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Day 7 Rambutan, Cacao and Back to High School

This morning we started off our day by going to the USDA Tropical Agriculture Research Service  (ARS) Station, located right next to the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez.  We met with horticultural plant pathologist, Dr. Brian Irish, who showed us a video about the work they do in the research center and then got a private tour of the grounds.  This was all very fascinating.  In the video we learned about the studies being done by all of the USDA researchers in Puerto Rico.


They own farms on the northern part of the island where they produce many types of crops including corn, bananas, plantains, rambutan, starfruit, sorghum, mamoncillos and many more.  The goal of these farms is to create a collection of germplasm that are accessible around the world.  Although the grounds are not a botanical garden, they consist of over 2,000 permanently established species! Wow!  Dr. Irish let us try a variety of fruits from the trees.  We liked the cacao and the rambutan the most. Cacao is the seed where you get cocoa for making chocolate!


[Dr. Brian Irish of the USDA-ARS in Mayaguez, PR explains the process of turning cacao in the sweet and decadent chocolate that we love.]

After grabbing a bite to eat we took a quick drive though the University.  UPR-Mayaguez is a land-grant university originally established for the study of agriculture, mechanics and military tactics but now offers degree programs common among today’s modern land-grant institutions. We noticed the buildings were all in close proximity and there were numerous tree species on the campus, much like SIU.


[Posing in front of one of the beautiful murals decorating the UPR-Mayaguez’s College of Agricultural Sciences]

Our afternoon consisted of touring and teaching a local school called Escuela de Laura Mercado near San German, PR.  This is a charter agriculture school, grades 7-12, where the students are required to take at least two Ag classes a year.  First we were shown the student’s projects such as small vegetable gardens, recycled bottle greenwalls, and medicinal gardens.  We were also shown the farm where they experimented with coffee, cassava, banana plants, hydroponics and also their school forest.


[High School Ag Teacher, Kenneth Barbosa, shows us the school’s farms. In the background is intercropped bananas, plantains and coffee. The area in the foreground has plastic mulch down to solarize the soil prior to planting.]

Teaching the classes was a little difficult because a majority of the students would only speak Spanish. A few of the students helped out by translating and we were able to have some good conversations about agriculture and Illinois.


[Heather Kiner (ABE) describes Illinois cattle production and agricultural exposition fair system]

By the end of the day we were ready for a nice hearty dinner, so we met up with Kenneth, the high school agroecology educator, for dinner.  He took us to one of his favorite local restaurants in downtown Mayaguez serving a mix of Italian and Puerto Rican foods.  It was so delicious and we were happy to see some Italian food on the menu.


[Our group gives Kenneth Barbosa his very own SIU College of Agricultural Sciences hat for welcoming us to visit his agroecology classroom. l-r Thomas Marten (AGSY ’12 & ABE), Dr. Karen Jones (ANS), Kenneth Barbosa (High School Ag Teacher/FFA Advisor), Claire Mueller (FOR), Heather Kiner (ABE), Morgan Schulte (FOR), Katie Gehrt (AGSY), Ella Herges (ABE), Jalyn Ridgely (ABE) and Daniel Suess (ABE & POLS).]

All in all, it was a very educational day.  We learned a lot on the current research going on in tropical agriculture as well as how agriculture is being taught around the world.  We are sad that our adventures have come to an end as this was out last full day on the island before returning home.

