February 2009

I woke up Wednesday morning at 5:30 am to an explosion that jerked me awake.  The explosions continued, and it was obvious that I was not going to get any more sleep.  As I drank coffee and read (I’m reading a novel of seducion and history written by Gioconda Belli, one of Nicaragua’s prominant authors, in Spanish), I was startled by loud explosions for over an hour.  I don’t know if I will ever get used to the Nicaraguan love of fireworks.  For every occasion – birthdays, anniversaries, patron saint festivals – they bring out the works.  In this case it was Ash Wednesday, apparently a catholic holiday of extreme importance, given the potency of the explosions.

Catholicism here is like food.  As far as I can tell, going to mass is like having dinner.  It’s essential, you don’t question it, and it’s not a big deal.  Everyone understands that you eat when you can.  Sundays people trickle in and out of the Cathedral all day.  The services may start at 10, but you go when you can.  When services officially end, there is no stream of people exiting the church like in the Episcopal church where I grew up.  Half the people have already wandered out during the service, the other half maybe just arrived and will sit and contemplate or pray for a while afterward.

The celebrations draw crowds and are showy demonstrations of youth and affluence.  Each church has it’s patron saint which is celebrated once a year with a procession through the streets.  During Lent there will be 14 processions, representing the 14 stations of the cross, organized throughout the city.  Seven of them will take place the week of Easter, when apparently the more religious folks are processing and going to Mass and the other half the city are at the beach celebrating to Reggaeton.  Either way, it promises to be colorful and interesting, and I’m looking forward to it.  Maybe except for the fireworks.  5:30 am!!!

An angel in the Fiesta Patronal in Los Leches, a village outside of Leon

An angel in the Fiesta Patronal in Los Leches, a village outside of Leon. She is riding in a float pulled by a tractor, along with seven other angels.

Procession to La Merced, in the center of Leon.  This procession also had two sets of virgins with babies and Joseph, three kings mounted on horseback, and a group of singers led by a man playing guitar.

Procession to La Merced, in the center of Leon. This procession also had two sets of virgins with babies and Joseph, three kings mounted on horseback, and a group of singers led by a man playing guitar.

The front of the house.  The window on the right is my room.

The front of the house. The window on the right is my room.

Almost a week ago I started renting a room in the house of a professor from the Agroecology Department.  Jose Ernesto sells ornamental plants when he isn’t teaching, and the house is surrounded by a gorgeous garden.  There are two huge mango trees which have just started dropping ripe fruit, flowers, neem trees, and a jicaro tree, which has funny ball like fruit growing off the trunk.  The shells of the fruit harden and are used for bowls and ladels, and the seeds are extracted from the pungent black fruit, dried, and ground into a powder used for a drink.

I have put a mess of pictures onto flickr of the house; I think it’s clear why I am excited to live there.  It’s close to the center of the city, the family is wonderful and welcoming, and it’s a horticultural paradise.  Jose Ernesto lives there with his son Oswan who is 21, and his other son Ernesto and his wife Judy live in a small house in the back, and share the kitchen.  Ernesto and Judy are really good cooks, and often invite me to join them for meals.  The trees and the garden make an enormous difference in the temperature.  At the residencia, which is only four blocks away, I slept with a fan all night.  Here I wake up every night around four to put on a sweatshirt and pants because it is so cold.  What a clear example of how trees and vegetation effect our climates.  Refreshing, for sure, and worth putting up with a few more ants and spiders in the house who wander in from the garden….

There are many tactics to approach the importance of farming and comsuming organic produce.  Of great importance to many people in Europe and the United States is the health of the consumer.  Pesticide residues are a concern, especially on fruit such as strawberries which are eaten intact, with the skin, and eaten in large quantities by young children.  For many, the motivation for buying organic produce is to prevent unnessary and irreversible damage to the environment.  Chemical runoff in rivers and water tables, increasing numbers of pesticide and herbicide resistant plagues and weeds, and the disapearance of beneficial insects and animals are just a few of the effects of overuse of agricultural chemicals.

Another reason to buy organic is very obvious in this part of the world, where nothing in the supermarkets except for maybe coffee is labelled organic, and it is a struggle to propote environmental consciousness.  In Managua, literally across the street from the CEPRODEL office, is a whole community of people living in trash bag huts.  They are farmworkers from banana fields, living together in one park outside the office of the banana firm.  A friend told me they have been living there for five years, requesting compensation for their medicals bills due to overexposure to pesticides.

This article summarizes just one struggle here in León, Nicaragua.  Tomorrow afternoon I am going to visit the foundation here in town, Fundacion La Isla, that is helping a group of sugar cane workers get medical help and care for their families.  One of the things they are offering are trainings in organic agriculture, so that farm workers that have their own small peices of land can can farm organically and avoid the debilitating health effects of chemical exposure.

Locally, there is no market here for organic produce.  The infrastructure, consciousness, and ability to pay higher prices are virtually non existant.  The most plausible oportunity I can see here to encourage and expand organic agriculture quickly is to strengthen the international market.  It´s not a solution, because transportation costs are rising.  It goes against so much of what I preach and believe in –  such as local food systems, and it also bypasses the education and local marketing of organic food and practices.  But the reality is I don´t believe that people in the U.S. are ever going to stop buying bananas.    The question is, if organic bananas cost a dollar more at Whole Foods, is that extra dollar helping to ensure someone´s health who lives and supports his family on two dollars a day?

