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School of Arts and Sciences

Faculty-Student Team Studies Dragon Fruit Farming in Vietnam

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tufts Professor and Students Study Ecology and Economy of Important Vietnamese Crop

Professor Ellmore and Van Rees

By Anna Burgess

Charles Van Rees recording bird sightings at a dragon fruit farm

A professor from VNU shows Ellmore and Van Rees laboratory setup

Mae Humiston and professor Thanh from Vietnam National University of Science discuss measurements they've taken on dragon fruit plants

Photo credits: Charles Van Rees


This past winter, Tufts biology professor George Ellmore took two students to central Vietnam, where Ellmore and both students were given a rare and exciting opportunity to conduct field research. The trip was part of Tufts University's International Research Program, a three-year pilot program funded by an anonymous donor that allows the School of Arts and Sciences to send student-faculty teams abroad to conduct scientific research. Ellmore, Ph.D. candidate Charles Van Rees, and undergraduate Mae Humiston (A '13) formed one of last year's recipient teams. In January, they set off for Hanoi, and spent a month in Vietnam meeting with other researchers, talking with university students, and working in the field.

Ellmore describes their overarching project as, "collaborating with faculty at Vietnam National University of Science to lower the cost of dragon fruit production from family farms." He explains, "Dragon fruit is harvested eight times a year in Vietnam. Five of those harvests are in summer, and three in winter. The winter harvests produce larger, sweeter dragon fruit and they bring in 150% of the income that the other harvests bring." Dragon fruit has become an important Vietnamese crop in recent years, and farmers have an advantage since they can produce such good quality fruit off-season. But one problem, according to Ellmore, is that "growing dragon fruit in winter requires electric lights to illuminate entire fields at night, so our project was to reduce the cost of growing by increasing the efficiency of the lighting regimen at family farms."

Under this general research umbrella, students Van Rees and Humiston also each had an independent project. Van Rees, a conservation biologist studying at the Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, spent his time in the field logging the different bird and insect species living on or near the extensive dragon fruit farmland. "I specialize in how people affect populations of organisms," he says, and since the landscape in central Vietnam has changed because of the dragon fruit farming, "I wanted to see how increasing farming intensity affects biodiversity [there]."

Humiston, an anthropology major, was writing her Senior Honors Thesis comparing the agricultural history of dragon fruit and tomatoes. Both fruits contribute greatly to the economies of countries distant from their native source. In Vietnam, she explains, "I conducted my research by engaging with dragon fruit farmers and their families, as well as with consumers." She asked them, "about the fruit and what they knew about it, how they ate it, what they thought about it, and so on." Humiston's research was approved by the Institutional Review Board."

For Humiston, as well as Van Rees and Professor Ellmore, the time spent in Vietnam was extremely rewarding. The team discovered that dragon fruit crops could be produced as effectively with lower watt light bulbs turned on for fewer hours each day--meaning that farmers could save money while still growing their winter crops.

This success was far from the only positive aspect of the trip, though. Ellmore notes that, "Along every step, the Vietnamese deans, professors, students, and families treated us to world-class hospitality and personal warmth." Van Rees and Humiston second this, and Van Rees mentions, "[This trip] gave me the bug. I'm looking to go out there and do more research abroad." Both students found working with Ellmore on research they're so passionate about an overall amazing experience. Humiston sums up her enthusiasm, saying, "This project presented a really interesting way to look at food and farming in an entirely new setting and through an entirely different lens than I was used to." For her, this trip was perfect: "Plants? Check. Anthropology? Check. Adventure of a lifetime? Check."