Heather Kiner – Senior, Agribusiness Economics

Mendota, IL

Claire Mueller – Junior, Forestry- Forest Recreation and Park Management

Saint Louis, MO


Day 6 A Whole New Side of Puerto Rico

Today we covered a lot of southwestern Puerto Rico! We started off at the Illinois Crop Improvement Association just outside of Ponce, PR. There we learned that they do a lot of research with corn (including dent and popcorn), soybeans, sunflowers, peanuts, barley, and wheat among other row crops. Here it stays warm all year around so they can have fit several different growing season into one year.
There they also do a lot of manual cross pollination, which is very labor intensive. With corn they have to but a bag over each shot before it silks, and they also put bags over the tassels to prevent volunteer pollination of different corn plants. They also manually cross pollinate soybeans. They do this by taking pollen from the male plant and rubbing it in female flower and tagging which flower the pollinated. We were told that they only need two pods from a plant to make sure that the cross pollination was successful.
They also had a large sunflower production. These sunflowers however are not produced for food like confectionary sunflowers. Instead their primary focus are sunflowers being produced for oil and are being sent to Canada, Mexico, Japan and many more.
Some of the things that I thought were interesting include that they twin rowed their crops for irrigation. They ran drip irrigation lines between every two rows. They also planted everything in a four inch raised bed. We also learned that they have to spray their crops twenty times or more to prevent against disease and insects. They also said that their insect and disease pressure was extremely high because it never gets cold here. Because they are part of the United States they have to meet all USDA regulations and are inspected frequently. They also had to document every planting, every time they sprayed, and when they harvested. Some of the major companies such as Syngenta and Monsanto can rent some of their ground and use it for research.
After we left Illinois Crop Improvement Association we headed to Bosque Estatal de Guanica (Guanica State Forest), which is a dry tropical forest. Some things that we noticed were that the trees were fairly small and were very dense and it was extremely dry. Although there was not much wildlife, we did see a snake.
We left there and headed cattle country. on the way there we saw a funeral procession. Their funeral processions are very different then the ones we typically see state side. In addition to having the normal funeral procession, they have a car at the beginning of the procession that plays music over very loud speakers. Most people here also do not pull over for the funeral procession.
We headed on in to the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center. We learned that they are in a long process of restoration of the land which is now over 1,000 acres. This is home to not only some native birds, but also hundreds of migratory birds including hummingbirds, falcons, owls, ducks, etc.
The wildlife reserve is also home to some natural and artificial salt flats. These are areas where water is let in and then the water is evaporated off and the salt is left behind. This process allows the harvest of prime quality sea salt fresh from the Caribbean.
From there we left and headed to El Faro de Los Morrillos which was a light house on top of cliffs on the southwestern most tip of Puerto Rico. At the base of these cliffs was a beautiful beach called La Playa Sucia. Although in Spanish Sucia means dirty it was probably one of the most pretty beaches that any of us had ever seen. The sand was very soft and white and the water was very blue. We then prepared to return to the hotel with a quick stop to view the sun setting on the Caribbean Sea and a bite to eat at Pollo Tropical (a local fast food chain).
Katie Gehrt, Senior Agricultural Systems
Gifford, Illinois
Ella Herges, Senior Agribusiness Economics
Paxton, Illinois

Day 5 Coffee and Rum (and crazy roads)

Today we packed up all our things, enjoyed one last breakfast in Fajardo and prepared to travel to the West side of the island. On our way, we made a stop at the Bacardi Rum Distillery. The tour began soon after we arrived. We learned about the history of the Bacardi family and the origin of their signature rum.

The tour also covered the run making process and demonstrated how to make a couple mixed drinks. Noting the absence of sugar cane being grown in Puerto Rico, we learned that the sugar cane used in the distillery is mostly sourced from the Dominican Republic and Brazil. The tour ended in the gift shop, of course, and the bar. We all received drinking tickets! Don’t worry it’s the good kind. Two free drinks for everyone, except for Dr. Jones, she was driving.


Today we packed up all our things and prepared to travel to the West side of the island. On our way, we made a stop at the Bacardi Rum Distillery. The tour began soon after we arrived. We learned about the history of the Bacardi family and the origin of their signature rum. It is interesting how in spite of the Cuban Revolution, the Bacardi family persisted to raise their brand into the most successful rum in the world.

The tour also covered the run making process and demonstrated how to make a couple mixed drinks. Noting the absence of sugar cane being grown in Puerto Rico, we learned that the sugar cane used in the distillery is mostly sourced from the Dominican Republic and Brazil. We had the opportunity to compare the variations within the various rums through smelling the rums. Then we got a lesson in the history of rum cocktails including why a rum and coke is called a Cuba Libre, the origins of the mojito and why a daiquiri is called a daiquiri. The tour ended in the gift shop, of course, and the bar. We all received drinking tickets! Don’t worry it’s the good kind. Two free drinks for everyone, except for Dr. Jones, she was driving.


As we traveled out of the eastern part of the island, the ground began to flatten.  We noticed a few Holstein cows and a couple pastures. After a while the mountains began to reappear and we drove on some treacherous and crazy roads, winding all the way down the mountain. Peaking out the van windows we could see vast plantain trees and coffee plants down the mountainside into the valley.  We were looking for a coffee farm and we found one!

