Wednesday I spent the morning on the back of a motorcycle driven by Fanny Mercado, a graduate of the UNAN Agroecology program who is working for SosteNica‘s EcoCentro and is in charge of helping six local schools create and take care of educational gardens.

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We hit some traffic along the route to Chilama.

When we conducted a survey at the end of a project promoting family gardens a few years ago, one of the most common reasons that crops failed was because children or pets destroyed them. Families here often live several generations in one house, with a small yard, and space to run around is also valuable! When we stopped by to check on the gardens, we always made sure to involve the youngest family members so they learned to understand and respect the plants. But not all kids have that opportunity at home – so school gardens are another place where they can learn to value gardening.

When Fanny visits the schools weekday mornings, a few students are selected to work with her each day so that they get to integrate into the work. Sometime if there is an activity that is appropriate for all the children, the teacher will invite Fanny into the classroom. When we arrived at each school, the kids were excited to see her, and clearly saw the opportunity to work in the garden as a prized experience.

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Fanny works with a group of students to start a compost pile in the corner of the school yard next to the garden. In this school, they are close enough to the urban center to have potable water (with water pressure!) from the city. 

The drought right now at the end of the dry season is very serious. Even though the students take on the chore of watering the gardens twice a day, the gardens in full sun have had very low germination rates. At some schools, there are only artisanal wells and no water pressure, so the children draw water by hand and walk it to the garden to water. Now is the time to start seeds in the shade – tomatoes, beets, peppers, onions – so that they can be transplanted in a few weeks when the rains start.

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Fanny starts the hard work of cranking the wheel to bring water up from the well to water the garden in Chilama. 

At the first garden we went to the importance of a fence became incredibly obvious. The elementary school in the village of Silvio Mayorga is in the middle of a group of houses. The barbed wire fences don’t keep the chickens from the surrounding families out of the schoolyard. Just outside the chain link fence surrounding the garden, the dirt was filled with the marks of chicken feet scratching and digging for bugs or sprouted seeds. Fanny told me that before there was a fence, they planted squash seeds in the garden. A few days later a neighbor’s pig escaped and spent a lovely evening digging himself a cool spot to spend the night in the damp soil of the garden. So this time they waited until the fence was built to plant any seeds.

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Radishes!

At the school in the village of Valle de Jesús a boy ran out to greet us. “What are we going to plant! I want to plant seeds!” But the fence there isn’t finished yet. A group of parents had come over the weekend and put posts up, but it wasn’t finished yet. He was disappointed, so before we left Fanny pulled out her seed packets and gave him a few watermelon seeds to plant at his house. Whether they sprout or not, it’s great to see such enthusiasm here for gardening.

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Two young sisters in Chilama carefully water the beds with a bowl to not disturb the sprouting seeds. The stand to the right will hold a tank of water to operate a small drip irrigation system.

A few weeks ago, as I was planning this trip, the current director of SosteNica‘s projects in Nagarote apologized that they had a workshop scheduled for my first day in Nagarote. I was thrilled. To go straight out to the campo right away, see the program in action, meet the farmers we are working with now – fantastic! It was as good as I could have hoped for.

The farmers gathered at Manriques farm on the porch.

The farmers gathered at Manrique’s farm on the porch.

The topic of the workshop was rotational planting, and designed to help a group of farmers who have been working with the EcoCentro to be able to provide an exciting new market with products for as much of the year as possible. Another SosteNica investor and old friend of mine, Delaura Padovan, is volunteering here for six months to help get this new market up and running. (She is also writing a beautiful blog!)

The farm where the workshop was is owned by Manrique, a farmer who was injured by a hand grenade in the revolution that left him nearly deaf. He built his house himself, and has dedicated himself to his farm. He recently invested in a pump and irrigation, and has a beautiful patch of mixed hardwood trees, papaya, plantains and watermelon.

Delaura and Manrique discuss details of his next planting by his field of mixed papaya - plantain - fruit and hardwood trees.

Delaura and Manrique discuss details of his next planting by his field of mixed papaya – plantain – fruit and hardwood trees.

Some things here haven’t changed much in six years: the park at the entrance to the town is still under construction, the oppressive heat of april at the end of the dry season beats just as heavily on my head as ever, and the positive attitudes and energy of the team working with food security and sustainable agriculture are just as obvious in their ambitious  plans and visions.

Other things are noticeably different: Instead of arriving on a fleet of horses, bicycles, and ox carts, most of the farmers came on motorcycles. Over half of the farmers were women. The workshop was not a presentation, but mostly a conversation and then an exercise that the farmers did together to model a field with crops in succession.

Fourteen motorcycles and one truck brought 24 farmers to our workshop!

Fourteen motorcycles and one truck brought 24 farmers to our workshop!

They were given blank pieces of paper to fill in with crop names. At the end of the exercise the farmers presented their designs to the larger group: watermelon, tomatoes, and cucumbers separated by living fences of canavalia or gandul beans. They explained, these were to prevent the spread of diseases and to fix nitrogen.

