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.