September 2009

It’s now raining in León nearly every day, which is doing absolutely wonderful things for farmers as well as the afternoon temperature here (I was actually chilled the other evening after showering).

I’ve heard that “it doesn’t rain but it pours” applies literally here.  There have been some nice gentle showers here, but more often than not the rain is royally announced with giant cracks of thunder and then dumps una tromba de agua, or an absolute wall of water.  The city streets, which are a patchwork of adoquines (like cobblestones, octagonal cinderblocks) and pavement, don’t do a very good job of absorbing water , and there are certain streets that fill up with water and quickly become rivers.


The corner by the supermarket Salman is one such street.  I was trapped for forty five minutes in the supermarket until the water receded enough to reveal the sidewalks.  The water rose rapidly; I was only in the supermarket for about fifteen minutes, and it wasn’t raining when I went in.  The current was so strong that it pulled a motorcyle around and nearly swept away a young kid who messing around and trying to cross.


Last week I tried taking a taxi about twelve blocks to a friends house during a chaparrón.  We left my house and got about halfway there when we reached a road that had such high water and strong current that the taxi wouldn’t even try to cross it.  I could feel the waves beating up against the floor of the taxi.  We turned around and went back to my house.  Now I understand how things here stop completely for rain – it isn’t just that Nicas are allergic to getting wet, it does actually stop you from getting where you want sometimes!

Client x requested the release of a portion of his credit to hire workers to weed his field of sesame.  The sesame is small due to the lack of rain, and the weeds are doing what weeds do best – using what little moisture there is very efficiently and quickly catching up to the sesame.  Edgard decided not to release the credit to the farmer just yet, for various reasons.

– Because the sesame is underdeveloped and has not established extensive root systems yet, the weeds will help hold the dry powdery soil in place and prevent erosion during a typically powerful  October rainstorm

– The leaf cover provided by the weeds preserves what little moisture there is in the soil, making it accessible for the sesame as well.

– The weeds also reduce the amount of mud that splashes up onto the sesame when it rains, which helps protect the sesame from diseases like phytophthera that can stay dormant in the soil until they come in contact with vegetation.

This isn´t the first weedy field that I´ve come across in Nicaragua.  In March, while with a guide in San Rafael del Norte, we passed a field that looked to me like a disaster.  A pasture for cattle? No, a bean field.  I commented that that poor farmer lost the weeding game because you could barely see the bean plants.  No, the guide said, that’s what a good bean field looks like.  When you harvest, you cut the weeds at the same time.  First you pile the weeds into piles, then pull out the bean plants and put them on top of the piles of weeds to dry.  Like in the sesame field, the weeds protect the crop from soil contact, and contact with the molds or diseases living in the soil.

In the states, weeds are the number one reason why organic farmers lose crops.  Labor is so expensive that if the weeds drown a field the labor to harvest combined with the smaller size of the product due to competition with the weeds means the entire crop is no longer profitable.  For that reason I have spent unimaginable numbers of hours on tractors and hand weeding to prevent crops from getting to that point.  Here is seems that there is a more compassionate relationship between weeds and organic farmers.

In addition to lots of weeds, last season's corn is sprouting amongst the beans, which shows that this farmers has a good crop rotation

In addition to lots of weeds, last season's corn is sprouting amongst the beans, which shows that this farmer has a good crop rotation

Thursday it rained in Nagarote for the first time in 48 days.

This is the winter, or rainy season, when small farmers plant and harvest all their corn, sorghum, beans, and pasture for the whole year.  In October the rains will cease, and not start again until May.

Normally, there is a month-long dry spell that starts around the middle of June called the Canicula, or mini-summer.  This year it just kept going, and going.  Thursday morning I was visiting clients with Luis Rivas from CEPRODEL, and we kept hearing the same stories.  “I haven’t been able to plant corn, or sorghum, because it’s too dry.”  Here people often say caer agua, or water that falls, instead of lluvia, the word for rain.  “Tengo que esperar hasta que cae agua!” Everyone is working hard to keep the trees from the reforestation project alive.  We timed the project so that the trees would be distributed at the beginning of the rainy season and would be well established by the time summer hit, but we didn’t anticipate the arrival of el niño this year.

A dry struggling sesame field

A dry struggling sesame field

Friday I visited some agricultural clients with Edgard, from the León office.  The soy, sesame, and yucca were established, seeded in the early months of winter when it was raining.  The crops were all showing signs of stress, however.  On some plants up to a third of the flowers in the soy, which is just beginning to set fruit, where dried and brown.  The sesame, which should be over a foot by now, was stunted at a couple inches, but still alive. Edgard and I discussed the factors involved in deciding whether to release the next round of credit for the farms.

