College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

WSU grad helps Malawi farmers go green

Dan TerAvest, right, leads a field day in Malawi, explaining conservation agriculture results to dozens of farmers.
Dan TerAvest, right, leads a field day in Malawi, explaining conservation agriculture results to dozens of farmers.

WSU researcher Dan TerAvest helped farmers find ways to sustainably feed a growing world during a three-year sojourn in Africa.

TerAvest, who graduated in May with a doctorate from Washington State University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, worked with farmers in the southeast African nation of Malawi from 2011 to 2014 to find out how sustainable techniques like crop rotation and conservation tillage affected maize, their underperforming staple crop.

Below, TerAvest answers questions about his Malawi experience:

What challenges do Malawi’s farmers face?

Malawi is a small country of 16 million people, and is one of the poorest countries on the planet. Agriculture is mostly subsistence farming. Land holdings are small. Most land on smallholder farms is planted with maize, the staple crop. But maize yields are low, five times less than the U.S. average.

Traditional land preparation is very difficult. Everything is hand labor; even animal traction is limited. Malawi’s subtropical climate makes for highly weathered soils. There is little use of fertilizer, compost or manure, so soils are depleted of nutrients.

What were you trying to do in Malawi?

My objective was to increase food production without putting too much pressure on the environment. I worked with Total LandCare, a non-governmental agency that helps rural communities improve agricultural production and sustainability. I evaluated the sustainability of three systems: Continuous no-till maize, which is the current model of conservation agriculture that’s most widely promoted in Malawi; conservation agriculture rotation, a very diverse system of rotation and intercropping; and conventional tillage with crop rotations.

What is conservation agriculture?

Conservation agriculture is defined by reduction or elimination of tillage; year-round soil cover using crop residues or mulch; and crop rotation. It has a lot of potential benefits: increasing moisture retention, improving soil fertility and quality, reducing erosion and suppressing weeds. It can save a lot of labor; you remove that intensive practice of hand-hoeing these big ridges, and it allows farmers to plant earlier in the growing season. With new crops, you can break up disease cycles and improve soil fertility.

You made a point of working alongside farmers. Why?

Too often, farmers are told that they ‘don’t know anything, they must listen to anything a field officer says.’ In fact, they know more about their land and their conditions than anybody else on the planet. Farmers may have better ideas about what will really work on their ground. There needs to be a conversation where farmers and those who are trying to help them adapt and meet in the middle.

I would go in the field with farmers; we all worked together. If you are just the supervisor sitting under the tree, you’re not going to get the same level of respect, and it’s not going to be as easy to work with farmers. Roll up your sleeves, go out and sweat as much as everybody else. You’re not coming to make them work, you’re coming to work with them.”

Which conservation practice had the greatest effect?

Rotation was the most dramatic practice. Most farmers would grow maize, maize, maize. A three-year rotation, planting different crops every year, was something they’d never done.

We used different rotational crops: cassava, pigeonpea, cowpea, and soybean in low-lying Nkhotakota province, sweet potato, pigeon pea and beans in higher Dowa province. My questions were: ‘Are these ideas feasible? Can farmers make enough money to do it?’ There answer was a big yes for increasing maize yields. The final year, we got 5 to 6 tons per hectare, three times the national average. The farmers had never gotten anything close to yields like that. They really saw the advantage of extensive rotations.

Did any results surprise you?

I wanted to look at conservation agriculture under different agro-ecologies. Everybody says it is the best thing – for soil moisture retention, infiltration, climate adaptation.

I found that in one district, the lower, wetter Nkhotakota district, this was true – it improved the capture and efficiency of rainwater. But in the higher, dryer Dowa district, we got no benefits. That’s counterintuitive. Most research on conservation agriculture says that the dryer you get, the more effective it is. But the wet area acted dryer.

My take-home lesson was that if you want to really be successful, you’ve got to be site-specific. Pay attention to individual situations and smaller regions. Ask what works and what doesn’t.

Why is this work important?

Malawi is a small country with a growing population. Globally, we are facing the same issues: How do we feed an ever-growing population without significant environmental degradation? Sustainable intensification is critical to both achieving food security and also reducing environmental damage, especially reducing the deforestation that results from expanding agricultural production onto lands currently under forest.

What are you working on now?

I am exploring uses for a handheld plant-monitoring device in a joint project between Michigan State University and WSU. I’m working with contacts in Malawi to see how this device can improve research and agricultural productivity in developing countries. It’s trying to take a big-data approach – if we can get a ton of data, farmers can get real-time feedback, for example, suggesting the best place to apply fertilizer. It lets farmers, development organizations, and governments better target limited resources.

• Learn more about the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at WSU:

CAHNRS is more than agriculture. With 24 majors, 19 minors, and 27 graduate level programs, we are one of the largest, most diverse colleges at WSU. CAHNRS Cougs are making a difference in the wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities, improving ecological and economic systems, and advancing agricultural sciences.



CAHNRS students are awarded more than $600,000 in scholarships annually.


CAHNRS has 39 student clubs and organizations to enhance student experiences and opportunities.


With 24 majors, 19 minors, and 27 graduate level programs, CAHNRS is one of the largest, most diverse colleges at WSU.


CAHNRS leads in discovery through its high-quality research programs. In 2014, CAHNRS received research funding exceeding $81.5M. This accounts for nearly 40% of all research funding received by WSU.  


Fall undergradsUndergraduate Studies

Check out every department and program CAHNRS has to offer, from Interior Design to Agriculture to Wildlife Ecology. We have 13 departments and schools to prepare you for your chosen career.

Grad student dogGraduate Studies

Students have a variety of options to pursue masters and doctoral degrees. Many of these have very specific background requirements, so we suggest exploring the individual programs for academic guidelines.

