Pura Vida Cultural Connections In Costa Rica

Enrique Villalobos stretches out his arm and points.  He lifts his sunglasses and his eyes meet those of a little girl, barefoot and standing in the doorway of a small, simple home. Located on the outskirts of a large pineapple plantation near San Carlos, Costa Rica, she sees hundreds of visitors touring the Finca Corsicana pineapple fields. He waves. “Hello little one,” he says. “Her life is much different from yours,” he tells an Iowa State student sitting near him on the tractor-driven trolley.

For Villalobos, guiding Iowa State students through Costa Rica is about more than teaching environmental science and soils.  It’s about inspiring love and respect for his home country.

Villalobos (’83 PhD agronomy), a retired agronomy professor from the University of Costa Rica, is the alumni host for an Iowa State study abroad course – Soils, Crops and Water of Costa Rica. Developed in 2006 in partnership with Randy Killorn, emeritus professor of agronomy, the course is led by Lee Burras (’81 agronomy, MS ’84), professor of agronomy.

A guide, interpreter and teacher, “Don Enrique” is the patriarch for a new batch of approximately 25 Iowa State students who visit each spring break.  He and Burras plan the course together, carefully crafting each day to maximize learning, cultural understanding and fun for the students. Burras leads a predeparture course preparing the students for what they will see and experience on the trip.

“It is a pleasure to travel with the Iowa State group. My time at Iowa State was so influential that I enjoy this opportunity to give back and spend time with dear friends from Iowa,” Villalobos says. “I also get to keep learning new things about my home country and share what I know and love about it.”

Villalobos calls upon his former students to host the visiting Iowa Staters.

“Our students love this course because of Dr. Villalobos.  He is Costa Rica’s best ambassador and professor,” says Burras. “Thanks to his recommendations, students may spend their evenings swimming in the Pacific Ocean at the hotel’s beach while we make day trips to see oil palm plantations, rice farms, sugar cane fields and processing plants.”

Ten percent of Costa Rica’s land is devoted to agriculture. Plantation agriculture and sustainable or subsistence farming is practiced in various regions.

“We learn why organic farming is so common in Costa Rica – namely that it is profitable here and considered more environmentally friendly from a cultural perspective,” Burras says.

Circling the central region of the country, students get their hands on a number of agricultural products as well as the volcanic soil it grows in. Coffee is the country’s oldest and largest export. Students also see dairy cows, forage crops, potatoes, flowers and greenhouses in the volcanic ash region. In the lower elevations they see pineapples, citrus, cassava, plantains, bananas and more.

At each stop, students hear directly from experts such as agronomists, organic crop specialists, farmers and agribusiness owners.  They learn about production challenges and management techniques in this fertile, tropical region.

“The faculty on this trip truly made the experience,” says Bailey Morrell, senior in agricultural studies. “Dr. Villalobos is very knowledgeable. Whatever questions we did not ask or did not have time to ask while on our tours, we asked him on the bus rides between stops.”

The course is not limited to agronomy or environmental science majors. “Having students with various backgrounds and interests on the trip was almost as much of an experience as it was being in a different country,” says Morrell.  “Interdisciplinary approaches with regards to agriculture will be paramount to addressing future issues.”

This year the itinerary included a stop at Carlos Rodríguez’s (MS ’08 plant pathology) home to visit his third-generation dairy farm. Rodriquez raises corn, sorghum and soybeans as forage crop – a rarity in Costa Rica – and runs an agronomic consulting and equipment business. The variety of soy he grows is from lines developed by Villalobos. Rodriguez’s cattle also feed on melon and waste from produce processing plants.

Standing on the porch of his family home, built by his grandfather, Rodriquez answered students’ questions.

“How many cows do you have?”

“We milk 180 and have 390 total head – a crossbreed of Gyrolando and Holstein, which is good for this area. We get 1,500 gallons of milk every two days.”

“What’s your largest pest problem?”

“Vampire bats.”

“Vampire bats?”

Rodríguez nods.

Crops are always in season and continually evolving. He says with no winterkill to offer reprieve, crop pests and disease are particularly aggressive in Costa Rica – problems compounded by increasing herbicide resistance.

Villalobos and Burras find learning opportunities at every turn, from pointing out shrubberies on the University of Costa Rica campus, “Look – a legume! Who can tell me how this plant fixes nitrogen?” to giving students a chance to use their Spanish way-finding through San Jose and talking with site hosts.

At age 66, Villalobos matches the students step for step. A student of Dick Shibles, he came to Iowa State to earn his doctorate with the encouragement of his supervisor at the University of Costa Rica.

“Scores of Costa Rican scientists trained at Iowa State University thanks to an anonymous benefactor that supported the partnership beginning in the 1970s,” says Villalobos.

He served as a professor and director of the University of Costa Rica Center for Research in Grains and Seeds (CIGRAS). Among his contributions are the development of soybeans better suited to tropical conditions and more than 20 research publications on tropical crop physiology, genetics and production.

In 2001, Villalobos published an essential and popular Spanish language textbook, “Physiology of Tropical Crop Production.”

Burras says the ultimate legacy of Villalobos’ 32 years at the University of Costa Rica is the impact of his popular, technically rigorous instruction on hundreds of agronomists working throughout Central America.

This year’s trip included a dinner with Iowa State University alumni working and living near San Jose – many at the University of Costa Rica.

“Meeting our alumni was a highlight of the trip for me. It was touching to see how much they loved Iowa State, and I learned so much hearing about their life and careers in Costa Rica,” says Allie Ferguson, junior in agronomy. “It was like we were instant friends.”

Cristobal Montoya Marin (PhD ’82 ag economics) was among the 14 alumni and guests that attended the dinner. He echoed the students’ sentiments, grateful for an evening to celebrate their Iowa State connection.

Adriana Murillo Williams (PhD ’07 crop production and physiology) hosted the event connecting fellow alumni, many former students of Killorn’s as well as Villalobos’. As a professor and director CIGRAS, she holds the same post Villalobos held at the peak of his career (read more about Williams on page 34.)

Burras and Villalobos will welcome their tenth group in March 2015.  Another long-standing course, let by Mark Gleason in plant pathology and microbiology, also travels annually to Costa Rica. Groups from the University of Costa Rica travel to Iowa State University annually as well.

“It is not an overstatement to say Iowa State University made the greatest contribution to the University of Costa Rica’s academic development,” says Villalobos. “Many professors here were trained at Iowa State.”