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NMSU nurtures Colombian agriculture program

LAS CRUCES – What if young people in rural Colombia chose agriculture over armed conflict? Growing pineapples and cacao instead of coca?

An innovative program at a Colombian university holds out hope for lasting peace in ag education – and New Mexico State University is playing a small part in making that dream a reality.

NMSU and the Universidad de La Salle’s “Utopia” program won a grant last year for an educational exchange that took New Mexico students to Colombia in November and brought Colombian students to Las Cruces last week for educational and cultural exchange and real-life farm troubleshooting.

Utopia is a highly competitive, free, four-year program for young people from conflict-torn regions in Colombia. The rural campus in Yopal hosts nearly 200 students.

Last week, four of them were in Las Cruces. I met them in NMSU professor Blair Stringam’s soil irrigation class, in which students were outside on the lawn measuring the water flow through makeshift drip and spray irrigation systems.

One of the students, Nelson Berdugo, grew up in Colombia’s Meta state – a region suffering from decades of armed conflict paid for by cocaine production. It’s a region notorious for its paramilitary history, he said.

He wants to be a rural extension service worker.

“Agriculture is an important branch of science,” Berdugo told me. “Producing food is the most important thing of all.”

The 26-year-old is finishing his third year and is about to start his final-year project, a requirement of the Utopia program: Students must develop an agricultural project in their region, with the idea of taking ag-based economic development back home. They each receive a $5,000 grant to implement their plan. Berdugo wants to grow pineapple – something to diversify the oil palm fields that dominate his region.

Utopia professor Jorge Triana told me the students “are not obligated to go back to their hometowns, but it’s part of the verbal-ethical agreement between the university and the students.”

“It’s a remarkable, unbelievable thing, a way to change the country and get it back into a positive agriculture-related economy, not a drug-agriculture-related economy,” said Mick O’Neill, an agronomy professor at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center in Farmington. “They become agents of change back in their home area.”

In addition to educational and cultural exchange, NMSU is helping the Utopia program solve a basic problem: how to water the campus cacao and banana orchards during the dry season. Right now, the Colombian students water their fields by hand, carrying buckets to and fro. NMSU is designing an affordable drip irrigation system that, as funding allows, the Colombian students will be able to scale up over time.

Colombia’s violent past is not entirely past: The Colombian government has been in peace talks with FARC rebels since 2012. The two sides have brokered partial deals on land reform, political participation and drug trafficking but have not reached an agreement on disarmament or victims’ rights, according to InSight Crime Foundation, a think tank on organized crime in the Americas.

Sativa Cruz, an NMSU environmental science major from Santa Fe, traveled to Colombia in the fall to visit the Utopia campus, and told me she marveled at the tropical climate and natural resources the students have available to them.

“It was a really beautiful experience,” she said. “I learned a lot about their agriculture situation, how they want to use agriculture to empower people.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at Go to to submit a letter to the editor.