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New Mexico State University

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NMSU researcher uses science, hedgerows to improve rural livelihoods on two continents

If you ask Mick O'Neill how to alleviate poverty in the developing world, he just might tell you to go plant a tree.


As an agroforester and superintendent of New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center in Farmington, O'Neill has spent decades doing just that - helping people in New Mexico and the developing world plant, cultivate and use trees for economic development and to preserve the environment.

"Trees are an essential element in the farming practices on most small farms in many rural areas of the world," O'Neill said. "Trees provide many resources for farm families, including timber, poles, fuel wood, fruit, animal fodder, and medicinals. They also help conserve soil, provide shade and, of course, add beauty to the landscape."

In the Four Corners area of New Mexico, near Farmington, O'Neill, who is also an associate professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, has been conducting research on hybrid poplar trees to see which clones will grow best using drip irrigation in the area's semi-arid environment.

He has worked with the Navajo Agriculture Product Industry to evaluate whether poplar production can be a viable agroforestry crop for them; since 2004 they have planted a total of 200 trees.

"Poplar are a fast-growing tree, and 50 percent of the domestic energy used on the reservation is from fuel wood or coal," O'Neill said. "But we also realized that wood fiber as excelsior - or shavings - from poplar could be used for cooling pads, to conserve soil on road-cut sites, and as a biofuel in Four Corners power plants."

But the trees have another benefit. "Tree roots absorb nitrates from contaminated groundwater," O'Neill said. "They can be used in phytoremediation of old uranium processing sites, petroleum processing sites, or irrigated lands where high nitrate concentrations have contaminated the groundwater."

Four Corners area companies have expressed interest in several of these uses for poplar.

O'Neill has combined his expertise in agroforestry with a life-long passion for improving
farm life in Africa that grew out of his Peace Corps experience. He worked for one year in Ghana as a secondary school science teacher and then transferred to Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, for an additional two years digging water wells.

"We were following the existing British syllabus, teaching science to kids who had no job opportunities and left their villages for larger towns where many ended up living in poverty. We weren't giving them what they needed - a means for a livelihood. I transferred to help dig wells because it had a more direct benefit," O'Neill said.

In the intervening decades, O'Neill has spent more than 20 years conducting international agricultural research and development on the African continent in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Kenya and Rwanda, and in India.

His goal is to use his scientific training to provide people in rural areas with a more secure source of food and increased economic opportunities - exactly what he wanted to give his students in Ghana nearly four decades ago.

O'Neill has developed contour hedgerow systems consisting of forage grasses and leguminous (nitrogen fixing) shrubs to conserve soil and as a protein supplement for feed given to farm animals. More than 200,000 small-scale dairy farmers in East Africa are now using these systems, evidence that O'Neill is fulfilling his goal to improve the lives of rural farmers.

"These shrubs are a form of tree or woody plant and are perfect for the small farms - between one and five acres - that are common in the developing world," O'Neill said. "The shrubs keep growing, and farmers simply cut the new growth and feed it to their animals, usually dairy cows in East Africa. Or they can let some of the shrubs continue to grow and use the branches for fuel. Wood is the most common fuel source for energy in Africa and in many other developing areas."

The leguminous shrubs are also much more nutritious for the animals than grasses or other fodder available locally.

"They are very high in protein and they provide an excellent source of fodder. The animals produce more milk, which increases the nutrition available for the family and provides an extra source of income in many cases," he said. "These farms do not have enough area for grazing and the animals are kept in pens to which farmers cut and carry the animals' feed requirements. With the shrubs, farmers can cut fresh fodder on their own farms for their animals each day."

And, because the shrubs are leguminous, they "fix" nitrogen in the soil, which adds needed nutrients. Other trees commonly found on farms include mangos, avocados and papayas.

In September, O'Neill returned from a six-month sabbatical in Kenya and Rwanda, working with the World Agroforestry Centre, also widely known as ICRAF, its former abbreviation. O'Neill was helping to develop an irrigation master plan for Rwanda, a central African country about the size of Maryland, with the highest population density on the continent.

Using trees to solve problems of rural poverty is central to the World Agroforestry Centre's mission to develop science-based knowledge about the diverse roles that trees play in agricultural landscapes and to use research to benefit the poor and the environment.

"My role for the irrigation master plan was to develop water-use estimates for a range of potential crops and make sure that pilot sites would have access to sufficient water from multiple sources," O'Neill said.

Throughout his decades of work as an agronomist and agroforester in New Mexico and in developing nations, O'Neill has kept one ultimate goal in mind.

"As scientists and researchers, we need to make sure that future generations inherit a better earth from us," he said.

"We are uniquely qualified to develop solutions to global warming, over population and environmental degradation so the next generation - whether in Rwanda, Azerbaijan or New Mexico - can realize their full potential."