Brandenburg: PMIL research benefits farmers at home, as well as abroad

By Allison Floyd

University of Georgia, Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab

Rick Brandenburg’s international work begins with the tiniest insects that might steal a farmer’s yield.

But the sign that tells him the work is paying off isn’t in the field. It’s in the village.

“There’s a little village in northern Ghana called Ejura,” said Brandenburg, an entomologist, the William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University and lead scientist on the Southern Africa Value Chain Interventions project through the Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab.

“We’ve worked there for years, but it started to occur to me a while ago that each time we visited, we saw more thatch roofs replaced with tin. We started to see more cars that people could afford to buy and use as taxis,” he said.

“There was just this undocumented, but visible change in the community. The farmers themselves were noticing incremental improvement in the value of peanuts in their farming operation, and at the same time, people seemed to have more income to spend.”

North Carolina State University entomologist and long-time PMIL scientist Rick Brandenburg advises student Lydia Mkandawire at Exagris farm near Lilongwe, Malawi. Brandenburg has helped students around the world to earn graduate degrees in agriculture-related fields and sees that capacity-building as one of the great impacts of the peanut innovation program. (Photo by Allison Floyd)

Brandenburg started working more than two decades ago with the precursor to PMIL – the PCRSP or Peanut Collaborative Research and Support Project – in Southeast Asia, investigating pests that threaten peanut crops there.

When he first joined the PCRSP, North Carolina State University had a deep involvement in the peanut innovation program, having led projects since its inception in 1982. The entomologist heading arthropod research in the Philippines and Thailand retired, so Brandenburg took over the project in 1990. In 1996, that work shifted to western Africa, and Brandenburg got the chance to work in a part of the world he’d appreciated for years.

“I’ve always been intrigued by Africa, even as a child watching  Mutual of Omaha’s ‘Wild Kingdom.’ But it’s about more than going to places that few people get to travel. It’s about developing relationships with people in these countries who really want to make a difference. It’s about working together and sharing expertise to make progress and solve problems.”

After 16 years in Ghana, though, Brandenburg took on another geography and broader scope. In 2012, as PMIL shifted to a value-chain approach in three main geographical areas, Brandenburg agreed to head up work in the newest regional focus for the program – three countries of southern Africa.

By addressing the entire value chain, researchers can better coordinate their findings to address challenges from the field to storage to processing to the market.

While the geography changed, the work remained much the same.

“In the countries where PMIL researchers work, there are lots of really good, top-quality people trying to do the right thing,” Brandenburg said. “For the most part, it’s just a case of limitation of resources to get the job done, which is why we are there.”

Researchers in developing countries work on similar problems that U.S. researchers face, but have fewer resources to solve those problems.

Rick Brandenburg works with master's students Chancy Sibakwe and Andrew Abraham in research plots near Lilongwe, Malawi. (Photo by Allison Floyd)


“The principles and the concepts are exactly the same. Perhaps the inputs change because subsistence farmers don’t have the money for them, but that makes cultural practices even more critical. The scale changes because of the limited resources on the part of the farmers.”

The success of U.S. agriculture isn’t just about spending money today. There’s a knowledge base in the U.S. that scientists in other countries are building for their other regions of the world.

“In the U.S., not only do we have a lot of peanut breeders with a lot of resources, we have a long history of work. We don’t necessarily have that in Africa. There is not the extensive germplasm availability, not a long history of testing. … They do not always have data to make good decisions,” Brandenburg said.

Building capacity is important in focus countries, and perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the PMIL project in southern Africa is the potential of the next generation of scientists.

PMIL helped two dozen students in southern Africa and another two dozen in western Africa to complete masters or doctorate degrees since 2012. While some of the students studied in the U.S., many attended universities in their home countries, helping to build the capacity of those research programs for students who follow.

The PMIL students focused their research on increasing peanut productivity or minimizing aflatoxin contamination in some way, but the research spanned the entire process – from gene-mapping to plant breeding to improved growing practices to enhanced storage practices to more hygienic processing protocols.

PMIL scientist Rick Brandenburg and Chancy Sibakwe, a student at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, look out over a field at Chitedze research farm in February 2016. (Photo by Allison Floyd)


 “The end result is that we will have trained a number of quality students,” said Brandenburg. “We will have helped with capacity-building by improving laboratories and new technologies. And we’ve done some really good research that takes us to the next level.”

Getting there meant confirming some basic knowledge about peanut production in southern Africa – proper seeding rates, planting dates and row spacing – research that was done by students at universities across the three countries.

“We’ve been able to show methods to improve yield and improve quality without really increasing inputs. That’s important for an immediate impact and technology transfer to villages,” he said. “The data that we have collected have proven very useful in our ability to produce valuable crops that are high quality, but our goal was to help us move in that direction, but also to set the stage for creative and innovative work that will make a difference down the road.”

Incorporating all the aspects of the value chain into the same project is challenging, but Brandenburg points out how integration can produce more complete research findings. For example, when agronomists test common local varieties to find the best growing practices, they also should look at some of the breeding lines under development, giving them comparative data on varieties that may come to market soon.

“Otherwise, in five years, we’ve got to go back and do the same research to make sure the new cultivars respond in the same way,” he said. “If people working in post harvest also are looking at those same new cultivars to see how they dry and store, if people in food science already are considering the assets those varieties bring to new products – then, we all are on the same page.”

In the U.S., buyers demand certain qualities in new varieties, which rewards break-throughs in plant breeding, but that’s not the case everywhere in the world.

“In Africa and developing countries in general, to effect changes in the production system, you have to have a market pull. Key post-harvest issues like storage and processing, whether the farmer can get a premium price for high-quality peanuts, those situations drive changes in the production side. Without that, those changes will be difficult to accomplish,” he said. “It’s really more important to have that value chain linkage when you are working in Southern Africa, than it is in North Carolina or Georgia.”

A higher price at the end of the value chain gives farmers the incentive and resources to implement changes in the production process. Without that incentive, farmers aren’t likely to change the variety of the plant or how they grow, dry and store peanuts.

“If farmers don’t have an incentive to make a change agronomically, if there isn’t an incentive in the post harvest stage, it’s never going to happen,” Brandenburg said. “That linkage is even more critical working in developing countries than it is in the U.S.”

While Brandenburg’s international development work benefits Feed the Future’s partner countries, it also helps farmers at home in North Carolina, Brandenburg said.

“In the 28 years I’ve been doing this, a portion of the money has always supported my program here at NC State, too. It has paid a portion of technicians’ salaries; it has helped fund student research here at home; it has helped me to go to professional meetings where I learn how to do what I do better.

“My program has always benefited in a way that allows me to serve the people of North Carolina better.”

International development work helped him, along with fellow NC State professor and PMIL scientist David Jordan, to development the Peanut Risk Management Index, a tool that allows producers in North Carolina and Virginia to enter data about their crop – variety, planting date, inputs – and see the risk of disease and pests, as well as calculate the production cost per acre.

“Some of the support we’ve had through international development work over the years has helped David Jordan and I put that tool together,” Brandenburg said.

“The impact of the funding, support and interaction with other scientists has come back and provided lots of dividends for peanut farmers in North Carolina and the Southeastern U.S. – without a doubt.”

-Published May 31, 2017