….when I am delighted to find a tiny bottle of soy sauce in a supermarket and run home to make stir fry with peppers, garlic, onion, yucca, and green plantains.

A post about the farm at UNAN León is long overdue.

First, the current header photograph on this blog is an impressive 80″ x 60″ greenhouse that was constructed seven years ago and isn´t currently being used. Instead of plastic it is covered with a very fine netting, that allows the air to pass through and ventilate it but prevents insects from entering. The unusual shape of the roof is to capture the wind and suck it down to create a cyclical air current, further cooling the temperature. Overheating in greenhouses is a serious danger. Here, greenhouses are used primarily to protect young plants from insects and direct sun. Electricity and ventilation systems like the one in our greenhouses at Food Bank Farm are very expensive and hard to come by here, and so this passive ventilation system was developed.  The result is that these greenhouses are oriented to the direction of the wind in order to catch it lengthwise, instead of in relation to sun like in New England.

There are two organizations within the University that govern the farming here. One is the Agroecology Department, and the other is an independant foundation that the University funded called Fundacion Alma Mater. The Fundacion is financially self sufficient and doesn´t receive any additional funding from the University, although all of its expenses are funnelled through the University. For example, the workers are employees of the University and receive benefits, but the cost of the salary and benefits needs to be covered by sales from the farm. Any crops that are going to be used for research and classes by professors within the Agroecology Department are funded by the department. The students can design a thesis project, such as Margarita´s with papaya and plantain, and the department covers the costs and hires labor by selling the product.

Both the Fundacion and the Agroecology Department sell primarily to the University cafeteria and employees of the University. They also sell certain crops to the public, such as the plantains. The people who come for the most part are purchasing in order to take the produce to local markets and resell it. According to Don Noel, who is in charge of all the land cultivated by the Fundacion, the University receives a better price when they sell to the University cafeteria and employees, because they cut out the intermediary wholesalers, and can straddle the difference in price to that they charge more than they do to the general public but less than if the University were buying from a distributor or the markets. Additionally, because it is within the University, they deliver to the cafeteria an no extra cost, whereas all wholesalers need to come to the University to purchase the produce.

This is the closest form of selling to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm that I have found here. So far, all the farmers I have talked to sell all their produce to large international companies that send representatives to farms to purchas crops like yucca and sesame, or to other locals who purchase it to resell in the markets. The already existing structure of the University gives them access to a defined market, which they have been able to use to their advantage.

As far as I know so far, this is an unusual marketing system for produce in Nicaragua. Most people here respond very skeptically to the word ´cooperative´. I understand why a CSA is a economic agricultural model that doesn´t fit easily into the market structure here. Produce sellers are bountiful, on every corner of the city, street markets are overflowing, and people are accostumed to having the freedom of buying what and when they want. But there must be other structures within society that could be utilized to create this double advantage to consumers and farmers.

I have updated photos and added lots of description about the plantain project in Flickr (link in the sidebar on the right). I am still learning my way around that site and am a little frustrated with the presentation and organization. If any of you work with flickr and have suggestions, they would be much appreciated.

What food has a head but no face,

Hands without arms,

Fingers that cannot grip,

And delights the vegetarians when served?


Plantains and bananas.  The tall palm-like trees produce one flower, which opens gradually as the fruit forms in clusters under the petals.  The entire stalk of fruit is called a cabeza, or head.  Each cluster along the stalk is un mano, or a hand.  The individual fruits are dedos de mano, or fingers. I am somewhat slightly obssessed with platanos.  The plants are regal and strong, they grow rapidly and shoot up clones around the base.  The palm like leaves are used to wrap tamales and serve food in the markets.  Heads of fruit drip erotically out the center of the plant, with a bud shaped purple lower still attached to the tip, until it is cut off to send more energy into the fruit.  I might be happy living in a platanos grove, eating tostones, tajadas, and maduros….

Margarita, a student finishing her degree in Agroecology, invited me to accompany her one morning to collect data for a research project that she has been working on for a year and a half.  She is studying a section of plantains that have been intercropped with papaya plants, to see whether the two plants have a beneficial relationship and produce higher yeilds when planted together.  We spent the morning at the University´s 20 manzana (34 acres) of platanos.    She knew I would be interested to see them, and additionally she has a broken arm, so an extra person to help measure and weigh the fruit was definitely appreciated.

A pile of plantain heads after harvest

A pile of plantain heads after harvest



Loading the plantains onto a trailer

Loading the plantains onto a trailer

Now that I have a bicycle, it’s time to start learning the pattern of one-way streets here, as well as another new language.  So far I have learned that if you are driving through León, you can say any of the following simply by honking your horn as often as you like,

“Hi, I am a taxi and I am available!”

“I am not stopping at this intersection so you better yield to me.”

“Hey, you pedestrian in the street (or bicycle, pedicab, stray dog, horse and cart, vendor, etc), get out of my way!”

“Hola Amigo, how are you!”

“I’m passing you on the left (on a two lane road), make sure you notice me!”

“Hey there, hot stuff!”

Keep in mind that with minimal traffic lights and signage, this is a very important language to learn. I will keep you all updated as I learn new vocabulary in this delicate Nicaraguan language of honking.

Bikes and cars share a busy street by the San Juan market

Bikes and cars share a busy street by the San Juan market

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