WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Petrus Langenhoven attended high school at a boarding school located on a 1,000-acre farm in South Africa.
He grew up in South Africa under apartheid and cast his first vote for a referendum that ended the all-white rule in South Africa.
He worked on USAID horticulture projects in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique in southern Africa and traveled throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Senegal.
He fell in love while in Zambia, had a long-distance relationship, married and moved to the United States.
The excitement didn’t stop when he arrived in West Lafayette.
“I came to the U.S. in November 2013. That same weekend, there was a tornado that went through West Lafayette and we had some snow on the ground. I am not used to any of those things, so I was like, ‘Whoa, what is going on?’” Langenhoven said.
He has focused on horticulture education, from one continent to another, for a basic reason.
“My first boss asked me, a month or so into my first job, why didn’t I switch to floriculture? I said to him, if the world goes to pot, people need to eat. They’re not going to buy flowers, so I am going to stick to vegetables. I think that was my determination for the rest of my career,” he said.
Today, Langenhoven is a horticulture and hydroponics crops specialist with Purdue Extension. He recently became the sole director of the Purdue Student Farm.
Langenhoven found his calling in horticulture at a young age.
“My dad had a very large vegetable garden at our house, so from a young age, he was pulling us into the garden helping him, not that we always wanted to. But it clearly rubbed off on me,” he said.
“At the age of 12, I told him — and this is very surreal and strange — I told him I want to be in ag, I want to do something in ag.”
After attending high school at an agricultural boarding school and then earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stellenbosch University, Langenhoven started doing development work for a non-governmental organization, Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products.
That work involved implementing USAID-funded horticultural initiatives around the nations of southern and central Africa.
The choice to use his education and passion for horticulture and ag in the development space also was spurred on by what was going on around him.
“That was during the apartheid years so everything was a lot different. I think part of my drive to do the development work in Africa is because I couldn’t really change what was going on in South Africa. It was very polarized,” Langenhoven said.
“The first time I was eligible to cast my vote was actually for a referendum to change South Africa from a white regime to a total democracy. That was pretty cool.
“I thought then, this is a great opportunity to pay homage back to whatever was done in the past and to help people to grow food so they can sustain themselves and make a living out of it.”
While working in Zambia on an African indigenous vegetable project, Langenhoven met his future wife, who was part of a team of researchers from the United States also working on the project.
“She was an agricultural economist traveling with the team who I totally liked and loved very quickly. As they say, the rest is history,” Langenhoven said.
He started at Purdue in the department of horticulture in March 2015 after being a couple of years as a stay-at-home dad.
“What I love about horticulture here in Indiana is the vegetable production sector in Indiana is really an underdog in terms of ag. It’s very small and we struggle continuously to grow the industry and I think that’s the challenge. That’s one part of the job. Part of it is to educate the young people who are coming to the program and want to farm,” he said.
No matter what the background of his students, coming from large-scale row crop operations or a container garden in an apartment building, Langenhoven sees the opportunity to share his enthusiasm and knowledge for growing food. And he sees the Student Farm as an important teaching tool.
“It’s a great way to educate youth in terms of how to grow things and maybe look at it from a little bit different perspective, a more sustainable perspective,” he said.
Langenhoven utilizes the lessons learned from his years doing development work in Africa.
“Something I really brought over from Africa is more on the sustainable side of things. You go to Zambia and you might not find fertilizer that you can use. Now you have to look at alternative things so we would use different types of plants in kind of an agroforestry kind of production system, plants that will fix nitrogen or pull from deeper in the ground, pull phosphorus and potassium up,” he said.
“You use these things in combination to help enrich the soil because we just don’t have urea or what we need to amend the soil.”
Learning how to make do with less out of necessity translates into learning how to make do with less by choice.
“I think that kind of heartache that we had to go through to get farmers thriving really helps me in this kind of environment where we have really good soils and we have access to all sorts of things, but now you have to really minimize what you put in the ground so you don’t overfertilize and have a negative environmental impact,” he said.
Teaching students in the hands-on environment of the Purdue Student Farm is a good match for Langenhoven’s teaching style.
“A lot of workshops, a lot of sitting under the tree in Africa and explaining how to do it and then going and showing them, it’s the same kind of experiential style of learning,” he said.
“I bring my experiences to the lectures and then take them to the field and let them get their hands dirty.”
Langenhoven teaches field production of horticulture crops and says he usually has about 18 to 20 students in that class.
“If I have one student in that class who is really engaged and wants to do more than what is asked in the class and you can see how you inspire that person, that is very gratifying,” he said.
“I do not have to change all the students’ minds or make them think differently or appreciate the class more than others, but I think if there is just that one student. You hope they will go back and implement some of these things on their farm or wherever they go with their careers.”