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No garden variety engineer

Lydie Dufour has always cultivated a taste for research. A horticultural engineer by training, she was drawn to agroforestry and joined the SYSTEM research unit at INRA Montpellier. She shares her experiences working to see the wood for the trees in this relatively underexplored field of study.

Lydie Dufour in the field, assistant engineer at the UMR SYSTEM, INRA Montpellier. © INRA, C. Maître
By Julie Cheriguene, translated by Daniel McKinnon
Updated on 01/04/2019
Published on 02/10/2015

I feel like I am doing something worthwhile

Lydie Dufour knows about taking advantage of opportunities as they come along. She first crossed paths with INRA in Guadeloupe in 1982, when she followed her husband doing his year of civilian service at INRA’s centre on the island. She studied the plant–insect relationship between yams and leaf cutter ants. In 1986 with a Master’s degree in science and technology, which focused on alfalfa production, in hand, she left for Réunion on her own. During her three years there, she rediscovered one of her great passions, horticulture, at the Saint Joseph Vocational Training and Agricultural Development Centre. “I was mostly in charge of horticulture training for high school students, but I also set up the Centre’s horticulture farm and was responsible for experimental research programmes” says Dufour. She admits that teaching was not always her cup of tea, “Research is a lot more interesting for me. In working to improve the environment or agricultural production, I feel like I am doing something worthwhile. There are constantly new things to discover and I am always inspired.”

Tropical horticulture takes root

Dufour continued to pursue her interest in research when she returned to Guadeloupe in 1993 with her husband and children, setting down roots on the island for ten years. Dufour was hired as an assistant research engineer, responsible for running the horticulture research programme at the Caribbean Agriculture, Soil, and Climate Research Station.
Dufour was particularly interested in the tropical horticulture crop plant Anthurium andreanum, studying ways to produce high-yield, high-quality flowers. At the urging of a former professor, she pursued an opportunity to enrol in the University of Angers to do a distance learning PhD on cut flower yields for Anthurium andreanum in non soil, sheltered cultivation in tropical climates. “I was relatively isolated at the time working in my chosen field; this was an opportunity to collaborate with others and to give value to what I was doing.” Her doctoral research led her to develop a new shaded tunnel able to recycle excess nutrient solution back into the plants’ closed growing system. The research project was financed through a joint grant from the national and Guadeloupe governments, with local project teams taking the opportunity to ask Dufour to conduct research experiments on the mineral nutrition of maize.

Field testing climate change

Dufour returned to France with her family, settling in Montpellier. “I was immediately interested in agroforestry” she says.“It was a bit removed from my areas of expertise, but quite promising. The first plots had been planted in 1995 and there was so much to do.” She directly contacted the director of Joint Research Unit for the Functioning and Management of Tropical and Mediterranean Cropping Systems (UMR SYSTEM) (1) in 2002 and joined the team.
Dufour is a multitasker. She oversees agroforestry research projects and a team of technicians, while managing the budgets of ongoing projects. She is also a quality control manager, “an unenviable and rather thankless job” she says jokingly. “I like that my position is multifaceted. I feel quite free on a day-to-day basis and manage my own time.”
Dufour can often be found outside, doing fieldwork. April to July is her busiest period. She measures radiation to assess the impact of shading on crops and on crop yields. In winter, she compares growth rates of trees grown and not grown in association with crops. “In general, mixed tree–crop plots produce more because of higher tree growth rates. Hence the importance, particularly in the context of climate change, of closely monitoring year-on-year growth.” Introducing new trees or new nitrogen fixing crops, deep-soil carbon storage, or the production of fuelwood, “each project leads to new research questions” says Dufour.

Dufour is highly motivated. Next on her slate: adapting to agroforestry purposes a database used for experimental research on grapevines grown under grass cover. The database will be accessible to researchers and allow them to make use of data gathered since 1995. “The earliest work on agroforestry and climate change used modelling. Now we will be able to use experiments to continue research in this field.”

(1) INRA – Cirad – Montpellier Supagro

Lydie Dufour in the field.. © INRA, Inra, C. Maître
Lydie Dufour in the field. © INRA, Inra, C. Maître

And INRA?

INRA has an important role to play. We do valuable work and it is very satisfying to be in such a productive environment. I arrive at work smiling; I am quite free to pursue the work that interests me. This feeling of independence is really important.”

Mini-cv

  • 57, married, 2 children
  • 1981: Degree in horticulture, National Horticulture Institute, Angers
  • 1986: Master’s degree in science and technology for crop production
  • 2001: PhD in agricultural science, University of Angers
  • A fan of horseriding since the age of 13, she now judges equestrian competitions