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One of the most complex agricultural and natural resources challenges of our time is sustainably feeding the world while at the same time conserving biodiversity and the natural environment. We are working in Belize with community agriculture and conservation partners to improve understanding of sustainable approaches to address this challenge.
To develop leaders in agriculture and natural resources research and extension who can synthesize the complexity of agricultural systems to keep US agriculture at the forefront of addressing sustainable global food security. 

Our 3-year experiential research and extension project brings together 14 undergraduate students and 10 mentors to investigate smallholder farms practicing conservation, adjacent to the Vaca Forest Reserve in Belize. Through the project, we train students through one-on-one student-mentor focused projects,  which have both a research and extension component. Selected students conduct research in their first summer in Belize, and follow this with outreach and extension of their research in Belize in their second summer on the project. We are conducting projects on crop production and soils, social and economic systems, and wildlife, forestry, and ecosystem services. For more information, read the March 2017 UT press release.

A highly trained corps of skilled undergraduates, equipped with technical ​and cultural competency to solve challenges facing global and domestic agriculture and natural resources.

USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA): Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduates Fellowship Program, Grant #2016-06392.

The funded period of the project is January 1, 2017 - December 31, 2019.

Students and Projects

2017-2018 Student Fellows

Becker (002).pngElizabeth Becker- a sophomore attending SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is majoring in Environmental Analysis and minoring in Chemistry. She has an interest in ecological restoration and traditional agroforestry systems. Liz is mentored by Dr. David Butler​.

Franks4.pngAndrew Franks- a sophomore majoring in Forestry with a concentration in Restoration and Conservation Science along with an International Agriculture and Natural Resources minor at UT. He enjoys spending time outdoors, studying the environment, and traveling to new places. Andrew is mentored by Dr. Don Hodges.

Frazier_sq2.pngJesse Frazier- a junior in the school of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida majoring in natural resource management and conservation. He is particularly interested in acquisition and active management of conservation land with an emphasis on endangered ecosystems. He is also interested in working with people to develop more sustainable approaches to land use to meet diverse needs. JJesse is mentored by Dr. Michael Andreu.

Ottinger_sq2.pngSarah Ottinger- a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. She is pursuing a degree in environmental soil science and is passionate about soil ecology and living systems. Sarah is mentored by Dr. John Stier and Dr. Tom Gill.

Shapiro4.pngHannah Shapiro- is a junior at North Carolina State University majoring in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, with a minor in Agroecology. Her career goal is to become a researcher that develops community-based conservation plans. She has gained a variety of experiences in order to reach this goal, including conducting research in The Bahamas on children's wildlife preferences, studying captive animal behavior at the Duke Lemur Center, and looking at the feasibility of camera traps as a long-term wildlife monitoring and outreach strategy for a local ecostation. Hannah is mentored by Dr. Adam Willcox and Dr. Amanda Kaeser.

Teman2.pngSarah Teman- a first year Wildlife Ecology and Conservation major from South Florida at the University of Florida. Her interests include conservation, tropical ecology, mammaling, hiking, swimming, and kayaking. Sarah is mentored by Lauren Watine and Dr. Emma Willcox.

Vining_sq.jpgLaura Vining- a junior at the University of Tennessee. majoring in Wildlife and Fisheries Science with a minor in International Agriculture and Natural Resources. Having studied abroad in Belize, she is  very excited to head back for her next adventure!​ Laura is mentored by Dr. Emma Willcox​.

Project Descriptions 
Crop Densities- Liz is working with local farmers to investigate sustainable intensification by reducing field size and density. Outcomes should result in ways by which to reduce farm size and labor, improve fertility, and increase land available for forest regeneration.

Forest Structure and Commercial Potential-Andrew and Jesse are in the forest inventorying commercial and locally important tree species. They are concurrently looking at the potential of teak, a fast growing hardwood, as a viable option for woodlots. Andrew and Jesse's work will allow local managers to effectively manage forest timber stocks and regeneration.

Tropical Soil Health-Sarah is working on local farms taking soil samples in a variety of cropping systems to investigate the effect different crops and agricultural practices effect soil quality. Sarah's work should ultimately guide future farming systems and cropping techniques.

​Farmer Attitudes and Behaviors- Hannah is censusing all farmers in the Vaca asking them about their attitudes towards conservation, wildlife, conservation agriculture, and forestry. Hannah's work will evaluate current interest and capacity of farmers to more effectively manage agriculture and forest resources.

Presence and Abundance of Wildlife- Sarah is placing camera traps on farms throughout the Vaca to understand what species and the relative abundance of wildlife on farms. Her work should start to investigate the effectiveness of conservation farming and the potential ​for wildlife-based recreation.

Bat Diversity and Abundance- Laura is setting acoustic detectors and recorders on Vaca farms to record the ultrasonic communications of bats. By understanding what species of bats frequent Vaca farms, she will be able to determine their roles in the agricultural system for insect pest suppression and crop pollination.

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Photo: Mentors Dr. Emma Willcox and Lauren Watine working with Fellow Laura Vining to install a bat acoustic detector on a farm to investigate bat abundance and the potential for crop insect control by bats.
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Photo: Photographed during week 3, this is Morlet's crocodile in the Vaca River.

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Photo: Sarah Ottinger (UT) and Laura Vining (UT) watching wildlife at the Belize Zoo. The Belize Zoo only has native wildlife and all of the species in the zoo also occur in the Vaca Forest Reserve.