January 2010


The stakes used to create fences are carefully chosen from species that take root easily, making living fences that support wildlife diversity.

The header photo at the moment was taken in the afternoon light at the model farm owned and run by the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa.  The red brush is jarao (sp?), a pasture planted for cattle.  The farm isn’t being managed to it’s full potential, although I was impressed with many things; a beautifully designed silvopastoreo system with different pastures for cattle and madroño trees planted in curvas a nivel, some experimentation with dry rice, and a fairly substantial intercropped fruit orchard.  The cooperative recently began organizing trucks to bring members’ cattle to the slaughter house in Managua, allowing the members to earn the full price of the beef they raise instead of selling to a middle man.  The farm serves as a docking point, and needs to provide food for the cattle between the time the members deliver them and when the truck departs.  At the moment, the farm can sustain up to 40 cattle at a time, with plenty of pasture.

The rows of leguminous trees slow the harsh winds, fix nitrogen, and provide protein rich fruits for the cattle and firewood and fenceposts for the farm.

Last week we attended the presentation of a new project the cooperative is offering to 130 participants.  Typically Nica, the project has a lengthy title:  “Fortalecimiento de fincas y Organización, con sistemas de Producción y Administración diversificados y sostenibles.” That is, “Strengthening farms and Organization with diverse and sustainable systems of Production and Administration.”  The project offers each participant support in diversifying their farm in one of five areas:  beekeeping, field crops, fruit trees, vegetables, and coffee.  By offering so many choices each farmer can think carefully about which direction they would like to take their business in, and the project as a whole helps to diversify the whole region.

Brigido Sosa, the cooperative president, convinced me to get up and share some of my farming experience, and also represent the few women members present. Public speaking is an excellent way for me to feel terrible about my spanish ability - my nerves cause every error possible to surface!

I was impressed with the organization and the presentation, which began with a clear list of the “politics” or details of the project, and then the criteria that all the participants have to meet in order to participate.  In general, the project donates 50% of the value of the necessary investments for each diversification (fencing, irrigation, seeds, tree saplings, etc), and offers the other 50% as a loan to the farmer, with a 3 or 4 year term and the same interest as all loans the cooperative offers.  Some of the criteria the farmers need to meet are the willingness to invest labor, involve family members, market the produce, grow organically (certified honey and coffee, non certified grains, vegetables, and fruit), and have legal ownership of their land.

We spent the night before at the farm of cooperative member Don Antonio, an organic sesame farmer and beekeeper.

Additionally, the cooperative will organize monthly markets in the town promoting the organic produce, provide tecnicos and support for value added products such as honey-wine or fruit jams, and organizational assistance such as making sure the planting dates are staggered so the local market is not flooded by 40 farmers all harvesting their tomatoes at the same time.

It’s a thoughtful project, that asks a lot of the participating farmers but I think- based on only a year here- that it is realistic.  It’s one kind of incentive that can help individuals take the leap to try something new, while potentially improving the entire municipalities markets and diets.  Projects that offer the flexibility of each farmer to decide what he wants seem to be less common than ones like the reforestation project I spent the last year working on, where theoretically every recipient receives the same kind of fruit tree, or pasture, etc.  In the states, a project that arrives at your farm and tells you that you had been selected to participate in a project and now you have to give three acres of your land and labor to their project goals and crops might seem over authoritative in the US, but it’s the norm here.  People participate because they believe the organizations know better, or because of the resources that participation offers.  But I get more excited about projects like the new Path to Organic project in Pennsylvania: financing on an individual basis for farmers to take whatever crops they are interested in or currently experienced in and transition to organic production. The freedom of that and this project is appealing.

Maintaining diversity means balancing lots of pros and cons. Don Antonio lets his cows graze in his sesame fields after he harvests the sesame (the threshed stalks lie in heaps where they were dried and threshed). The compaction of the cows on the fields is less during the dry season, and they fertilize the fields and beat back the weeds.

The Miraflor community Sontule picks and processes their coffee together.  The coffee goes through a number of stages before it leaves the community and travels to the nearest dry mill for export or to local markets.

For most of the harvest the coffee berries, or cerezas in spanish which actually translates into cherry, are picked red.  At the end of the harvest the bushes are stripped, which makes the picking slower because the last berries are up at the top of the trees.  Coffee trees are flexible, but sometimes it’s a struggle to bend them over and reach the top branches.  Stripping all the green and red berries together also makes the sorting process alot longer, because the ripe berries are sorted out before being depulped.

The berries are then measured into latas, or buckets, which is the measurement by which the pickers are paid, and everyone calculates their days work.  How many latas can you pick in a day?  Our best record was one lata each, given that the end of the harvest is alot of work for little yield, but one elderly villager told me he has picked up to six in a day!

