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.