October 2009


A client in Telica who plants pumpkins in his Eucalyptus forest, from which he harvests firewood constantly, so that shade never grows enough to inhibit the growth of the plants underneath.

A client in Telica takes advantage of the soil fertility in a eucalyptus patch to plant pumpkins.

I’ve seen some creative garden designs among the CEPRODEL clients I’ve visited.  One of the gardening methods that few larger farms adopt for scale reasons is companion planting, or mixing two or more species of plants in the same space to take advantage of different needs or services of each plant.  A well-known example of companion planting in the states is the three-sisters garden, of corn beans and squash.  I’ve seen many variations on that theme here.

Juana de la Rosa Sanchez Chevez and  Miguel Angel Ruiz Lopez, clients in Telica, are innovating with new vegetable gardening methods.   Miguel Angel’s farm is an example of how vegetable farming can be profitable with little land, although he admits that it is more labor intensive than the cattle farming that most farmers here focus on.  His two acres in the town of Quetzalguaque is currently planted in pipian and ayote (two kinds of squash), cucumbers, sesame, sweet corn, and string beans.  He has an intense rotation system.

Miguel Angel's row of sesame planted along side of his cucumber, which will climb a trellis.  Climbing a trellis results in cucumbers that are green on all sides (instead of yellow where they rest on the ground), and also helps keep them free of bacterial and fungal soil diseases.

Miguel Angel's row of sesame planted along side of his cucumber, which will climb a trellis. Climbing a trellis results in cucumbers that are green on all sides (instead of yellow where they rest on the ground), and also helps keep them free of bacterial and fungal soil diseases.

The season here is non-stop, because with a drip irrigation system he can grow year-round, and so he plants beans in rotation to allow the land to regenerate a bit.  Unlike corn and squash, beans fix nitrogen in the soil and aren’t heavy feeders.   We talked for over an hour about his garden, the different problems he’s encountered, and how his gardening methods have changed since he started.  Some of his new experiments are,

–  Using old drip tape for his cucumber trellises.  The drip tape that has broken in smaller sections he can tie together.  The test will be if it is strong enough to support the full-grown plants.

– Planting sesame as a repellent for comegenes, a grub that attacks the roots of crops.  He heard that sesame exudes a bitter oil from its roots that soil grubs don’t like.

– Planting a mixture of ayote (kind of like pumpkin) and pipian (kind of like zucchini, but the plant grows more like a cucumber plant) between his rows of corn just as the corn is beginning to form fruit.  The live corn plants protect

Raphael, one of the the CEPRODEL rural credit supervisors in Telica, looking at the pipian.

Raphael, one of the CEPRODEL rural credit supervisors in Telica, looking at the pipian.

the curcubit seedlings with a bit of shade, and then he lets the corn plants dry to harvest for tortilla corn and the squash plants take over.  The pipian is harvested first, and the ayote second.  He usually harvests the pumpkin green and small, to sell for putting in soup.  But this year the price has dropped for ayote tierno, and so he is going to let them get big and riper to sell during the christmas season when people make candied pumpkin with dulce, an unrefined brown sugar.

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Miguel Angel Ruiz Lopez y Juana de la Rosa Sanchez Chevez

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Francisco Novoa, one of the farmers participating in the project, with his citrus and plantain trees.

Francisco Novoa, one of the farmers participating in the project, with his citrus and plantain trees.

Friday we had a meeting with the CEPRODEL clients in the reforestation project .   We organized a presentation by INAFOR, the National Institution of Forestry, about the process of registering conservation land and legally harvesting precious wood.   Because we included in the project valuable lumber with the goal of giving the participants a potential long-term income (most lumber trees take 20 years to mature to a prifitably size), we felt it was important for them to understand the process of legally harvesting and selling lumber.

The representative of INAFOR talked about the benefits of registering forests, and that just since August 2008 INAFOR has made a new policy that invites small producers to register plots under 20 manzanas for just $5 US.  Previously they had charged $28 US and only accepted plots larger than 20 manzanas.  When a plot is registered, INAFOR offers services such as free seedlings to reforest, disease and pest support.   He talked about the need to reforest and conserve forested areas – how many manzanas dissappear each year to firewood and logging, and how that puts water sources and ecosystems in danger.  There are also certain types of trees that are illegal to cut and sell without special permission from INAFOR.   As a reforestation project, it might seem a bit odd to be devoting time to talking about cutting down trees.  I think the idea was for the participants in the project to become familiar with the legal processes of benefiting financially from their trees, as well as the fines involved in mishandling forest exploitation.