After picking out all the green berries if it was the last pick, the berries are depulped, either at the community wet processing mill or at the family farm.  The depulping removes the coffee seeds from the fruit around them.  The green and over berries that are sorted out are dried first, and then pounded until the dried fruit comes off.  Those berries are considered lower quality, and are consumed by the families but not sold.

At the hand depulper on Henry’s farm the coffee beans come out one side into a sack…

… and the coffee-bean-less fruit comes out the other side.  We all took turns cranking the depulper, which you can somewhat adjust the flow on.  Coffee beans are actually very sweet, but the skins are tough.  The kids would grab handfuls of the pulp out the back and suck the honey like juices out.  The pulp is used for compost for the coffee trees and vegetable gardens.

After the depulping the beans are fermented slightly and washed at the wet mill.  The family has the choice of bringing the beans back to the farm to dry them or drying them at the wet mill.  Here is the lengthy sort #2, picking out the lesser quality or broken beans.  The seconds will either be consumed by the family or sold at the local market.  The firsts will make it to the dry mill, which is a larger regional processing plant.  There a finer layer of parchment is removed from the beans before they are exported.  Evaline, the lady on the right, is from France and was participating in a community tourist project run by the UCA Miraflor which offers tourists rooms in the village and the chance to participate in rural activities.

One of the houses I stayed at had this coffee roaster.  Sort of like a barbecue, the basin is filled with burning wood, and an old propane tank with bars at the ends and filled with coffee beans is set into the grips so that it can be turned slowly for an hour, roasting the beans over the wood fire.  I took this photo after the batch was taken out, you can see the embers from the fire cooling on the ground where they were scraped out.

Marlon, whose house I stayed at, with the cooling coffee beans straight out of the roaster.  The whole yard smelled delicious while they cooled.  This batch will be drunk by families and guests in the village – strong, black, and very sweet.


Rachel and I picking coffee. The full baskets are about a half a bucket, which Nicas get paid 25 Cordoba for.

Ah, la vaca ya se va,

Ay, la vaca ya se fue,

Eee, la vaca esta aqui!

Oh, la vaca se ahogo,

Ooo, the vaca eres tu!

– children’s rhyme

I spent three days picking coffee, relaxing, and working in vegetable gardens in the settlement of Sontule in the National Reserve of Miraflor, where my friends Rachel and Simon have been staying part time for several months.  It was nice to meet so many new people, and I didn’t mind at all being “the other Raquel!”  Friends of your friends become your friends quickly, and that’s what happened.

Some end of the evening couples dancing at Fabrizio's party!

We arrived on a celebratory weekend, with two birthday parties.  Saturday Ivancito celebrated his 11th birthday, and Sunday Fabrizio turned 3.  I was pleased to find an auspicious absence of the pounding reggaeton that the dance scene in León thrives on, because the children at both parties preferred dancing to their rock and roll!  The party for Fabrizio began with a blessing from an Evangelical minister, who talked sternly about “keeping calves tied up so they don’t go down the wrong path” and being roll models for our children.   The actual party started when he finally finished rambling and they sang a nice song that invites the grandparents, then the children, then the women, and finally all the men to come up and greet the birthday child.

Brian, who is 6, taught me many little rhymes while we picked his Dad's parcel of coffee.

Coffee picking was a blast.  The song above, a silly little rhyme, is one of the many that the children and their parents chanted in the fields while picking.  The coffee is planted in rows, which sometimes converge and divulge confusingly, and is nearly always planted on a pretty serious slope.  We arrived at the end of the harvest, which was probably good, because the mood was very relaxed.  We also were stripping the bushes of everything left, and didn’t have to worry about quality control.  In this community, everyone pitches in and helps, and the harvest, which happens during school vacation, is a chance for the kids to earn some pocket money.  We had a wonderful time teasing them about stealing from us, and I challenged Ivancito to a picking contest and won – but not by much!

I learned a bit about coffee, and a lot more about how long term investment of social projects can really affect the quality of rural life.  Sontule has received quite a lot of attention from a women’s rights group in Estili, who come and offer workshops for both the women and young men in the village.  In addition there are three cooperatives that among other things work with coffee production, eco-tourism, vegetable gardens, and education.  The result – an impressively enlightened and well educated rural community.  Possibly most immediately visible are the results of the feminist organization, Xilonen.  The women talk easily about their hardships, are encouraged to co-counsel and learn concepts of psychology, and some of the men are very open about needing to change the accepted role of men by helping to cook, clean, and wash clothes.  The conscious examination of gender roles in everyday life are visible even down to the absence of the reggaeton I had noticed at the children’s parties, which many community member discourage because of its vulgar language toward women (similar to many criticisms of rap artists in the states).   Clearly this is a slow and difficult process, but one that with the support of Xilonen is fulfilling and gratifying for many of  Sontule’s residents.