Café Oro is a coffee processing plant that gets coffee fruit from many local farmers. One of the employees willingly gave us a tour of the whole place and explained the coffee making process from hand picking to roasting. Thomas Marten, one of our chaperones, did a fine job translating because our guide only spoke Spanish.

The coffee they make is of extremely high quality! The employee giving us the tour is originally from Columbia and controls the quality of Café Oro’s final product. He has spent his whole life immersed in coffee culture and considers himself a professional. He provided us an insight into the production of coffee from harvest to a cup of joe. He shared his views of government subsidies and how they have pros and cons for coffee production. Our group purchased coffee from the plant. With many “Gracias’s” exchanged we headed towards Mayaguez.


[Posing for a quick picture in front of the grinding and packaging machines with our guide and the owner of Cafe Oro]

We arrived safely at our hotel and had a nice Puerto Rican dinner. We are looking forward to meeting the folks at Illinois Crop Improvement Association and learning about current agriculture research this directly benefits the Midwest tomorrow.

Morgan Schulte, Sophomore Forest Hydrology

Breese, IL

Daniel Suess, Freshman Agribuisiness Economics and Political Science

Greenville, IL

Day 4 El Yunque National Tropical Rainforest

!Hola! We spent the day at the only tropical rainforest in the US, El Yunque National Forest. The USDA Forest Service, has managed El Yunque since 1903. From 1933-1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps built recreation sites, trails, and buildings along the main road. El Yunque is one of the most studied rainforests in the world and known as the “cradle of tropical forestry.” The forest is home to around 225 tree species and very little wildlife. Hiking up the mountain, we noticed that the extreme biodiversity wasn’t visually obvious, but the snails were huge!

El  Yunque, as we learned in the visitors center, is the safest rainforest ever! There are no threats of poisonous plants, only 4 species of snakes (none of which are venomous), hardly any insects, and no giant carnivorous animals. Que seguro! The absence of dangerous biota in combination with the gorgeous weather made today a little slice of paradise.


We set out for the highest peak with high hopes and were not disappointed.  The 2.4 mi El Yunque Trail took us on an adventure to the clouds. The weather was absolutely perfecto! The sun was shining most of the day and our sunburns from yesterday were cooled by the gentle breeze. At the top of the peaks the warm wind whipped and made us watch our step. The view from top was unmatchable, stretching from the other peaks to the ocean, cities, and valleys! We made it to the top of El Picacho, Mt. Briton Tower, and El Yunque. By the end of hiking the hills, our legs needed a break.

We all scrambled down the mountain and pilled into the van in search of food! We pulled over at a roadside food stand in the forest, which was surprisingly crowded. I (Morgan) ordered a chicken quesadilla with plantains inside, which was a nice addition. I (Claire) ordered grilled chicken and arroz y habichuelas, yum yum! After our legs got a rest we went hiking again!

We made our way down through the forest a ways to La Mina waterfall. It was a mere 35 minute hike, nothing compared to the 4 hours we hiked earlier today. The waterfall was freezing, but very beautiful. The final hike back to the car was rough. We were a little dehydrated and feeling the twinge of headaches. The billions of stairs (ok maybe that’s an exaggeration) made our thighs burn all the way to the top! Once we made it to the car, everyone passed out for the ride home, except Dr. Jones of course..she was driving.


Claire Mueller, Junior – Forest Recreation and Park Management

St. Louis, MO

Morgan Schulte, Sophomore – Forest Hydrology

Breese, IL

Day 3 Dia de los Reyes

Today was our third day in Puerto Rico. January 6th is a holiday here called Three Kings Day (the Feast of Epiphany)! This is the day that the Three Kings brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. Gifts are often exchanged on this day. Like on Christmas day in Illinois, many of the local business are closed. In fact to our dismay many of the activities that we had planed we had to reschedule for another day.

But no day in an island as beautiful as Puerto Rico can ever be ruined. So after bouncing our schedule around we went to a beautiful beach near Luquillo. Along this beach there were many shops with local merchandise and food. One of our favorite things was a Pina Colada in a coconut. All of the locals were very friendly and helpful. Another thing that we saw were some horses in the bed of a pick-up truck. From what we have seen they do not use trailers here for their livestock.