Abrahan Escoto Juarez talking to the group.

Abrahan Escoto Juarez talking to the group.

Toward the end of the presentation one of the participants, Don Abrahan, expressed his concern about who was NOT getting this information.  “We are small farmers who do not have to resources to cut down lots of trees, or the connections to sell them, and most of us have very little land to profit off of.  But near my house there is a large farmer who has tractors and chain saws, and he has cleared many manzanas of land.  Some of the trees that he has cut down are on the other side of the river that borders our land, and that puts my water at risk.  Are you talking to him and the other large farmers that have machinary too?  I think they need to hear this information more than we do.

If every small farmer clears a little bit of land it all adds up to a big area, which is the danger in thinking that your little bit doesn’t matter.  It’s a good justification for continuing a bad practice, like continuing to use an herbicide because it’s only a few little acres, or people in the states continuing to drive short distances instead of biking or walking.  It’s such a little piece of land, or such a short distance, it can’t really matter.  It’s also a dangerous way of justifying NOT changing, by thinking that a good thing in such little bit also can’t make that much of a distance.  But it’s hard not to see Abrahan’s point.  The difference is that we can see when big “evil” farmers or companies clear cut, but it’s alot harder to see the cumulative impact of lots of small individuals.

I think Abrahans point came partially from a feeling that because there are so many projects here focussing on small farmers, organizing the poor into groups and educating them on different social and environmental topics, that those outreach groups are missing a part of the population that continue to practice – and profit from – things that the small poor are encouraged not to do – such as exploit large acres of forest or spray chemicals on acres of irrigated corn.

The representative answered that there is a system to fine people who harvest unregistered lumber within a close distance of a river, and invited Don Abrahan to come to his office and file a complaint.  I wonder if he will follow through, and how much of his question was based on a general resentment about having a neighbor with chain saws and tractors.

I visited twos SosteNica clients in El Sauce last week with Franklin, the departmental director for CEPRODEL in León.

Don Orlando herds dairy cattle in one of his corrals.  Thi year his cash crops are beef, milk, and sesame, and he grows corn for subsistance along with all the pasture for his cattle.

Don Orlando herds dairy cattle in one of his corrals. This year his cash crops are beef, milk, and sesame, and he grows corn for subsistence along with all the pasture for his cattle.

The first, Don Orlando, had taken a $10,000 loan out to buy cattle.  At the time that he bought the calves, the price was 27 cordoba, or roughly $1.35, a pound.  That was over a year ago.  According to the plan he initially worked out, he should have paid his load back by this August, but the price has dropped to 16 cordoba a pound, or $0.80, and he chose not to sell.  Instead, he re-worked his plan with CEPRODEL to lengthen the time frame, or plazo, of his loan.  We visited his farm to see his herd, brand some dairy cattle that he chose to designate as collateral, and see the 30 acres of sesame that he is planning to use to pay back half his loan after he harvests it in mid-November.

Don Orlando has over 400 acres, spread over two different farms that he has inherited or bought.  He is a conventional farmer who manages his land and cattle well.  He has the luxury of having enough land to rotate his cattle and crops frequently, a practice that is important for the soil fertility as well as keeping diseases and pests to a minimum.  He has almost thirty acres of pasto de corto, usually a variety sugar cane or tall grass that grows over six feet tall during the rainy winter and then is used as cattle feed in the dry summer months.  The new header image at the top of this site is a view of one of Don Orlando’s pastures and cattle.  He and his employees as use horses to herd that cattle into corrals, where there are water basins and mineral salts.  It was clear from the healthy appearance of the cattle that he is a responsible cattle farmer.

Horseback is the best way to get around these vast farms, often connected with very poorly maintained dirt roads.  Even in the drought (read: lack of mud), we nearly got the CEPRODEL truck stuck on several ruts and uneven parts of the rural roads.

Horseback is the best way to get around these vast farms, often connected with very poorly maintained dirt roads. Even in the drought (read: lack of mud), we nearly got the CEPRODEL truck stuck on several ruts and uneven parts of the rural roads.

