues, but our Cornell faculty were convinced that no residues were ever found, calling into question to purpose of this research.

Our next stop was a visit with the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology & Biotechnology at TNAU.  The department head gave a swift introduction, preferring to gloss over the details of their research programs in favor of talking about the various awards TNAU has won and all of the prestigious universities around the world at which their previous students are now completing PhDs.  It was frustrating because I really had a genuine interest in learning more about the research they’re doing.


During the question and answer portion, I asked the department head about how research programs are funded.  He gave a long answer but included a bit at the end about how there are lots of fellowships available from different organizations for female students in particular.  I followed up with the question of what percentage of students and faculty are women.  In the department, a whopping 75 percent of the students are women!  They didn’t answer about faculty, but when I pushed them, they said it was 25 percent, which I have a hard time believing based on what we saw today.  After the talk we had the chance to interact with several undergraduate and graduate students.  Of the Indian students, the conversation was dominated by three males.  When we specifically directed a question at a group of three female graduate students (the question was quite simply “Do you come from a farming background?”), they would not answer or would do so very timidly.

Here’s the deal.  To quote Beyonce, “Who run the world?  Girls.”  That’s just it.  Women are excelling far beyond men in education by a long shot, and it couldn’t be more evident than in TNAU’s biotechnology program.  I read a great article about this phenomenon recently in the Atlantic.  And yet we’re still not making those same gains on men when it comes to higher level positions, ie. professorships at TNAU.  This is the topic of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and is also an issue I am extremely passionate about.  Growing up I didn’t have any female role models (in terms of career).  By the time I arrived at the University of Minnesota, that still hadn’t changed as all of my plant breeding and genetics faculty were men.  To this day, my agricultural heroes and those I respect most within my industry are still men.  Sometimes it’s hard to see how I’m going to balance my professional and personal life goals when so many women before me didn’t.  And it occurred to me that the TNAU girls are probably going through a lot of the same struggles, and they’re up against even more with the cultural expectation in India for wives to move in with the husband’s family.  I wish I could empower them to have more of a voice as graduate students.  If my career actually works out, I hope to be a mentor for other young women in STEM.

With all of that said, I just want to take my last few minutes tonight to rave about the group of girls I am experiencing India with.  Our class was split into three groups for the trip, and my group, “agricultural systems,” is all ladies (girls run the world, remember?).  These girls are amazing.  The five of us together are like a sledgehammer busting into the agricultural problems and challenges facing today’s world.  Elizabeth, an international agriculture and rural development major, is from an organic farm in Princeton, Minnesota and already has a job lined up for after graduation with Syngenta seed production on the island of Kauai.  Did I mention she interned for the Food and Agriculture Organization in Cuba?  Clare is a senior animal science major from a dairy farm near Rochester, New York, who wants to work in semen sales within the livestock genetics industry.  She aspires to one day own her own farm and her own business.  Megan grew up on Staten Island, and her parents are from Hong Kong.  Despite growing up in New York City, she too is an animal science major and has already been accepted into veterinary programs at Cornell and Colorado State.  Though she always wanted to be a vet, it wasn’t until she arrived at Cornell and learned more about farm animals that she began to take an interest in agriculture and food security.  She wants to incorporate human health into her degree program by completing a joint veterinary-Masters of Public Health professional program.  And finally, Taylor grew up on an organic farm in Alaska.  Her family was part of a highway patrol program in which roadkill moose would get dropped off at her doorstep.  She knows how to process a moose, fix a truck, and fish salmon.  During the summers she returns to Alaska to work on her boyfriend’s salmon fishing boat and is interested in working with fishery sustainability after graduation.  She’s also visited more countries than maybe anyone I know.

These ladies are career women.  They are all going to have amazing careers after this, and they are all going to make impacts in their respective areas.  I just didn’t have this kind of group when I was at Minnesota.  It’s inspiring to just be around them, as I’ve never spent this much time around a group of girls so driven, insightful, articulate, and uninhibited.  I’m so glad to have gone on this trip and had the time to connect with them before they take their leaves from Cornell this spring and embark on what I know will be productive careers.


Finally for a bit of fun: tonight we talked to a tea trader who tastes 250 to 300 different teas everyday in his line of work.  As part of his job, he runs tea auctions.  Here’s our group participating in a mock tea auction:

पानी – Water

IMG_5945 This morning we took a bus about a half hour away to the village of Kothapally within the Adarsha watershed district.  From 1999 to 2003, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics ran a program in which development workers helped the village elect and assemble its own watershed management committee to organize the improvement of water infrastructure in the area with the help of $20,000 USD from the Indian government.  This program was made to be 100 percent participatory to encourage villagers to take initiative and responsibility around water management so that when the program ended in 2003, the watershed system set up would be maintained.  Five-hundred and fifty households across 500 hectares became involved in management of the watershed, and 50 percent of the elected watershed committee members were female. Twelve years after the end of ICRISAT’s program in the area, we got to see how the community had continued the management of the watershed and what they were doing today to improve their own infrastructure.