CTLLCenter for
Learning & Leadership

The CTLL is a student, faculty, alumni and industry partner collaboration for high quality learning and leadership beyond the classroom.


Inspiring Teamwork - Arron Carter pic

Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter

It started with a car, a ’69 Corvette Stingray to be exact.

When Arron Carter, the director of the Washington State University Winter Wheat Breeding Program, was in high school his agricultural teacher had a ’69 Corvette Stingray. Every year this teacher would let his favorite senior take the car to senior prom. Carter had never taken an agriculture class before, but he knew he wanted to drive that car.

“Well, if I’m going to be the favorite senior,” Carter said to himself, “I’d better start taking some ag classes.”…

Read More: Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter


CAHNRS Office of Research

Agricultural Research Center

Mission Statement

The goal of the Washington State University CAHNRS Office of Research is to promote research beneficial to the citizens of Washington. The Office of Research recognizes its unique land-grant research mission to the people of Washington and their increasing global connections. The CAHNRS Office of Research provides leadership in discovering and applying knowledge through high-quality research that contributes to a safe and abundant food, fiber, and energy supply while enhancing the sustainability of agricultural and natural resource systems.

Featured Research

sliced pear

Research for specialty crops boosted by $1.7 million

More than $1.7 million was awarded to Washington State University for specialty crop research including berries, potatoes, grapes, tree fruit, onions, carrots and Christmas trees.
Western bluebird with cricket. Photo by flickr user Kevin Cole.

Weighing the benefits, risks of wild birds on organic farms

Washington State University researchers will help organic growers protect human health by assessing the risks and benefits of wild birds on organic farms. Researchers received nearly $2 million from the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative to conduct the study.
Moyer Testimony 9.29.15

VIDEO: Jim Moyer testifies on specialty crop research before House Agriculture Committee

Jim Moyer, associate dean of research for CAHNRS and director of the Agricultural Research Center at WSU, presented specialty crop research innovations in Washington, D.C. this fall.
Winter Wheat May 2014 by McFarland

‘A quiet crisis’: The rise of acidic soil in Washington

Gary Wegner first noticed the problem in 1991, when a field on his family’s farm west of Spokane produced one-fourth the usual amount of wheat. Lab tests revealed a surprising result: the soil had become acidic.

Study: Small railroads important but costly to upgrade

More than half of Washington’s short-line rail miles aren’t up to modern standards, according to a recent study by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State University Freight Policy Transportation Institute.
A grizzly bear with her cubs at the WSU bear center.

Single hair shows researchers what a bear has been eating

By looking at a single hair, U.S. and Canadian researchers can get a good idea of a grizzly bear’s diet over several months.

CAHNRS Office of Research

Hulbert Hall 403
PO Box 646240
Pullman, WA 99164-6240
PH: 509-335-4563
FAX: 509-335-6751

Alumni & Friends

Holiday Hours & End-Of-Year Giving

It’s that time of year again—time for sharing merry moments with family and friends. As you prepare for the holidays, consider these year-end giving tips below. We know how important the last few days of 2015 will be for meeting tax deadlines, and we are here to help make the process as easy as possible.

Please note the WSU Foundation’s hours of operation through the end of the year:

Dec. 2 – Dec. 23: Normal operation (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.)

Dec. 28 – 31: Although Washington State University and the WSU Foundation will be closed, WSU Foundation gift accounting and gift planning staff will be available by phone from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. throughout this week. If you would like to give a gift of appreciated stock or discuss your year-end giving plans to benefit WSU, please call 1-800-448-2978.

Making a gift online using the WSU Foundation’s secure site is an easy way to make your year-end gift using a credit or debit card any time, day or night. Note: Online gifts may be made as late as 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 to receive tax credit for 2015.

Thank you for your generous support of Washington State University throughout the year. Have a wonderful holiday season!

Year-end Giving Tips:

Remember, only gifts made by Dec. 31 can help reduce your 2015 taxable income. Please keep the following in mind and consult your tax advisor for specific details.

To Receive 2015 Tax Credit:

  • Make sure your gift is dated and postmarked no later than Dec. 31, 2015.
  • Complete your online gift on or before 11:59 p.m. (PST) on Dec. 31, 2015. We accept Visa, MasterCard, and American Express.


The date you deliver or mail your donation is generally recognized as the gift date for tax purposes. Please note, the date on the actual check or money order is not recognized by the IRS as proof of your intent to give on a particular date. Gifts by check or money order may be mailed to:

WSU Foundation
PO Box 641927
Pullman, WA 99164-1927

Note: Gifts may be hand-delivered to the WSU Foundation Town Centre Suite 201 during hours of operation.

Credit Cards:

The date your account is debited is considered the date of the donation. In order to receive a 2015 charitable income tax deduction, credit card gifts must be processed against your account in 2015. Please make sure to make your gift online using your Visa, MasterCard, or American Express.

Have your stocks gone up in value this year? Consider making a simple and tax-wise gift of appreciated stock. Please note that mutual fund shares may take several weeks to transfer, and the gift is not considered complete until the shares are received in the WSU Foundation’s account. To give the University stock or discuss your year-end gift to WSU, please call 1-800-448-2978.

Contact Us

CAHNRS Alumni & Development
PO Box 646228
Pullman, WA 99164-6228
PH: 509-335-2243

Faculty & Staff

Important Dates and Deadlines


A-Z Index of Faculty and Staff Resources:

  • Click letters to sort alphabetically
  • Click individual items to view or download

Contact Dean’s Office:
Hulbert 421
PO Box 646242
Pullman WA 99164-6242

Lisa Johnson:
Assistant to the Dean
Hulbert 421C
PO Box 646242
Pullman WA 99164-6242