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Professor Builds UK Connections, Helps Transform Agriculture in Burma

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The University of Kentucky has increased its ability to engage in smart, innovative agricultural development work in countries like Burma, through the return of Brent Rowell as the Extension Specialist in International and Sustainable Horticulture in the UK College of Agriculture.

Rowell began his career at UK as the state extension vegetable crops specialist in the College of Agriculture in 1994, becoming a full professor by 2005. 

Rowell was awarded a Fulbright in 2003 to develop work he had done previously in Thailand to help reduce pesticide use. During his time in Thailand, Rowell visited Burma to see what kind of agricultural work was being done there.

“Burma (also called Myanmar) is a fascinating place, the people are wonderful and easy to work with and there was a real need for help there,” said Rowell. “Once you are involved in that kind of development work abroad you always want to get back to it. I decided Burma is where I would like to work.”

Rowell left UK in 2006 to work for the social enterprise Proximity Designs where he helped transform Burma’s agriculture through an innovative drip-irrigation system (see a video about Rowell’s drip-irrigation system).

Rowell’s immediate goal in his new position at UK is to create a partnership between the UK College of Agriculture and Yezin Agricultural University (YAU) – the only agriculture university in Burma. YAU has the same number of agriculture students as UK, yet they only have 30 faculty, while UK has 285.

“Brent’s efforts in international programs and sustainability are going to bring a lot of attention to our department, and the university,” said UK Department of Horticulture Chair Robert Houtz. “He will be highly visible as the person developing new partnerships with Burma and landing USAID work.”

Rowell has a history of creating meaningful change.

“I originally came to UK in 1994 at the beginning of tobacco diversification and prior to the tobacco buyback,” Rowell said. “Tobacco growers didn’t believe there were any viable alternatives to tobacco, they thought things were going to be great forever.”

To help tobacco farmers transition to vegetable crops, which are a high value alternative, Rowell facilitated on-farm demonstrations of technologies such as drip-irrigation and disease-resistant vegetable varieties.

Rowell and Tim Woods, UK extension professor in agricultural economics, also helped the farmers market their produce through Kentucky’s first Marketing Development Board formed by the commissioner of agriculture. The board helped in the formation of several new marketing co-ops whose work convinced large grocers, such as Kroger and Wal-Mart to carry Kentucky produce. At the time there was very little Kentucky produce in any market.

“This had a long-term impact on Kentucky farmers, it gave them the skill and confidence to grow quality produce suitable for supermarkets; cooling, packing the whole works,” Rowell said.

Rowell’s experience creating change in Kentucky prepared him for his work in Burma.

“The big advantage of a drip irrigation system in Burma is relieving the backbreaking labor,” he said. “It is not uncommon for people to carry 6-10 tons a day. Plus plants grow better with drip irrigation; there is less disease, less soil compaction.”

Still, the farmers in Burma had never seen drip irrigation before, and were resistant to using it.

“Farmers would see it the first time, and say ‘that won't work, you're just dripping a little bit of water, you really need to pour it on, I'm not going to do that.’ It was not intuitive, so we did a tremendous amount of on-farm demonstration for the first couple of years,” Rowell said.

In the first year the demonstrations helped Rowell and his colleagues identify several problems with the system, which includes a tank, pump and drip irrigation.

“We knew there were problems with elevating our foot-powered pumps – they had to be above the tanks, which were also elevated to create pressure for drip-irrigation,” said Rowell. “The first tanks were old 55-gallon oil drums which were too small, difficult to transport and expensive. In subsequent years we developed collapsible 250-gallon tanks or 'water baskets' and easily elevated foot pumps, which made drip irrigation much easier and accelerated adoption.”

After redesigning the drip-irrigation sets, Rowell helped train more than 160 field staff to conduct on-farm demonstrations in their villages and communities across the country. The field staff worked in the villages around where they grew up, were paid a decent wage and were provided with motorbikes to increase their access to farmers.

Although the drip-irrigation sets were very inexpensive, the cost was still beyond many in Burma. To help farmer’s access this technology, Proximity began offering credit on a large scale in 2011.

“This really boosted sales of all our products; without it we wouldn't have done much,” said Rowell. “If you bring technology like that and try to sell it in a country like Burma, you just won’t get anywhere without offering credit.“

By Rowell’s last season, word-of-mouth had spread and there was no longer a need to conduct on-farm demonstrations. In his first year Rowell and his Burmese counterpart personally installed 10 systems; five years later, more than seven thousand have been installed across Burma.

“Rowell’s tremendous work has eased backbreaking labor for thousands, while increasing access to food,” says Gary Gaffield, assistant provost for international partnerships in the UK International Center. “This smart, sustainable, inexpensive and transformative technology is why government agencies like USAID are looking to partner with universities like the University of Kentucky.“