Indonesia looks nothing like Kentucky.
While the Commonwealth yields tobacco, corn and soybeans, the Southeast Asian islands grow rice, pineapples and coffee. But the obstacles the two regions face are eminently similar: namely, economic and agricultural underdevelopment. Sixty percent of the poorest Indonesians live on small farms. Indonesian farmers use cows to plow their rice paddies. They plant their pineapples and harvest coffee beans by hand.
Experience confronting underdevelopment and limited resources in Eastern Kentucky underscored the University of Kentucky's capacity to generate real, substantive progress in Indonesia — progress that has spanned more than 50 years.
In 1950, after World War II, the foreign aid movement in the United States spurred the involvement of universities as resources for technical assistance. Institutions, land-grant institutions especially, boasted seasoned experience in American development and service to local communities.
However, UK's most important qualifications did not stem from specialization in tropical agriculture or from extensive international experience at the time, but rather from work in Appalachia.
Retired UK professor Herb Massey, from the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, was among the first to go to Indonesia.
"When we got into it in the late '50s; we had almost no faculty members that had experience in developing countries," Massey said. "I had worked a few months in Guatemala, but that was the limit of my experience in developing countries. In the College of Agriculture, though, we have a background of development in the U.S. and working with farmers and helping them improve their practices, so even though it was a very different environment, it wasn't all that strange to us."
As noted in Howard H. Beers' work, "An American Experience in Indonesia," UK's notability in working in Eastern Kentucky provided the institution's fitness for the Indonesian projects:
"Herein lay Kentucky's special qualification. Research in the agricultural experiment station for decades had included projects to serve the development of low-income agriculture and subsistence living, especially in the eastern end of the state — in the Cumberland Plateau and adjacent Appalachian areas."
The University of Kentucky team, the "Kenteam," capitalized upon this experience by beginning grant-funded work to develop two universities: Institut Pertanian Bogor (IPB), the main Indonesian agricultural university and Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) Indonesia's national engineering university.
The costs of the programs were borne through USAID and Indonesian government funds.
"It was quite different from what it would be now," Massey said. "Indonesia at that time was still underdeveloped. It was really like going to a third-world country in many ways. The program that we were involved in had two main components. One was sending UK faculty over there to help teach or do research in some cases. The other purpose, the main purpose, was sending Indonesian faculty members to the U.S. to work on graduate programs of one type or another."
Massey said that the influence of the team's work is still visible today, beyond the fact that IPB and ITB have become two of the nation's top institutions.
"This first program that we worked on was not only important for the people we trained, but for the people they trained back in their university," Massey said. "They were eventually able to make Indonesia self-sufficient in rice production. That was very important at the time because they did not have very many exports, and it was difficult for them to purchase rice abroad. That was a tremendous accomplishment that took place over 10-15 years after the program ended."
UK agricultural economics professor Mike Reed began engaging in Indonesian partnerships in the mid-1990s — partnerships that stem from the groundwork laid by the Kenteam 40 years earlier.
"For a long time, most of the academics at those two universities had UK degrees," Reed said. "After a university becomes involved in something like that and does a good job, it creates a strong tie with administrators in the universities there — you know, it's an alumni tie. So the Indonesians, when they think of collaborations on any academic matter that is outside of Indonesia, they are going to think naturally of the University of Kentucky."
Many of the Indonesians that were trained under the program went on to work in government and higher education. Many of them also continue to collaborate with UK today.
This summer, UK assistant professor in horticulture Krista Jacobsen took a group of eight students on an education abroad experience to Indonesia, funded by an International Science Education grant through the USDA.
"Those early partnerships really allowed these modern programs to happen," Jacobsen said. "Everywhere that we went, we worked with people in-country, and we stayed in homestays in Sumatra, Indonesia. This allowed us to meet a lot of the alums that had come to UK 30 or 40 years ago. Many of them are now in upper-level administration in their universities there, so these new collaborations have really come by way of the old ones."
The students traveled to Sumatra, central Java and south and east Bali as part of two courses, "Tropical Agroecology" and "Sustainable Development in Indonesia." Through lectures from Indonesian experts and fieldwork, students examined the social, environmental and economic dimensions of Indonesian agriculture.
Erica Indiano, a senior sustainable agriculture major from Zionsville, Ind., said finding this UK connection on the other side of the world was "pretty cool."
"It was funny, driving around Sumatra and pulling up into a parking lot and seeing a UK sticker on somebody's car," Indiano said. "But it felt very homey to be with people in Indonesia that had been to UK. There was a lot of UK pride, and we thought, 'OK this is a pretty cool connection.'"
Indiano said that comparing the work she observed in Indonesia and the work she conducts in America has allowed her to understand agriculture in a global context.
"It's weird because I worked with a tractor today, and it was extremely useful and helpful but at the same time, now I truly know that it's not so environmentally helpful," Indiano said. "I go back and forth because there is no way we could ever transplant the work with a tractor that we did today. It would probably take us a week in Indonesia to do what we did today in what maybe took us a half an hour."
Jacobsen said that it's comparisons like this — a global perspective of sustainable agriculture, food security and economic development — that will be so crucial for future scholars in the field of agriculture. The Kenteam established the foundation for these comparisons to be made.
"At that time, there were some really dynamic people at UK that must have been wild and crazy to get us involved in all of this," Reed said. "But that initial commitment has had a huge impact both in Indonesia and at the University of Kentucky."