His thirty acres of sesame were even more impressive.  In the past several years he has only dedicated five manzanas to planting a cash crop, either sesame or watermelon.  This year he chose to plant a 26 manzana section that has been cattle pasture for 20 years.  The 20 year rest out of the agricultural rotation, which is called giving a land descanso, allowed the land to absorb all the fertility from the cattle manure and natural decomposition.  This year Don Orlando says he expects the best sesame harvests he has ever had, despite the fact that other farmers complain that the drought has affected their yields.   His sesame is impressive, over six feet tall and very productive.

This is a difficult time for many farmers.  The drought, which is negatively affecting predicted yields for staple and export crops, will possibly also raise some of the market values of those crops but probably not enough to make up the difference in yields.  Many farmers in this part of Nicaragua have been relying more and more heavily on cattle, and the sudden swell in production has cut the market price by half in the past year.  This highlights one of the risks of agricultural loans, because the market price of agricultural products – cattle included – fluctuate quickly.  Because of the length of time necessary to cultivate a grain or raise cattle, loans are taken out based on market prices that may be over a year before the product will actually be sold.  It’s a gamble.  And sometimes farmers need to pay back cattle loans with a sesame harvest, which doesn’t make it clear at the end of the day whether the farmer has actually gotten ahead.  Was it worth it to Don Orlando to take out a  loan for cattle which he can’t pay back with the sale of the cattle and has to dip into his sesame income to clear?  As a responsible farmer, who clearly has a high quality product to offer, he thinks it was.  By renegotiating his loan with CEPRODEL, he has avoided needing to turn over all his collateral (double the value of his loan) and keeps his credit history intact, ensuring the possibility of future credit.  With the credit he nearly doubled the size of his herd, and while he is not sending all of the intended cattle to slaughter, he has also increased the number of his dairy cattle.  The price of milk has remained more stable than beef, and his better-than-average pasture management means that he will probably maintain good milk yields through the summer, when the price of milk goes up slightly.  So even though he will pay more in interest than originally planned by extending the length of his loan by a year, his responsible farm and credit management has at least maintained the long term growth of his farm.  For many farmers here, whether they have taken credit out in the past year or not, the slow economy and drought has made it a challenge to maintain their businesses, let alone come out ahead.

The rural credit supervisor and technical assistant for CEPRODEL, Sebastian, branding the dairy cattle for collateral. He is using acid, a safer, quicker, and more humane method of branding than using a hot iron brand.

The rural credit supervisor and technical assistant for CEPRODEL, Sebastian, branding the dairy cattle for collateral. He is using acid, a safer, quicker, and more humane method of branding than using a hot iron brand.

I took the following quote out of my “Organic Bytes” newsletter put out by the Organic Consumers Association.   Look for the implied definition of organic, and then think about whether this statement is true if only applied to the US.

“Organic agriculture puts the needs of rural people and the sustainable use of natural resources at the centre of the farming system. Locally adapted technologies create employment opportunities and income. Low external inputs minimize risk of indebtedness and intoxication of the environment. It increases harvests through practices that favor the optimization of biological processes and local resources over expensive, toxic and climate damaging agro-chemicals…in response to a frequently asked question: Yes, the world can be fed by the worldwide adoption of Organic agriculture. The slightly lower yields of Organic agriculture in favorable, temperate zones are compensated with approximately 10-20% higher yields in difficult environments such as arid areas.”

-International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements World Food Day, October 12, 2009

The handiwork of Maria from La Rinconada, a village in the north of the department of León

The handiwork of Maria from La Rinconada, a village in the north of the department of León

In the villages the tortilla is one of the main staples in the Nicaraguan diet.  It is also one of the main jobs for women.  In the two villages where I visited this past weekend, one woman in every house spent hours a day preparing corn and making tortillas.

The corn for tortillas is prepared the day before.  The white kernels of dried corn are boiled in water and ashes, which, as you can imagine, results in a large unappetizing gray lumpy mess.  This age old process is called nixtamalization. The alkaline ashes free an amino acid called tryptophan which makes the corn digestable and more nutritious.  The process also causes the outer husk of the kernals to split and peel off.

Mixing in the corn and ash at Melaña's house, also in La Rinconada.

Mixing in the corn and ash at Melaña's house, also in La Rinconada.