Seven years ago, we began talking about green manures and nobody had heard of gandul. Living fences was a part of a soil conservation component that we dedicated a whole three-hour workshop to. Seeing a different group of farmers present designs and bring these concepts to the table on their own was incredibly gratifying.

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My sketch of some observations in the yard: Water to irrigate, motorcycles to arrive (in Spanish it rhymes….)

It’s hard to believe – it’s been seven years since I first arrived in Nicaragua, excited to learn everything I could about tropical sustainable agriculture. Although I’m living in the states now, I know the connections I made over the six years I lived here will persist for the rest of my life. One of the ways that I know this will happen is through the work of SosteNica: The Sustainable Development Fund. Now in existence for over 20 years, SosteNica makes it possible for people in the US to invest in family-run enterprises in Nicaragua, and support sustainable agricultural extension work in Nagarote, a town just north of the capital city of Managua.

As an investor since 2000, former employee, and current board member, I’ve been able to see and be a part of many eras of the organization. As a Fulbright scholar, I participated in a shift of programming from primarily investments to slowly building up a robust agricultural extension program, with tailored loans and educational resources for farmers, urban gardeners, and school children. There was an economic crisis to overcome, there has been political upheaval, there are active volcanoes that spew ash only miles from where many of our participants live and work their land. Living and working in Nicaragua is real, vibrant and never boring.

I’m excited to be back to participate in some of SosteNica’s new programs, to reconnect with old friends and document some of the new changes, and revive this stagnant blog again with photos and stories of the real struggles and good work happening here!

 

ImageThe Tuesday before Ash Wednesday was celebrated as Fastnacht Dienstag by my grandmother. She explained to us that you had to use up all the sugar in the house because there were no sweets during lent.  The traditional way to do this in Pennsylvania Dutch households are Fastnachtkuchen – fresh fried donuts.  We made them a few times growing up, at least once using a recipe that called for mashed potatoes.  I remember them being delicious. A few weeks ago we stopped by the women’s initiative in Achuapa where the Social Business Network and Juan Francisco Paz Silva Coop are currently offering courses to women organized in groups – Baking, Piñata making and Crafts, and Natural Medicine. The baking class was in the kitchen – frying up donuts. And it happened to be Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. I shared the story about my grandmother’s Fastnachtkuchen and found out that while it really was just a coincidence that the class was making donuts that day, there is a Nicaraguan tradition of making and eating buñuelos the day before Ash Wednesday. Sweet!

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Mari, a student in the course, proudly holds up the tray of donuts they had learned to make. They were delicious!

Mujeres de Achuapa

We are published!  Nick wrote an article for the Fair World Project, which I edited and selected photos for, and it’s out!  Online or available in the publication For a Better World available in Whole Foods stores.

The ground seems fertile for new sustainable agriculture markets, pun intended.  A recent estimate places a $4.5 billion value on the “green agricultural technologies” market over the next decade, including improvements in available biopesticides and organic non-petroleum based fertilizers.  Which is great, except that with harsher climate extremes and increasing intensity of pests and diseases, it is unclear whether this investment will result in increased production yields or simply be necessary to maintain the current level of production.  And of course, this doesn’t mean $4.5 billion for farmers – unless farmers come together to invest in the development and creation of amendments.  The infrastructure within the agricultural cooperative movement should give farmer cooperatives an advantage in centrally producing economical and ecological inputs for their member farmers, retaining some of the value of this growing industry in the hands of small farmers.

UNCTADThe recent United Nations Trade and Environment Review 2013 is entitled “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late” and stresses the need for transformations in our food systems that strengthen farmers’ ability to employ ecological practices that increase the stability and health of agriculture.  The report, compiled by over 60 experts in the field, lists as one of its key points the need to recognize farmers as more than just producers.  Farmers are managers of agro-ecosystems that impact public goods and services including water, soil, land use, energy, biodiversity and recreation.  When we recognize them as managers with influence in several areas of long-term impact, the resources that we make available to them and the role they play in trade relationships and business takes greater importance.  In one section entitled: Democratizing the Role of Agriculture to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century” the report outlines the effects of the consolidation of corporate interests in agriculture – from monopolization of the input markets including seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, to lobbying and influencing policies that are not in the best interest of farmers.  Although as stewards of the land farmers have the potential to greatly impact carbon sequestration, erosion, local food systems and energy production, the consolidation of corporate interests effectively prioritize profit margins on fertilizers, seeds, and retail over supporting good farm management and profitability.  As the graph below from the Canadian Department of Agriculture shows, the price of fertilizers is rising at a faster rate than the price of crops, cutting into farmers profitability.

The fuel, fertilizer and crop price trends for Canadian farmers.

The fuel, fertilizer and crop price trends for Canadian farmers.