Quien roba pan de la casa de San Juan?

Ivancito roba pan de la casa de San Juan!!

Quien, yo?

Si, tu!

No fui!

Entonces quien?

Raquel roba pan de la casa de San Juan!

– chant similar to the English game “Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?”

Two recent events here in Nicaragua have made me realize that the “local” and “direct connection to the source” movements in the states around food have only just begun to scratch the surface.  The fact is that a huge percentage of our food is processed, even what we think of as “natural” or “unprocessed” foods such as nuts and grains need to be shelled, cleaned, sorted, roasted, etc.  Who benefits or controls those processes, and the social and environmental ramifications of them, is just as important as the original source: the farmer.

In the states, a recent rise in the awareness and involvement in farming has had ramifications from CSA becoming a widely accepted and understood farming model to individual coffee farmers faces on the bags we buy.   The next step for this know-the-source-of-your-food is to bring to light and work on the remaining steps in the chain that remain invisible.

Sesame seed processing is just one "invisible" step among hundreds of specific industries that process foods we consider unprocessed.

Two days ago a group of students from Oberlin came to León and I arranged a tour of a sesame processing plant owned by a cooperative of 11 agricultural cooperatives from around the country.  The sesame is exported from the plant in one of three states: sorted and cleaned (with no leaf or plant bits or rocks, etc.), peeled or de-husked and sorted, or in drums of raw sesame oil.  ALL sesame that we encounter, whether in tahini, hamburger buns, oil, or as ingredients in cosmetics, goes through this process.  The difference is that here the farmers, with representatives they elect and hire, own and manage this plant.

The processing plant is huge.  It’s a factory.  Overwhelmingly large and complicated machinary requires us to climb two flights of metal staircases to understand it’s complex process of heating, washing, and peeling sesame.  The sorting room is sterile, and anyone who enters puts on lab coats, hair nets, and disinfects their hands.

It’s understandable the the students came away awed, and also worried that the small farmers of Nicaragua were sucked into a big bad industrial food processing business instead of focussing on the crops that feed their families.  At first I was frustrated that they hadn’t understood the power of the farmers owning this part of the sesame chain.  I felt I we had failed by not emphasizing enough that the farmers ARE growing their beans and corn as well as the sesame they send to the plant.  But then I realized that it’s not the lack of information as much as a mentality that the students, myself, and many other very enlightened consumers in the states unconsciously submit themselves to.  “The farmers are good.  The industry is bad”.

What helped me see this is another conversation we are having with a coffee roaster in North America.  The roaster agreed to pay a premium on the coffee that will be used to organize women in the coffee chain, symbolically recognizing their unpaid work in the house and fields and the benefit that their work has on the quality and quantity of coffee produced.  Practically, the project supports the women in organizing themselves into cooperatives and groups and finances economic activities such as baking or small shops that the women are already struggling to fit into their busy lives.

Over 60 women attended and were excited about the opportunity for them to join the cooperative movement and have access to savings accounts and loans.

The problem: including the women who are employed at the coffee processing plant, and not keeping the project exclusively focussed on the women coffee farmers or wives of farmers.  Why?  Because it’s less marketable in the states.  The roaster is worried that because the women have a paid job at the processing plant, even though it is a job that only lasts four months of the year and most of them have no steady income those other 8 months, he won’t be able to sell the project as empowering women in coffee.  My view of it: he’s scared of the images of women in a giant warehouse, of thousands of sacks of coffee, and of big sorting machines.  He wants the image of the lone woman farmer surrounded by plants to show his consumers, because that’s as far as the ‘direct connection’ socially responsible food consumer movement has come.  That’s what is acceptable, trendy, marketable.

If consumers who shop at farmers markets and Whole Foods out of a desire to buy socially and environmentally responsible products want to make truly educated decisions, they need to accept the level at which ALL of our food is processed, and include the steps in the chain between that picturesque farmer and the bag on the shelf.  Sesame and coffee IS processed, so why not support the farmers in creating some competition to the US companies that buy foreign soil to build their own processing and exporting plants.  Given the frequency of small farms highlighted in the media in the last decade, we are on our way to highlighting and valuing the primary production of our food.  Now it is time to continue that work while also reclaiming the image of the food industry as having the same empowering potential as properly acknowledging and paying small farmers for their work.