Tomorrow we will explore the only tropical rainforest in the USDA’s Forest Service – El Yunque. Hasta Luego!

Ella Herges & Katie Gehrt

Paxton, Illinois & Gifford, Illinois

Ella is studying Agribusiness Economics and Katie is studying Agricultural Production.


Puerto Rico Day 2 Living History

Today we began our adventures around Puerto Rico at Old San Juan. We started off by eating at a local bakery called Golden Sweet. It seemed to be a hub spot for the locals and they had many similar breakfast foods as we do. It was interesting actually, as we walked in we ran into an SIU alumni. I suppose you never know where you might see a fellow Saluki!
After breakfast, we drove into San Juan, which is about an hour drive from our hotel in Fajardo. There was much difficulty when we were trying to find a parking spot in Old San Juan, a fifteen passenger van does not exactly fit easily into very many places.
Our first stop of the day was at El Morro. El Morro, also known as El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, is a fort built to protect San Juan Bay’s deep harbor from attack by sea. It took over 200 years to build and the walls, which were extremely thick. It was interesting climbing through the six different levels of the fort and looking out upon the water and historic city.
Our group of 9 split into smaller groups to shop and eat lunch around Old San Juan. There were multiple little shops to walk in and out of that many of the locals ran. Surprisingly, many of the locals wanted to know why we were here and what we were studying. It was a challenge to try and communicate with some of them as for some of them their English is about as good as our Spanish. Most people did speak Spanish but still knew how to understand us in English.
We met up again later in the day at the second fort in Old San Juan called, Castillo de San Cristobal. Castillo de San Cristobal was built over a 150 year period to protect El Morro from land attacks. The two forts are actually connected by a wall that we walked along from Castillo San Cristobal back to El Morro. The views from both forts were incredible and it was quite breath taking looking out at the rest of the city and the Atlantic Ocean. Castillo San Cristobal was last used during World War II when the United States added a watch tower to scope out submarines.
After a day full of walking and climbing, we decided to order a pizza and relax by the Hotel pool for the evening. It was a great first day in Puerto Rico and a great way to learn about the culture of the people. Looking forward to our next adventure!
Jalyn Ridgely & Heather Kiner
Olney, Illinois & Mendota, Illinois
Both studying Agribusiness Economics

The Adventure Begins


Well, the adventure has finally begun! Today we left for Puerto Rico. I have been looking forward to this trip for months, and even after the first day, it has been quite an adventure. Let me say that today was definitely a quite interesting day of travel. Heading to Philadelphia from St. Louis, I had maybe the best flight I have ever had. But from Philadelphia to San Juan, the flight was quite interesting. The few times that I have flown I have had an unusually large amount of bad flights. I have had flights delayed for long periods of time, have had a flight cancelled while I am in a foreign country, but I have never had someone sitting next to me almost die. The flight started fine, I was in the middle seat between two people I didn’t know both of them only spoke Spanish. Half way through the flight there was a medical emergency with one of the other passenger. I can honestly say that was the most peculiar flight that I have ever and probably will ever be on.

After that ordeal, I realized that I was in Puerto Rico. I looked around and noticed it was different than what I expected. It was as if I was in a whole new world. The culture is completely different. Spanish is spoken by everyone while english is spoken fluently by few. I also have noticed many of the drivers have interesting driving habits. We just drove to our hotel and it was a frightening experience.  Driving around looking for our hotel I was able to look at some of the Christmas decorations that were still up and I was a surprised. Along with the traditional Christmas tree there were also nativity scenes every where. While there are a lot of nativity scenes on the mainland as well, there were several that were very large and right next to the highway. It has lead me to assume that the Puerto Ricans are a very religious people.

After safely making it to our hotel, we were able to experience our first island meal. I was excited to taste, what I have heard from several people is, some of the best food on earth. I ordered cassava stuffed chicken, which is chicken with a potato-like root in it, and tostones, which are flattened plantains that are fried and taste similar to french fries. It was really good and I am looking forward to what I am gong to eat next.

I am excited about what the Island has to teach me this week. I am looking forward to learning some of the history behind the Island, as well as, interacting with the locales and learning more about the island’s agriculture industry.

Daniel Suess

Freshman – Agribusiness Economics and Political Science

Greenville, Illinois