Agricultural crop credit works differently that urban loans or even loans to buy cattle.  Because of the long season for crops like yucca (seven months from seeding to harvesting, not including soil preparation) and the incontrolable weather risks involved, credit is not dispersed all at once.  A farmer works out a plan with the CEPRODEL officer, how much they need for soil preparation, to purchase seeds, to hire labor for planting and weeding, and to harvest.  The amounts for each activity are released only when they happen, not months ahead of time. This way, if the crop dies during a drought, or if the harvest is significantly lower than expected, the farmer is only in debt part of what he intended to take out. The client also only pays interest on the portion he has been given, so the delayed payment also helps keep the loan affordable.  The farmer can also choose not to withdraw the whole credit if it isn’t needed.

All loans are given for specific activities, and amounts vary depending on the crop the farmer wants to plant.  The timeline, cost of labor, and cost of supplies are standardized for many crops, and are tailored to the acreage of each client.  But the ‘flexibility’ of tailoring each credit personally results in an inflexible credit at the end of the day.  One of the farmers we visited was frustrated, because he had solicited credit for yucca and sesame, and he hasn’t been able to seed the sesame because of el niño. He is running out of time, because even if it starts to rain regularly this week, there probably aren’t enough weeks of rain left to ensure a good sesame harvest.  He could plant beans, which require less time.  That is probably what he will do, but he won’t be able to use credit to buy the seeds without returning to the office and re-working his plan with Edgard to tailor it to beans instead of sesame. I can understand how that is frustrating, on the other hand it seems like the rules are there for the farmers advantage in the long run.

When it did rain in Nagarote in the afternoon the sun burned through the clouds to the west adding theatrical lighting to the long awaited storm.

When it did rain in Nagarote in the afternoon the sun burned through the clouds to the west adding theatrical lighting to the long awaited storm.

Since May I have been participating in a series of workshops run collaboratively by UNAN Leon department of Agroecology and several other agricultural government programs and NGOs.  Every month about thirty agronomers working for NGOs, universities, and government programs from Masaya, Managua, all over the Occidente, and parts of the northern Segovia region get together for workshops.  The series is intended to grow and strengthen a network of Plant Clinics throughout Western Nicaragua.  A Plant Clinic is a place, usually a stand at the local market, where farmers can come and get free advice on how to properly treat pests and diseases in their crops.  While not strictly organic or agroecological, the workshops promote a method called Integrated Crop Management (MCI).  MCI somewhat resembles the system recently promoted in the states, Integregrated Pest Management (IPM), in that it strives to reduce the chemicals to absolutely neccessary situations and promotes using alternatives, but doesn´t eliminate them altogether.  MCI goes a step farther than just disease and pest management, and adresses all farm managment practices, such as planting living fences to attract beneficials and using crop rotation.

Although the main focus of the series is on fitopathology, or plant diseases, last week the workshop theme was animal husbandry.  I was particularly looking forward to this workshop given that the vast majority of SosteNica clients I know are primarily cattle farmers, and it´s an area of agriculture that I have virtually no previous experience in.

We started talking about general animal sanitation practices, the importance of keeping feeding areas clean and not contaminating drinking water (potentially spreading eloptirosis, a bacteria that lives in water after being deposited there by feces).  A chicken farm of decent size should work in batches, and only have birds of one age at a time to prevent epedemic diseases.  The importance of changing or sterilizing needles and thermometers.  Basic stuff.  The presenters then chose three diseases to focus on: Brucelosis,  a cattle disease the affects the respiratory system and causes aborted pregnancies; Newcastle disease, a avarian virus that got its name when it travelled to Newcastle, England from Indonesia in a ship in 1926; and Cattle Tuberculosis.


UNAN Leon has some excellent resources for hosting conferences. Note the large air-conditioner, which may be a reason that some people travelled so far to sit in a classroom for three days!

One of the most interesting parts of the presentation was when the Veterinary Profesor strayed from medical terminology and talked about how international regulation of Brucelosis affected the cattle market.  According to the presenter, since 1992 when Nicaragua began exporting cattle en pie, or alive, the numbers of cattle shipped annually have grown to 70,000.  The primary buyer is Mexico.  Since the adoption of NAFTA, Mexico changed its import regulations to those of the U.S., which require 99.9% of all cattle shipped to be tested and certified according to a standard of procedures that differed from what Mexico had accepted before.  Although Nicaragua had controlled the disease and had an excellent track record with Mexico, they were forced to rapidly implement a new certification program in order to secure the market in Mexico.  The program cost the government millions of dollars to implement, and was at first only available to larger ranchers, cutting small farmers out of the export market.  Currently, there are a variety of commercialization avenues designed to access small farmers, but they are often still left out due to the inaccessibility, or cost, of these certifications.

The presenter then offered his controvertial opinion that cattle was only profitable on a medium scale, and that a small farmers was better off to sell his two cows and buy seeds to plant agricultural crops than continue maintaining such a small number of cattle.  The room erupted with contrary opinions – hello FOOD SOVEREIGNTY???!!!  A cow is one of a poor family´s most secure sources of protein!

