Scholar Story: Mark Gaskell, Morocco

Small Fruit Crop Research and Training Program with the Moroccan National Agronomic Research Institute (INRA)

By Mark Gaskell, Farm Advisor, University of California Cooperative Extension
San Luis Obispo, California

Host: Moroccan National Agronomic Research Institute, Rabat, Morocco

Teaching/research, November 2011 – May 2012, serial visits to 2014

The objective of my Fulbright Scholar Program grant was to help the Moroccan Agronomic Research Institute (INRA) to develop programs with small fruit berry crops, thereby contributing to long-term rural development in Morocco.  For my wife and me, the opportunity to live and work in a North African and Muslim culture has been an unforgettable and enriching experience.

Morocco’s proximity to Europe enables Moroccan farms to supply many out-of-season fruits and vegetables for the European Union.  Moreover, in 2008, the Moroccan Agricultural Ministry announced the Plan Green Morocco, a 20-year program to provide support for development of intensive horticultural crops.  Strawberries are widely grown for export to the EU, but there are very few plantings of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. These high-value berry crops have great potential as attractive alternatives for Moroccan farmers.  They are well suited to Morocco, which has a climate similar to California and also has the human resources to supply the large amounts of hand labor required by these crops.

But for farmers to be successful with these new crops, they need sound technical advice based on knowledge gained from research under local conditions.  Morocco’s National  Agronomic Research Institute (INRA) has developed field and laboratory research programs with traditional Moroccan crops such as wheat, barley, citrus, figs, and olives, but it  has lacked prior knowledge and experience with blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. This was the area in which I was able to offer my knowledge and experience.

I had previously visited Morocco several times between 2006 and 2009 to assist in the introduction of new alternative berry crops as part of an agricultural development          project.  I had lectured and visited farms in many parts of Morocco during these visits and had hosted a group of Moroccan farmers and government technical staff in California.  The thrust of my Fulbright Scholar program was to continue to train Moroccan agronomic researchers in small fruit crops and to assist them in establishing a network of berry field trial sites in Morocco.  My contacts and collaborators in Morocco helped me enormously in carrying out the program.  It would not have been possible without them.

The first step was to meet with INRA administrators and researchers who had previously expressed interest in small fruit crops and to verify their readiness to collaborate.  Both INRA and Moroccan Agriculture Ministry administrators expressed interest and even excitement over the proposed project – this seemed to be an idea whose time had come. Moreover, the project meshed perfectly with the Plan Green Morocco. Meetings with the agricultural ministry confirmed their support and resulted in promises for multi-year financing for the field trial program under the 20-year Plan Green.

For carrying out the work I had a great ally in an INRA researcher who was completing a PhD thesis on blueberries. She took charge of the field trials, helped put together training events, and assisted in developing a network of research collaborators for the new berry crops.  I worked closely with her on specific field and classroom training, selecting sites, designing and planning the field trials, and enlisting the collaboration of growers.

In meetings with INRA staff, we decided that the primary comprehensive initial training for INRA scientists and interested growers would take the form of a three-day workshop. For this I was able to mobilize the assistance of the Agricultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rabat.  He expressed support for the overall effort and agreed to provide financial support and to partner with INRA and me in organizing the conference.  Bringing INRA and the Agricultural Attaché’s office together will hopefully have future benefits and open opportunities for further training through programs such as Borlaug Fellowships which support visits by Moroccan scientists to U.S. research facilities.

Training has involved a mix of classroom lecture, field trips and workshops, and one -on -one planning and design.

This initial series of training events fulfilled the objective of familiarizing Moroccan agricultural field technicians and researchers on essential aspects of production and post-harvest management of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.  Field visits enabled the Moroccan participants - some of whom had not previously had the opportunity to even taste the fruit - to feel comfortable about the growing requirements of these crops and helped erase any skepticism over the possibility of growing berry crops in Morocco.

As a result of workshop and field day participation more than 20 researchers and field technical personnel have formed a small fruit research network to continue to exchange information and expand involvement in research and training opportunities for small fruit crops. Additionally, some successful strawberry producers are beginning to produce blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries to export to the EU via established strawberry marketing channels.

I will continue to assist with the development of the research program after my return to the United States as my Moroccan colleagues follow-up with site preparation and plant procurement.  Future visits to Morocco will allow me to continue to establish long-term field research sites with multiple varieties of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in different growing regions of Morocco.  I will be available to help with problems, provide further training, and to monitor progress with my INRA colleagues.  And for myself, I'll have the opportunity for a deeper understanding of this beautiful country and the people who have treated me with such kindness and respect.