Student Farm Intern Profile: Helina Asrat
By Maggie K. Smith
The challenge of protecting staple grains from pests doesn’t end after the harvest. In fact, post-harvest losses can be comparable to or even exceed what is lost in farm fields, especially in developing nations. In organic systems, methods to minimize these losses must rely on a combination of cultural and physical preventative measures since chemical fumigants are not permitted.
The Berea College Farm has produced a variety of staple grains and pulses organically over the past decade, including corn, wheat, barley, rye, oats, popcorn, pinto beans, black beans and peas. Each crop has its own requirements and management hurdles but all of them must be safely stored after harvest until they are processed into food products, sold, or used again as seed for another crop in the next season. At the Farm Store these crops are transformed into products like flour, cornmeal, grits, oatmeal, hummus, soups, goetta, breads, and pastries. The Boone Tavern’s famous spoonbread is now made with organic white corn produced by the College Farm.
This summer, farm intern Helina Asrat is studying and comparing organic pest-management methods for stored grains. Helina says this kind of research is important “because of the negative effects of pesticides on farmers, consumers, and the environment” as well as the need to prevent or delay the development of pesticide-resistant pests.
She is assessing three possible practices approved for organic foods: 1) freezing the grain for several days, 2) adding very small amounts of food-grade diatomaceous earth to the grain, and 3) combining the two practices. Her target pests are Indian meal moth and granary weevil. Both of these pests have global distributions and account for substantial losses of grains in storage facilities and home pantries.
Helina’s interest in the project stems from hearing stories of people working hard in the fields to produce a crop only to lose it later to pests in storage. In her home country of Ethiopia teff is the important staple but her project on the College Farm involves wheat and corn. Nevertheless, the challenges, principles and practices are similar. Helina’s concern about the unintended effects of pesticides also drives her research into organic methods. Finding effective organic methods of crop storage “could mean farmers now and in generations to come would not have to deal with resistant pests that are much more difficult to manage.”
Her personal connection to the livelihoods of those producing grains has driven her search for a mechanism that is “organic, economical, and transportable, and that could have an effect not just at the College but also internationally.” She is thinking about more than just the Berea College Farm; her research could help people facing this problem anywhere.
As a prospective double major in biology and chemistry, Helina is hoping to pursue a career in health and is becoming more interested in biomedical engineering. She has plenty of time to decide as she’s just entering her sophomore year at Berea College. Helina says “one thing I know for sure is that whichever path I take; I want to make a difference in people’s lives. I am most passionate about health and would like to give back to the community.” Her internship project this summer is a one step on that pathway.