The following morning the corn is washed (the waste water with the kernal peels fed to pigs or dogs) and hand ground.  Tina, in Lagartillo, always uses a metate (a kind of stone morter and pestle) to further grind the masa, but some people skip this extra step, or send the masa through the grinder a second time.  Each tortilla is hand formed, first into a thick pancake and then patted out slowly into a thin smooth disk.  Every tortilla has a face – the side

Many Nicaraguans, even in the city, cook over open fire.  This is a more effecient and healthy wood stove, as it burns less wood and has a chimney to carry the smoke outside.  The fire is underneath, and the two griddles are resting on open holes.  Pots are also put right on the open fire, or ontop of a griddle to simmer.

Many Nicaraguans, even in the city, cook over open fire. This is a more effecient and healthy wood stove, as it burns less wood and has a chimney to carry the smoke outside. The fire is underneath, and the two griddles are resting on open holes. Pots are also put right on the open fire, or ontop of a griddle to simmer.

you pat on.  When you put the tortilla onto the comal (a ceramic griddle used exclusively for tortillas) the face has to go down.  When there is steam escaping from the center of the tortilla, it’s time to flip it.  Tina has a special method of flipping, where she puts the back of the tips of her fingers on the edge of the tortilla.  They stick slightly, just enough for her to life her hand and slip her thumb underneath, grab the edge, and flip.  I’ve managed to do this once or twice, but not without getting a nice blister on the back side of my middle finger.  After another minute the tortilla is flipped one final time.  This is the test flip – if the masa separates and the tortilla puffs up like a balloon, you’ve made an excellent tortilla!

Making tortillas with Maria.  I'm grinding.  Maria grinds eight mill-fulls of corn a day for her large family.

Making tortillas with Maria. I'm grinding. Maria grinds eight mill-fulls of corn a day for her large family.

There are endless varieties of tortillas.  Every household seems to have it’s signature.  Tina’s are medium sized, very finely textured, and have a wonderful flavor from the corn her family grows.  In another village called La Rinconada, Maria’s tortillas are nearly twice the size.  Her hard working sons and husband eat two in each meal, six a day, and that makes for an enormous amount of tortilla making.  She speeds up the process by skipping the ‘fine grind’, which changes the texture but they are just as flavorful.  In the city many people use Maseca, a pre-processed fine corn flour for tortillas.  I’ve used this in the states because it’s available almost everywhere, but after eating the real thing I definitely notice the difference.  A flat, sourish taste and smell.  Fresh ingredients and the extra work of starting from scratch definitely make a difference.

Theo!

Theo!

The little bits and pieces of recent life in León:

A new addition to Nick’s house is Theo, a manx kitten.  He loves playing with feet, plastic bags, shoes, ants (go get’um hunter!) and climbing up the legs of my jeans so that I walk around with a kitten clinging to my hip and meowing frantically.

Yesterday NicaNet, the Nicaraguan Solidarity Network, published their October-September Monitor (monthly newsletter), with an article I wrote on the front page!  It’s a substantial piece, different from the ones I posted earlier on the Fulbright blog.  You can look at the whole publication on their website (linked above), or read just the SosteNica article here.

Last week there was a fantastic street theater performance by my friend Sobeyda.  She is in a theater troupe funded by the European Union, and worked with a rural community south of Managua to create a 1.5 hour long performance about the importance of preserving Nicaraguan culture in the face of globalization.  It was filled with stiltwalking, singing, dancing, and a participatory discussion afterward.  About 500 people crammed into the central square to watch.

Sobeyda (right), as a campasino woman, one of the many characters she played in the peice.

Sobeyda (right), as a campasino woman, one of the many characters she played in the peice.

Running off to Achuapa and El Sauce for a long weekend, to catch this theater peice another time, visit some friends in their villages, and work with CEPRODEL in El Sauce on Tuesday.  El Sauce and Achuapa are part of the department of León, but in the beginning of the northern mountains.  I’m looking forward to a cooler climate and the gorgeous views.

Ariel has only worked at CECOCAFEN for eight months.  Since he began, he has been meeting with each cooperative individually to evaluate and improve their managerial systems and distribution of technical resources to members.

Ariel has only worked at CECOCAFEN for eight months. Since he began, he has been meeting with each cooperative individually to evaluate and improve their managerial systems and distribution of technical resources to members.