Talking with the head of the watershed management committee.

Talking with the head of the watershed management committee.

First we visited a mini percolation tank that was built by the villagers.  This may not look like much in the photo, but the land was contoured and stones and plants were added to cause water to collect in a basin rather than run off away from the fields.  The water that collects here is not used directly for agriculture and other uses.  Instead it is allowed to absorb back into the earth where it collects as groundwater and is later used for agriculture through wells.  These types of percolation systems reduce the risk of the water table receding and act as erosion control.

The stones and agave plants act as a wall of the percolation tank.

The stones and agave plants act as a wall of the percolation tank.

The groundwater replenished by the percolation tank is accessible by a nearby bore well.  These bore wells are common in India, and in places like Punjab and Haryana, excessive pumping of water for irrigation has lowered the water table to dangerous levels.


A typical bore well.

The next type of well we saw was an open-faced well, again constructed through the watershed project.  This year the area has been receiving only 40 percent of the average annual rainfall, and as a result, the well contained only a small amount of water.  A pipe connected the well to nearby BT cotton fields, which had already been harvested for the year but still looked as though they may have suffered from drought and heat.  In general, bore wells are more popular than open-faced wells because they are cheaper and can be made deeper more easily.

Next we visited a farmer’s fields who had benefitted from the water infrastructure.  He was growing many different crops on his farm including BT cotton, cabbage, cauliflower, chickpea, tomatoes, and sorghum.  All looked very productive.  We were interested to discover that typically during the dry season, farmers in the area are limited in what they can grow if they can grow at all.  The water infrastructure construct by the water infrastructure project has given this farmer the ability to grow vegetables in the winter.  The infrastructure reduces risk where there was too great of risk before to have great confidence in winter sown-crops.

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A dam behind the farmer’s field controls water flow in the area and ensures that other farmers in the area also have access.  One of the keys to success in a participatory program is to make sure that all participants are receiving benefits from the program.

A cement dam.

A cement dam.

Finally the farmer demonstrated his irrigation system to us.  He has an open-faced well on his property from which he can pump water for irrigation.  It accumulates in these concrete basins and then flows over into irrigation channels.  He also had drip tape and other tubing on his farm for more controlled delivery of the water.

As silly as this may sound, visiting that farmer’s farm today really helped me cultivate respect for rural farming in undeveloped countries, particularly in the drylands.  I am not a farmer and have not spent much time on farms outside of those used for research.  The farmer we visited has little mechanization available to him and does all harvesting by hand.  Although he is a smallholder with only six or seven acres, the amount of produce he and his family must harvest was really astounding to me.  It made me realize just how hard farming is in this area and gave me true respect for the people doing it.  I couldn’t get the idea of how difficult his family’s lives must be to farm this large area without mechanization out of my head, but then I was reminded that the watershed project has drastically improved the livelihoods of this family and other farmers’ families and that their situations are actually much better than they were before.  It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me. Lastly, we ventured into the village to visit a wastewater treatment system.  We encountered a school with a weather station, lots of animal agriculture, and a man enthusiastically explaining how to role a cigarette with the local ingredients along the way.

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A small channel moved wastewater from the city through the wastewater treatment system.  The system was planted with grasses and other benefit species meant to help purify the soil.  At the end of the system, cleaner water collects at the bottom of a small dam.

Here again I couldn’t think stop thinking about how much garbage was lining the water treatment way.  I couldn’t imagine the water was getting very clean with the amount of trash lining it.  But here again I was reminded that the water at the end of the wastewater treatment system is much cleaner than the water would be without the system.  I think for me, I could only see the challenges in the village, the challenges of day-to-day life with limited income, limited safe food and water, and a harsh and increasingly fragile environment.  I was so distracted by those issues that I was again overlooking all the progress that had been made by the watershed project.  It was again an eye-opening experience for me. I was impressed to see that the villagers were still working away to upkeep the watershed infrastructure in their village even 12 years after ICRISAT pulled its involvement.  Some of my colleagues got to talk to a farmer who had since built a house with all the extra income he earned from being able to grow BT cotton with irrigation.  As hard as it was for me to see, Kothapally was a development success story, and I hope the government of India will take notice.  Although $20,000 seemed like a lot to me initially, it wouldn’t take much to jump start development through water infrastructure through India. I was glad to visit Kothapally today to start thinking outside of my plant breeding pigeonhole at more systems-based approaches to solve rural poverty issues.