This coffee processing plant doesn't look any different from its neighboring plants in Matagalpa. The difference is, like the sesame plant, it's actually owned by the coffee farmers organized into cooperatives.

Getting back to work with the reforestation project.  Here´s a copy of an end of the year article from El Nuevo Diario, one of the national newspapers, which doesn´t include our project because it is privately funded, but shows that we are in good company.  Translation thanks to NicaNet, the Nicaragua Network.  I highly recommend their news services and bulletins as a way of keeping in touch with Nicaragua in English.

Leon and Chinandega close out the year working on Reforestation

During 2009 a diverse group of institutions continued a reforestation project on hillsides and in river basins, in parks and in school yards to improve environmental conditions in 13 of the 22 municipalities of the Departments of Leon and Chinandega. The campaign, the third in a series, completed the reforestation of 11,000 acres. Among the thousands of trees planted were mahogany, teak, laurel, pochote (Bombacopsis quinata), eucalyptus, oak, Guanacaste, Genízaro (Albizia saman), Ceiba, and cedar. There was a special emphasis placed on the reforestation of land near rivers.

The program received support from many sources, including the National Forest Institute (INAFOR), the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), mayors of the municipalities involved, the Ministry of Education, the Nicaraguan Army, the Young Environmentalists Club, the United States Millennium Challenge Account (CRM), and the Monte Rosa and San Antonio sugar mills. Over 600 high school students from Chichigalpa and Posoltega participated in the program. Each school and institution that participated received an award.

There was also an environmental education campaign for populations located near the reforested areas, to teach them about proper trash disposal in order to avoid the contamination of rivers and the spread of illnesses. The campaign will continue through next year with the goal of caring for sources of water and trees so that they can be inherited by future generations, thereby strengthening preservation of the rivers, and maintaining the river basins.

Gloria Gonzalez, Education Ministry delegate for Chinandega, said that a total of 7,000 students from that department had planted 60,000 trees. They also cleaned up the Acome River which had been contaminated by dumping. Alejandro Palma, Mayor of San Pedro de Potrero in Chinandega, said that extensive areas in his municipality had been reforested. He added that the population has learned to conserve the pine forests of the area near the Honduras border and now many have solar panels to provide electricity and no longer burn pine branches for light. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 30)

December 31, 2009 was the 25th anniversary of the Contra attack at Lagartillo, a village north of Achuapa.  To commemorate the fight during which six community members died, several people who fled organized a walk, called La Caminata, retracing the footpaths they followed to reach Achuapa in safety.  31 people, including parents and children who escaped 25 years ago, the kids and grandkids of those people, and foreigners in solidarity walked for over three hours in the hills from Lagartillo to Achuapa.

The event started with one of the women who escaped retelling the story of the attack and recognizing everyone who was present who had also fled.  Many of the people participating were small children the day of the attack, including one young man who was then only four weeks old.  We left around 6 am, while the sun was still rising in the hills.

After walking more than half way we stopped at a river crossing to swim and eat some breakfast of boiled malanga (a potato-like root, creamy and a bit sweet), bread and cheese, and watermelon.

The destination was the graveyard in Achuapa, where the six community member who died are buried.  The gated graves were decorated with fresh flowers, and we set off a flare in honor of “the heroes of Lagartillo”

Pick-up trucks were arranged to take us back up to Lagartillo, where there was a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary.  Several local and national politicians were present, and they unveiled a bronze statue of Sandino given as a gift to the community.  Several musicians performed, the kids from the village performed folk dances, and a poet gave a presentation of one of his original poems.  This is me with my friend Maribel’s son, Ricardo, “mi amorcito”, who I spent much of the ceremony with.

We drove back to León that evening, where the city was covered in piñatas, streamers, and fireworks.  We had a small collection of fireworks waiting for us.  The bull in the back is a Nicaraguan handmade, mimicking the puppet bulls that are worn in the parade of San Geronimo in September.  I was particularly looking forward to the “Hen laying eggs”, which supposedly spewed colored sparks out sideways.  It turned out to be a disappointment, letting out one sad whiney whistle and spewing two little lights before fizzling.  The best was unanimously decided to be the space ship, which took off straight up in the air and spun rapidly while changing color.

We went up to El Fortin, the old Somoza fort on the top of a hill overlooking the city, to watch the fireworks.  The city came alive at midnight, with colorful fireworks exploding from every barrio.  We welcomed in 2010 with grapes, hot toddies, and some good friends under the full moon.  We debated how many years it will be before a full moon will fall on new years again, and then how many before a blue moon falls on new years.  If it happens again within my lifetime, I’m sure I will be remembering where I was during this one.