Last week, nearly 60 representatives from 19 Mexican universities made a visit to the Tucson Village Farm, located at the University of Arizona's Campus Agricultural Center along north Campbell Avenue.
They were there for more than enjoying the sunshine and tasting the fresh farm produce. They participated in a UA-hosted training for a project to establish a new extension network in Mexico.
The UA is leading the initiative, in partnership with New Mexico State University. The project is called the Red De Extensión e Innovación Nacional Universitaria, also known as Project REINU, and translates to the National University Extension and Innovation Network.
"REINU is ... a collaborative initiative of Mexico's department of agriculture, SAGARPA ... to develop essentially an extension service, but a university-based extension service," said Mike Proctor, UA vice president for global initiatives.
Project REINU will serve Mexico as a national university-based network of scientists and educators to provide resources and educational services across the country. The network will serve as a link between research-based information and communities, as well as youth-based programs similar to Arizona's 4-H Youth Development program.
There currently are six primary universities in Mexico involved. Each university has satellite offices, totaling 19 extension sites in Mexico. Proctor said the goal is to involve 80 universities in Project REINU by 2018.
Paul Gutierrez, an extension specialist for New Mexico State University, said partnering with the UA on project REINU was an obvious choice. Both universities are land-grant institutions, and their border locations mean they are well-prepared to serve Mexico and form strong partnerships with Mexican institutions.
"The partnership with the University of Arizona was very easy," Gutierrez said. "We're all part of the same cultural fabric."
In the U.S., 4-H is the nation's largest youth development organization, and it is the primary youth development program of the Cooperative Extension system of land-grant universities across the country. The UA is Arizona's only land-grant university, and it leads Arizona's 4-H Youth Development program.
The goal of 4-H programs is to prepare young people to make a positive impact in their communities and the world. The program has more than 6 million members nationwide, offering clubs, camps and other youth enrichment programs.
Kirk Astroth is director of the Arizona 4-H Youth Development program, operated within the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Cooperative Extension.
"In countries like Mexico where there's lots of challenges, young people want to be involved," Astroth said. "They want to be part of the solution. They want to design the future. They don't want to be spectators in democracy."
During the Tucson Village Farm training, which was just one portion of the visitors' weeklong agenda, attendees were able to tour the farm and learn about various aspects of its operations, such as funding and community program development.
There also were more than 100 first-, second- and third-graders from Coronado and Khalsa Montessori schools visiting the farm during the training, allowing the Mexican representatives to see Tucson Village Farm and Cooperative Extension agents "in action."
Astroth has experience building 4-H programs in other countries. He has coordinated programs in Latvia and Lithuania and most recently returned from Nepal, where he also helped formalize a 4-H program. The best practices he has learned from those experiences will help direct Project REINU.
He said 4-H programs have tremendous benefits for nations worldwide because they help to develop a country's youth and future.
"4-H helps those young people develop the leadership skills and practical life skills so that they can have input and influence on the future, direction and course of their country," he said.