Angel recently graduated from N.C. State University with a Ph.D. in Agroecology. She used participatory action research (PAR) to conduct research with smallholder farmers in rural El Salvador. Her three-year research project evaluated the role of sustainable soil management in improving food security for smallholder farming communities. Angel also received her M.S. at N.C. State, where her research focused on soil ecology, specifically looking at the role of mycorrhizae diversity in drought stress on corn.
Angel received a Fulbright Fellowship, a US Borlaug Global Food Security Graduate Research Award, and a CEFS Graduate Student Fellowship to fund her research. Her dissertation will be linked to here once available.
What did your undergraduate/career path look like before you decided to come to NC State University and pursue a Ph.D. in Agroecology?
I had a roundabout path. I grew up in Western North Carolina and my extended family were farmers. I grew up gardening, canning, and surrounded by farming, but I wanted to get away from all that. I chose Furman University because I could play softball there. I completed my undergraduate degree in Ecology. Before my senior year, I had an internship in El Salvador with a non-profit doing sustainable agriculture work in rural communities, and that was a life-changing experience for me. I was so impacted by small farmers, seeing firsthand the impact of climate change, deforestation and poverty on their daily lives.
After graduating I moved back to El Salvador for a few years and worked in a Peace Corps-type program with a local non-profit. While working with farmers, I realized that I wanted to know more about the how and why of sustainable agriculture – we were promoting these practices but I didn’t really understand the “why”.
I decided to apply to graduate school in agriculture and I met Julie Grossman at a Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference and she told me about CEFS and NC State. It worked out for me to come to NC State and work under Michelle (Schroeder-Moreno) in Agroecology. I did a master’s first and then a doctorate. I am really, really happy that it worked out for me to be at NC State but it was not a path I would have imagined at 16.
Why Agroecology as opposed to other majors/fields?
I liked agroecology because it combined my background in Ecology with agriculture and applied the systems thinking of ecology to traditional agricultural research. Also, agroecology is like a social movement that brings together activists and scientists. Partnering activism with science was always a passion of mine, and I wanted to use science to help marginalized small farmers.
Tell me about your time in El Salvador. What was the most valuable thing you learned there? The most surprising?
I spent most of my time in rural villages staying with different families, working with farmers. I had my backpack with a little food, water, and a soil probe. I slept in hammocks almost every night. It was the ultimate adventure! I would never really know what was going to happen next – sometimes it would rain for a week and I’d just be kind of stuck where I was. I needed to have flexible expectations. I got to know these farmers really well – I’d get up with them at 4 am, we’d bathe, wash clothes together, cook together. I went to weddings, funerals, first communions.
I’m still really surprised at how hard it is to do international research – in terms of time, how long everything takes, and the lack of resources available. In the end I didn’t do a lot of lab work in El Salvador and brought most of my lab work back to process in the US, because it would take a week to do a basic pH test, which here you can just do in a few minutes. I was working at the University of El Salvador, the biggest school in the country.
All of my research was self-funded through grants. It really changes your relationship with your research. I had been part of the research from the idea phase to the actual implementation, which made me a lot more committed to seeing it through. It was kind of my baby.
If you could wave a magic wand a change one thing about the food system, what would it be?
If we paid the true price of food – if environmental and carbon costs were included in the price of food. Like bananas, which are so destructive to produce, they are 39 cents a pound! Everyone eats bananas because they are cheap and available in every gas station and grocery store. Because they are so cheap and widely available we don’t even think about where they came from, the farmers who worked to grow them and all the environmental costs of growing them and shipping them around the world. If we paid the true cost of producing food, everyone would be forced to eat more locally and seasonally. It would pretty dramatically change the way we eat.
Tell me about a personal hero of yours and why he/she is your hero.
One, the farmers in El Salvador and smallholder farmers in the tropics are my heroes. There is so much risk to what they do, and you can really see the impacts of climate change on their lives. When I was there one season it didn’t rain, and the farmers re-planted three times, on these crazy slopes. They didn’t have crop insurance and their only option was to keep trying and hoping it would rain. Many of them really try to take care of the soil – because their livelihood depends on it. They plant trees because they know it’s important.
Two, as an undergraduate, I read a lot of Vandana Shiva. She really inspired me because she combines action and science. Also, she proves that you can study something completely different from what you end up doing. I was kind of scared of getting a Ph.D. because I didn’t want to end up in an ivory tower and lose my connections to people.
Vandana Shiva defied so many odds – being an Indian woman and getting a Ph.D. and now being a worldwide writer and activist for sustainable agriculture and small farmers. She has always been an inspiration to me.
What’s next for you?
I got a job in Durham and I’ll be working at DATU Research. It’s a small consulting firm that works on agriculture and climate change projects. My fiancée Sean works at the Soil Health Institute at RTI and we’re going to enjoy being in the same place after I’ve been gone for so long! Who knows what will happen long-term. I really enjoyed teaching and research and hope to stay connected to CEFS.