Cultivating promise

In Iowa, large farms and plentiful fields are often taken for granted, but in some areas of the world, thousands of farmers are struggling to feed their families. Research through the College of Engineering and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is changing the productivity of low yield farms, educating youth, and giving hope back to the people.

Two engineering faculty members, Tom Brumm and Carl Bern, have been working with a team of Iowa State students to utilize their engineering skills to improve the lives of thousands.

The work of Tom Brumm (right) is helping Ugandan farmers solve grain storage problems.

Brumm, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering (ABE), has been working with the ISU Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods and Iowa State students in the past year helping to design a hermetic storage system for the use in the African nation of Uganda.

Uganda’s main problem facing grain storage is insects. “It isn’t unusual to lose 40 percent of the crops because of insects,” Brumm said, explaining Uganda’s storage needs.

Although losing 40 percent of a season’s crops can be bad for business anywhere, in Uganda, even the smallest losses can prove detrimental to survival. Farms in Uganda are small compared to Iowa farms. In Uganda, farms average only 25 bushels of corn per acre. The average farm size is Uganda is four acres compared to the much larger (1,000 acres or more) Iowa farms that are able to produce 200 bushels per acre. Losses of 40 percent can be the difference between having extra corn to sell and going hungry.

Brumm has been working with Bern, university professor in ABE, to create an airtight (hermetic) and insect-resistant storage system for grain. The hermetic storage system is beneficial to farmers in Uganda and other low-income and low-yield farms because of the low residual costs and the system’s safety. Pesticides are not an option in many countries.

“Pesticides are fraught with problems,” Bern said. “They are expensive and dangerous. They have residual costs and insects build up a resistance to some chemicals. The (hermetic) system is very effective, has no residual costs, and no chemicals involved.  When deprived of oxygen, the insects die.”

Brumm and Bern began testing their storage system in Uganda and the outcomes have been positive. While in Uganda, Brumm tested the system, and the storage unit was able to kill 100 percent of the insects after four weeks of being sealed. Bern believes the hermetic system will be a cheap and effective storage system for other farm environments. “We have proven the concept of hermetic storage. Now we need to identify new environments and locations for (the system to be used),” said Bern.

Service learning team partners with Ugandans to educate children

Although Brumm spends time researching grain storage systems, he is also the faculty leader of a bi-national service learning team that is part of an Iowa State’s study abroad program. The program allows undergraduate students from ISU to partner with students from Makerere University in Uganda.

The service learning team is part of a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) program. This is the program’s fifth year and the first year an engineering student has been part of the learning team. Brumm would like to see more contributions to the team from the engineering field. “My hope is that through my involvement, more engineers will participate in this and other global opportunities,” said Brumm.

This multi-disciplinary team works with primary schools in Uganda, helping to teach and oversee school garden programs including planting windbreaks, and building irrigation systems and chicken coops for poultry. The teams work in classrooms teaching math, science, and agriculture and outside the class teaching proper sanitation and hygiene.

Many Ugandans have few resources and even less disposable income, which makes Uganda a place that greatly benefits from the work the students provide. “Uganda has a great need, a fairly stable government and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to partner with,” said Brumm.

Uganda is a country that has been devastated by wars and epidemics. “Their civil war ended in the 1980’s and they have been facing widespread AIDS. There is an entire generation of parents missing,” said Brumm. The service learning team’s work is vital to the survival of the students in Uganda because they don’t have parents to help teach them. “The transmission of knowledge from parents wasn’t there,” Brumm said.

Brumm believes the work he does is helping the people of Uganda and feels it is a direct way to improve human life. Before starting research in Uganda, Brumm realized he could use his skills to help those in need. He was corresponding with farmers in Honduras when he was able to apply his knowledge in a real life situation.

“Farmers in Honduras were having soybean germination problems due to seed storage at elevated temperatures,” he said. Brumm gave the farmers a simple solution and that’s when he realized how he could help. “That was a big light bulb in my head. I have information I think is common knowledge, but what am I doing with it?” Brumm recalled.

Brumm enjoys the challenge he faces when working with the service learning team, but feels that engineers are at their best at solving problems. “The service learning program is great training for what engineers need to do in their professional career. Its like what the dean (of engineering, Jonathan Wickert) always says. Engineers are problem solvers under constraints,” said Brumm.

Brumm wants students to become informed and active around campus and there are opportunities at Iowa State to help make a difference. He said, “Students can get involved with clubs like Engineers Without Borders. There is a student chapter at Iowa State.  They create opportunities for engineering students to get involved in international issues.”

Brumm also encourages students to apply for the Service Learning Program in Uganda. The program accepts applicants from all majors, but preference is given to students with experience in engineering and agriculture-related social sciences. No matter who gets selected, Brumm says he will be back in Uganda soon. “I traveled (to Uganda) in 2009 and 2010 and I will be back June 2011. I’m addicted.”