Jacob Rutz ’14 Travels to Cuba to Research Sustainable Urban Agriculture

posted 2011.02.24


Soon after the spring semester was underway, Jacob Rutz ‘14 touched down in Havana to meet with farmers and researchers and learn about agricultural techniques used in the island nation.


Jacob Rutz ‘14 examines lettuce grown on an urban farm.

Rutz, a plant and soil science major with a concentration in agroecology, was the only student in the delegation headed by Natural Environmental and Ecological Management Corporation (NEEM) founder and director Jeff Ensminger. NEEM is a Durham-based nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable community development.

“Agricultural ecology in Cuba,” says Rutz, “links the health of the crop to the health of the whole ecological system. Similarly, the health of the Cuban agricultural system is bound in the communal work of the researchers, farmers, nutritionists, and all others vying for a sustainable future in Cuba.”

Rutz was invited to join the delegation by his Park Faculty Mentor Dr. Julie Grossman, an assistant professor in the Department of Soil Science, who specializes in soil fertility management in organic cropping systems. Rutz works in Grossman’s lab as an undergraduate research technician. Grossman attended the trip, as did Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, an assistant professor in the Department of Crop Science and the director of the Agroecology Minor Program. Schroeder-Moreno also serves as Rutz’s academic advisor and a member of the Park Enrichment Grant faculty committee.

“Opportunities to travel to Cuba to pursue focused academic study are rare,” says Grossman. “Jacob’s participation in this unique delegation will undoubtedly open many doors for further international agriculture development work that he wishes to pursue.”

During the experience, Rutz expanded his knowledge of organic agriculture though a study of the research and structural support behind organiponicos – organic urban farms peppered throughout the country. The farms are located on garbage dumps, abandoned lots, and communal areas. “From the rubble has come this new life that has not only invoked community development, but has also increased a commitment to nutrition and education,” says Rutz.

While Rutz learned a great deal from the Cubans he met during his stay, discussions in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba over cafe cubanos with Grossman and Schroeder-Moreno challenged him to think critically about how the Cuban model could be applied to agriculture in North Carolina. “Drs. Grossman and Schroeder-Moreno had exceptionally good questions to challenge my ability to link this experience to North Carolina agriculture,” says Rutz. “The impact of such urban, organic farms is directly applicable to agriculture in Raleigh and cities across the state – these are the types of models I want to emulate.”

“Understanding Cuba’s growth in organic and sustainable agriculture practices in response to being cut off from many synthetic inputs will have a lasting impact on Jacob’s studies and professional development,” says Schroeder-Moreno. “From our first hand experiences with Cuban scientific leaders and producers in sustainable agriculture, we realized we share similar interests in sustainable agriculture and hopefully can increase collaboration in future research and educational opportunities between Cuba and NC State.”

Rutz’s time in Cuba was funded, in part, by a Park Enrichment Grant. Park Enrichment Grants provide support for Park Scholars engaged in professional and personal enrichment experiences. These experiences are designed to foster the development of scholarship, service, leadership, and character, as well as connect Scholars with faculty.

As he ponders his future, Rutz intends to pursue his dream of combining sustainable agriculture and community building. His plans include an analysis of the agricultural system to understand how it is possible to grow enough food for the world, but also maintain integrity as a steward of creation. “My career plans are to find a calling in my life and then figure out if a career exists,” says Rutz. “If one does not, I’ll make it and work my hardest to live virtuously and with the utmost integrity.”

Jacob Rutz ‘14 and Dr. Julie Grossman tour a Cuban farm.