The following day we visited another Union of Cooperatives, CECOCAFEN, and farmer Byron Corales Martinez.
CECOCAFEN works with nine cooperatives, which collectively have over 2000 individual producers. Nicolas and Mickey signed contracts to buy more organic coffee, and Nestor went over the production details with Ariel, their director of technical assistance.  CECOCAFEN has also worked with several environmental projects and supported the formation of a women’s saving group, which provides a possible infrastructure to channel the funds to recognize the unpaid work of women.  One of the specific difficulties that the farmers are facing right now is that many of the coffee plants are over 25 years old, the age at which production begins to decrease.  However, renovating their plantations means pulling the producing plants out and planting ones which will not produce for three years, and the farmers cannot afford to loose those years of production right now.  Because the payback for renovating is over such a long time span, there is virtually no credit available to farmers for this specific activity.  Partially for that reason, CECOCAFEN has supported farm diversification, linking their coop members to groups supporting other agricultural crops so they aren’t solely relying on coffee income.The Cooperativa Solidaridad also has a nice little cupping lab.

The Cooperativa Solidaridad also has a nice little cupping lab.

After CECOCAFEN we briefly stopped at Cooperative Solidaridad, a small cooperative on the road back toward Jinotega, and then headed out to visit the farm of Byron Corales Martinez, an organic farmer who was an original member of the cooperative but now sells independant of any group or certification.

Byron and Mickey (right).  With my help translating they got along fantastically.  Mickey's experience with organic farming in Vancouver and his views on fair trade from the perspective of a coffee roaster resonated with the direction Byron has taken his farm.  A business - and friendship - success.

Byron and Mickey (right). With my help translating they got along fantastically. Mickey's experience with organic farming in Vancouver and his views on fair trade from the perspective of a coffee roaster resonated with the direction Byron has taken his farm. A business - and friendship - success.

Don Byron is an entrepreneur.  It was immediately clear that he is a strong, passionate guy.  He’s pulled out of fair trade certification because he said all they were concerned about was money, and his concept of fair trade was alot more inclusive.  He said before he entered Fair Trade, he had used $4,000 from profits from his coffee business to start a school in the community, but the high fees he paid to be certified didn’t allow him to continue contributing.  He also is working with a large community initiated conservation project to protect over 1,000 hectares of forest which contain sources of water that benefit three municipalities and a hydroelectric plant.  Fair Trade, he says, didn’t support any of the environmental standards that he considers essential for a true high quality product. So now he sells directly to contacts he’s made personally – kind of like an international coffee CSA type business model.  The buyers have to come to his farm, where they see his cultivation methods and the environmental and social projects he contributes to. He is selling to three different buyers on the west coast of the US.

The drought has provoked some strange coffee growth.  This plant has red cherries, green cherries, and flowers at the same time, which Byron said is extremely strange.

The drought has provoked some strange coffee growth. This plant has red cherries, green cherries, and flowers at the same time, which Byron said is extremely strange.

At the farm, we got a tour and a well-rehearsed presentation.  It started with Byron asking us, “Do you know where the flavor of coffee comes from?”  The answer, it turns out, is the soil.  Byrons soil is carefully managed with biofermento, a homemade liquid fertilizer that promotes the action of microorganisms, mulch to preserve humidity, and lots of cow manure.  He’s worked out all the calculations.  “One cow gives me about 30 lbs. of manure a day.  That’s enough to fertilize 7 coffee plants.  From those 7 plants I’ll get about 60 lbs of beans which will make about 600 cups of coffee.  At $1.50 a cup in your coffee shop, it means that my 30 lbs. of cow manure is worth…$900!”  Byrons cultivation methods are strongly rooted in biodynamics.  He plants and prunes according to moon phases, and focuses alot of his attention of soil structure, organic fertilization, and remineralization with rock powder.  He feeds his cattle a mixture of 17 different plants, to ensure a rich mineral content in the manure.  He farms seven different varieties of coffee on 28 hectares, including a variety called Marracatura which has won first prize at an international coffee convention.

Byron introduced us to a class of young students learning English at a school bordering the farm, a project that he set up with a friend of his who was recently deported from the U.S. and is using his acquired English to teach the students.  They treated us to a performance of some songs they have been learning.

Byron introduced us to a class of young students learning English at a school bordering the farm, a project that he set up with a friend of his who was recently deported from the U.S. and is using his acquired English to teach the students. They treated us to a performance of some songs they have been learning.

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