The Relevance of Research: Taking the Classroom to the Mills and Fields of India

by Janae Moore, Sophomore in Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The following post was written by students on an ADM Institute-sponsored observation study tour through India.

Students take notes while interviewing farmers, traders, and local government officials in south India. Credit: ADM Institute/Kari Wozniak

Students take notes while interviewing farmers, traders, and local government officials in south India. Credit: ADM Institute/Kari Wozniak

When I heard about a trip to study agricultural supply chains in India, I jumped at the opportunity. I am a sophomore studying agricultural and biological engineering (ABE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for the past year in my program I have studied how to integrate life systems with engineering to enhance agriculture and create a more sustainable future. A 10-day trip to India would serve, I thought, as a perfect opportunity to see the applications of what I have learned in the classroom firsthand.

I felt the work I had done in my program helped prepare me to observe Indian agricultural processes. I had taken a class on management practices for soil and water conservation. During my freshmen year, my peers and I designed a water distribution system for the university’s South Farm. I also conducted my fair share of research on postharvest loss, the primary topic of our study tour. I watched every video the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss had on the subject. I even interviewed my professor on his research six months before we left for India. But after all my research and learning, the question of how all of it was relevant to me burned in the back of my mind. The issue of postharvest loss was still too distant and far from home.

While visiting a rice mill, students observed losses in the storage facility. Credit: ADM Institute/Kari Wozniak

While visiting a rice mill, students observed losses in the storage facility. Credit: ADM Institute/Kari Wozniak

Once on the trip, that all changed. Two days in Chennai, three mills, four fields, and nine interviews later, postharvest loss really hit home. On our second day in India, we visited a rice trader’s mill. The trader’s facility was one of the best in the village. It included an enormous rice distiller with eight different processes and a six-camera scanner that sorted rice by whiteness. This mill was advanced as it had over $500,000 USD of equipment, a large amount for a mill in such a small village. Despite the technology, the loss of rice was apparent throughout the mill. There was broken and worthless rice discarded in gallon-sized metal containers while lost grain was scattered across the entirety of the floor. If this was one of the better mills the village had to offer, I could only imagine how much grain was lost in smaller mills.

The loss we saw didn’t stop as we observed live grain harvesting later that day. At the site, we could see that a lot of grain was left uncollected by the mechanical harvester. So, we conducted our own experiment in which we collected all the grain that was left in a 36-square-foot area. In just that small space, we collected over 10 stalks of grain. The amount of loss was alarming, enough that I finally understood the relevance of research.

By taking the classroom to the fields and mills of India, I understood why my formal education is relevant to the real world. I saw firsthand the importance of my classes and the role of soil and water management in postharvest loss. Professors in my department work on modeling agricultural systems like those I observed in India, which I now know is important to understanding problems and developing solutions for issues such as postharvest loss. One example of research I now better understand is a project by one of my professors, Dr. Mary-Grace Danao, to develop sensory technology for trucks in Brazil where postharvest loss occurs in transportation stages. With a deeper understanding and a new appreciation of research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, especially at the College of ACES, I am more proud than ever to attend the U of I. After traveling to India, I know that we can change the world.

Janae is a participant in the 2014 Supply Chain Management India study abroad trip organized by the program director in the College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Professor Udatta Palekar. Throughout the 10-day trip, students observe how agricultural products in India move through supply chains from farm to consumer with a special focus on postharvest losses.

More about the trip: 

Edited by K. Wozniak/G. Kenney

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