The report suggests a variety of concrete actions that should be relevant especially within the movement of organized farmer advocacy groups and cooperatives.  There are examples of farmer groups who have made investments in the production of fertilizers and seeds.  I have previously written about SOPPEXCCA’s fertilizer plant as a model coffee cooperative’s initiative to take into their own hands the lack of effective organic certified fertilizers on the market.  Because the farmers themselves have a stake in the fertilizer production, the quality of the finished product, and the profitability of the coffee production, the investment includes annual tests and improvements in the composition of the fertilizer they make, effectively lowering the cost of the fertilizer for farmers rather than raising it.  Other examples of farmer groups taking a pro-active stance to protect available cost-effective quality inputs for farmers that are not controlled by  are seed savers groups and seed banks.  The difference between farmer-driven and corporate-driven amendments is simple – farmers have a vested interest in the effectiveness and quality of the product, as well as in their affordability and long-term ecological impact.  Corporations only have a vested interest in the first.

What other innovative farmer-initiated production models or policies do you know of that shift market control and profitability toward farmers?

La Roya

This is a re-post of my latest entry at the Social Business Network blog

This year, in the face of the leaf rust blight that has devastated coffee farmers across Latin America and the added insult that the coffee price on the international market have taken a sharp dive over the past year, Social Business Network has joined forces with The Community Agroecology Network and a farmer’s cooperative outside of Matagalpa called the UCA San Ramon to try to turn the onslaught of this double disaster into a turn for the better.

One of the small member cooperatives of the UCA has been hard hit by the leaf rust, losing up to 85% of their harvest this year.  A walk through the coffee parcelas reveals not only the damage of the fungus but also signs of underlying stress and neglect – vines cover the coffee trees in certain areas, and in others the forest floor is bare and eroding.  The farmers recount the difficulties they face – first among them, the rising cost of fertilizers and fungicides, and difficulties securing financing.  Then the increased intensity of the diseases, which mean even more financing needed to purchase larger amounts of fungicides, narrowing even farther their profitability margin.

Historically this community has grappled with “organic” farming.  After a bad experience with poor technical assistance and costly certifiers, mentioning the word to any of the coop members sets off a tirade of a million reasons why “organic farming” doesn’t work.  Lack of quality organic fertilizers on the market and strict certification standards that rely heavily on verifying what farmers are NOT doing (NOT applying any agrichemicals, NOT using any non-certified off-farm inputs, not even their neighbor’s cow manure) have left many farmers frustrated and with the impression that organic farming means doing nothing and leaving everything up to mother nature.

Our new collaboration has kicked off by organizing a series of workshops bringing together the coop members, a local succesful bio-dynamic coffee farmer, and an agronomist.  For two days, we transformed a local school into a laboratory complete with microscopes and a centrifuge.  Even though the farmers have had their soil tested before, the samples are sent away to a laboratory and no one learns how the tests work.  Using a type of soil test called chromatography which reveals mineral content but also the microbial life of the soil, farmers were able to perform the entire soil test in their own community.  The agronomist, after a straightforward presentation on several different types of beneficial and detrimental fungi that either attack coffee plants or contribute to the plant’s better absorption of nutrients, went with the farmers to gather soil samples from around their farms and then used the microscopes to identify and see the different physical structures of different fungi.  Demystifying the invisible biological world that impacts so directly farmer’s livelihoods will hopefully not only empower them in this moment of crisis by giving them a new understanding of part of the crisis, but also impact how they manage their land.  Although it is common knowledge that the leaf rust virus travels by spores through the air, seeing the millions of tiny round balls on each leaf (see the image header on this post) revealed clearly how this fungus has been able to cause such devestation in the region.  Examples of beneficial fungi that were found locally were isolated using the microscopes and then used to innoculate seeds in sterilized soil to reproduce them and use them in a fertilizer that can be elaborated on-farm, improving the coffee plants absorption of minerals and nutrients in the soil.

The local farmer leading the soil chromatography process was very clear that this was not a workshop to promote organic agriculture, it was a workshop to promote better agriculture.  His own farm has only suffered a 15% decrease in production due to the leaf rust, well below the 50% national average.  In any other year he might have been met with glazed looks and disinterest from this group of farmers.  But this year, when the management systems they use have failed to mitigate the impact of this blight, their interest was keen, everyone participated, and they requested another workshop to continue deepening their understanding of soil life and assistance in using beneficial fungi to innoculate the new coffee seeds they will be planting to replace the portion of their farms that have perished due to the leaf rust.  Studies have shown that in small farmer cooperatives where management of the coffee and soil is tended to more carefully, there is less presence of rust.  Revealing the direct relationship between management and soil biology cuts through the layer of faith in purchased inputs that disempowers producers.  With the right approach, the double crisis hitting small coffee farmers right now could be transformed into an opportunity to reinforce better management practices that will help protect farmers and their livelihoods over the long term.

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