My next project: to publicize the dates, times, and locations of all the Plant Clinics in all the CEPRODEL offices for the rural clients to know about.

The professor showed us how to hook a cow up to an IV to administer antibiotics or saline solution for dehydration....

The professor showed us how to hook a cow up to an IV to administer antibiotics or saline solution for dehydration....

...and then we did it ourselves.

...and then we did it ourselves.

“Fostering leadership, learning and empathy between cultures was and remains the purpose of the international scholarship program.” – Senator J. William Fulbright

During my months here I´ve fielded many questions about what, exactly, am I doing here?  Sometimes I use the word boss to describe the coordinator of the reforestation project I´ve been working with, sometimes I use the same word for the director of SosteNica, my contact back in the states who helped me tremendously to put together my grant application. I use the words work and salary, but the truth is that those words reflect how I have chosen to structure my time here, and don´t come from any higher authority.

The correct answer when people ask me outright is that I have a grant to do an independant study.   The complete answer is that I have a special grant from the U.S. government to do an independant study in a specific topic that is relevant to my career aspirations.   If I give the full answer, I often end up explaining….

NO, I do not work for the U.S. government, nor do I hold ANY responsibility in promoting the political agenda of my country here in Nicaragua.  My job is to be a responsible and respectful participant in Nicaraguan culture.  I represent my culture (which, the U.S. being the giant melting pot that it is, may not be at all  similar to the culture that another American represents), not my goverment specifically nor the interests of any special party within or outside of the government.

No, I am not currently a student, although this grant is available to current grad students.  I am hoping that this independant project helps get me into a good grad program sometime in the future, but I haven´t gotten that far yet.  I´ll keep posting.

Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.” – Senator J. William Fulbright, 1983.

I do have the responsibility of bringing my experiences here back to the U.S., sharing them with my community, and integrating them into my future work.   They should event influence my interactions or work with people of other countries who I meet in the future.  That will be a snap.  No prob.

And the truth is, I am my own boss here.  I set the rules.  As long as I communicate responsibly with all my host institutions, if I decide to leave during the week to visit a farm that is not within the reforestation project, or attend a cultural event in another city, I can do that.  Fulbright offers a blissfull freedom by stressing cultural understanding above everything else.  Because, honestly (and as I wrote about in the last enty), there aren´t very many things I do here that don´t help me understand this culture!

As the deadline nears, good luck to all of this years Fulbright applicants!

The Nicaraguan cultural ritual of push-starting trucks with dead batteries using the help of all the kids in the tiny rural village where you are stranded.

The Nicaraguan cultural ritual of push-starting trucks with dead batteries using the help of all the kids in the tiny rural village where you are stranded.

Driving to Managua today during the wee hours of the morning was a treat.  My friend Nicolas and I set out from León in starlight, racing a low hanging and brilliant planet to the north.  The volcano Momotombo emerged gradually from its dark cloak, and as the sun emerged giant rays of golden light literally appeared against the blue sky.  As we passed the mirador that looks out over lake Managua at the entrance of the city the view was breathtaking.  The misty islands and turquoise water tantalized us like a mirage of an imaginary paradise as we entered into the gray industrial and commercial strip of highway that leads straight to the airport.

Coming back alone was also a treat.  If there’s anything I like as much as riding in the back of a pickup it’s driving one.  Really any pickup is fun to drive, but it’s much better when it’s a bit beefy and a standard.  The day was incredibly hot by 7 am.  It’s a long dry winter here.  Everyone refers to El Niño and shakes their heads lamentably while watering their patios three times a day as if it were April.  The familiar fields between Managua and León were showing signs of stress.  The cane for cattle forage is yellowing and still stunted from being cut months ago.  Even the conventional peanut farmers are apparently having trouble keeping up with the lack of rain, and patches of fields were laced with wilting plants.  Where did the infamous Nica thunderstorms I heard so much about go, and when will they come back?

As I got into the rhythm of driving a now-familiar route for the first time, I thought about another lesson Nicaragua is teaching me.  Don’t shy away from chaos.  It only seems scary and awful from the outside looking it.  Get into the thick of it and figure it out, and don’t try to organize it.  I have spent months wary of the roads here, filled with every method of transportation imaginable.  Oxcarts, horse carts, motorcycles, buses, giant trailer trucks, cars, three wheeled moto-taxis, bicycle taxis, bicycles with whole families piled onto them and daddy pedaling, all weaving their way around pedestrians and meandering herds of cattle that blatantly ignore all yields.  But something has happened in eight months so that when I had my hands on the wheel I became part of all and instead of succumbing to my nervousness I just became part of the dance.

Photocopy shops that sell the best Guayaba fruit in town?  A little old grandma selling giant bottles of ice cold beer by passing them under the iron gate in an unmarked house on the corner?  Buses that just leave when they are full and don’t have a schedule?  Librerias that are not libraries and don’t sell books either, and pulperias that certainly don’t sell any pulpo (octopus).  Fireworks going off at 5 am to celebrate a saint that will heal you if you promise to rub black oil on your face once a year?  Directions and addresses that don’t have either street names nor house numbers, and often reference businesses long gone.   The water in your house will cut out at some point and it usually is in the morning but not always and sometimes is from 5am until 7:30 pm, but you never know.  Chaos.

But look what else the chaos means.  If you need a car mechanic at 8:30 at night on a weekend, you can find one!  Can I just break this package of plastic cups in the supermarket up and buy three because that’s all I need? Sure!  I had a nice and unexpected tour of almost the entire town of Telica while looking for an office half a block up and two north of town hall, and snooped out a sweet spot for lunch while looping around searching for the right town hall.   Well hey, check it out, a super sweet woman I know just was sent a mess of clothes to sell from the states so I can have tea with her while I buy the jeans I desperately need.  Chaos or convenience?

I realized while passing the colorful variety of travelers on the road this morning that I’m starting to really like some of the lack of rules here.  Like a good thrift shop, I never really know exactly what I’m going to find here, but there might be just what I need – or even a treasure – just out of sight.

This morning I was invited to a CEPRODEL meeting in Telica, a small town just north of León at the base of a live volcano.  It’s one of the towns within the department of León that CEPRODEL has an office in but that I haven’t visited yet.

The office is incredibly grandiose.  After the National Bank pulled out of Telica in 1995 and abandoned their offices CEPRODEL bought the building, which has a large porch with big columns and an expansive patio in the rear.  It certainly feels more like a giant bank than any other office I’ve been to.

I chose to stay in Telica for lunch after the office closed (half day only on Saturdays), in order to get to know the city a little bit.

While I was eating at a nice little comedor a man came in and starting drinking beer by himself at the next table.  He kept trying to talk to me, and I ignored him.  Finally I decided I was almost finished and he was getting disruptive, so I answered his questions.  He rather forwardly (but somewhat expectedly) invited himself to my table, and I would have called the management to intervene if he hadn’t been such an interesting, philosophical drunkard.

He thought I was from Europe.  When I answered that no, I am from the U.S., he raised his eyebrows.  “Oh, so you are more poor than I am!”

That intrigued me.  I asked him why.  In a roundabout way with many repetitions he explained, “I have 70 manzanas of land where I live with my whole family and we go out all day and struggle with our cows.  On our land.  Outside with our cows and my cousins and two sisters.  And you in the US just sit in your houses watching tv and drinking all day.”

Interesting coming from a guy already drunk at 1 pm.  I wonder if he actually knew how insightful that observation is.  Then later when talking about the sad state of local politics he confessed, “Look, I depend on this beer.  I haven’t paid for it yet, so right now it’s a loan – the bar loans it to me first until I pay. But those politicians take my money and go buy themselves three beers for every one that I drink.  And they are the same people we elect.  I vote, I always vote, but I don’t have an ounce of hope in the people I vote for.”

But he acknowledged he is like a baby at the bottle with his beer.  Alcoholism is a very sad disease.

After telling me he was going to give me 15 manzanas of his land as a gift, he started talking about fishing (that is, as a metaphor for picking up women), how beautiful my eyes are, and Spanish volunteers who were bathing in bikinis in a pool in his village.  At that point I thanked him for the conversation and left.

Telica is quiet.  Seems like everyone leaves to go work and shop in Leon, seeing that it’s only 15 minutes away.  The bus back to the city was filled with women with their woven plastic shopping bags.  Tranquila.

The sleepy center of Telica

The sleepy center of Telica

This is how to travel on the rough dirt back roads.  Can you see the mango plants I'm holding onto as well?!

This is how to travel on the rough dirt back roads. Can you see the mango plants I'm holding onto as well?!

Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapata picking up his 300 plantain corms with an oxcart.  This particular area of Nagarote is arid and visibly deforested.

Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapata picking up his 300 plantain corms with an oxcart. This particular area of Nagarote is arid and visibly deforested.

At the plantain farm where we bought the corms, a manager shows us how an incision in one of the tree stumps works to trap a damaging beetle pest, reducing the need for them to spray.  They make about twenty traps per manzana, and check them every morning.

At the plantain farm where we bought the corms, a manager shows us how an incision in one of the tree stumps works to trap a damaging beetle pest, reducing the need for them to spray. They make about twenty traps per manzana, and check them every morning.

Where Vernonn and I waited for three hours at the house of Julio Cesar Torres Trujillo.

Where Vernonn and I waited for three hours at the house of Julio Cesar Torres Trujillo.