April 2012


As organic farmers know, it’s much more important over the long term to feed the soil than to feed a plant.  Using nutrients that a plant needs only in the moment (essentially what chemical fertilizers provide) would be like eating nothing but a bag of potato chips every time you felt faint, but never sitting down to hearty meal.  Organic farmers, and certifiers, know that the best way to nourish a plant is to feed the soil, with fertilizers that not only contain the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that the chemical fertilizers contain, but also organic matter and micro-nutrients that a plant needs in much smaller amounts and that ultimately improve the texture, drainage, and composition of the soil.

Small farmers remove the coffee cherry pulp with a hand-cranked mill.

On one hand organic coffee farmers have excellent materials to make organic fertilizers but on the other hand they can be limited by the restrictions placed on them by certification bodies.  The first and most widely used ingredient for organic fertilizer on a coffee farm is the fruit from the coffee cherries.  On small farms, the cherries are often de-pulped on the farm and then seeds, or coffee beans, are dried and transported to a processing plant owned by the cooperative or a private company.  The fruit of the cherries contains phosphorus and adds organic matter to the soil, but farmers add manure, either chicken or cattle, to the compost to create a nitrogen rich fertilizer that both boosts the plants growth short-term and gradually improves the quality of the soil over seasons.

A farmer who dedicates time and labor to producing fertilizer for high quality coffee feels as proud of his compost as he is of the end product!

While recycling the cherry fruits and any manure you have around the farm into your soil is something that every farmer should do (and many coffee farmers do), in Nicaragua conventional coffee farmers are at an advantage over organic farmers in that they have the possibility of augmenting their fruit with purchased fertilizers.  Because there are no commercially available certified organic fertilizers here, the smallest farmers who are certified organic struggle to feed their soils.  Unless they have enough land to dedicate several acres to cattle and harvest their own manure, they are prohibited by the certification bodies of adding the manure from any neighboring farms, unless the neighboring farm’s cattle production is certified organic (virtually unheard of here).

Central small-farmer Cooperatives are now dedicating time and resources to improving the fertilizers available to small farmers, often hand in hand with small roasters from abroad who purchase the coffee and are very supportive of the cooperative in maintaining the highest quality coffee and yields possible.  Bocashi is a japanese method of making compost which actively supports the growth of micro-organisms which help to break down nutrients in the soil and make them available to the plants.  Farmers can make bocashi using rice husks, dried coffee cherries, a starch, and unrefined sugar; all ingredients that are readily available to the rural areas.  Another powerful fertilizer is bio-ferment, an excellent way for small farmers to stretch the small amount of cow manure they produce over several acres of coffee plant.  Bio-ferment is a foliar fertilizer, which mixes cow manure, milk, sugar and mineral salts into a nutrient-rich spray that is absorbed directly into the leaves of the plant.

Having a commercially available certified organic fertilizer will help some small farmers maintain their certifications.

Some cooperatives are able to invest in more direct support for their farmers.  The SOPPEXCCA cooperative in Jinotega has built a fertilizer plant, and they are currently producing certified organic fertilizer for their own cooperative members.  This is just one great example of how a well run cooperative can provide much more to its members than a guaranteed market.

To be successful, an organic farmer needs to be able to produce the necessary ingredients and labor to make fertilizers on-farm or has to have a commercially available product that is affordable.  Etico has been focusing recently on helping cooperatives with both of these strategies, that will ultimately lead to better coffee and a healthier environment.

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Here are some more quick, personal updates from our patio garden and mini-zoo.

We harvested the head of little bananas (bananito rosa) that was growing over the roof; I was worried it was leaning on the roofing and going to cook in the heat where it touched, and the bananas looked fat and plump.  I think we could have left it a tad longer, but we also wanted to eat them while Nick’s parents were here.  We’ve been waiting for two and a half years for that banana plant to give us a head!!  The plantain trees the project I worked with nearby sprouted a head every eight months, so now I understand one reason why these little bananitos are more expensive in the markets.  What our plant lost in speed it made up for in quantity – there were over 125 bananitos on the head!

(Bananas and plantains have heads, hands, and fingers: the whole stalk of fruit is the head, each double row of bananas is a hand, and each individual fruit is refered to as a finger).

It’s best to harvest a head right before it starts to ripen, because otherwise birds and hungry pests attach feverishly.  So we hung the head up in our patio to ripen.  Every morning we examined the top fruit looking for yellow blush.  When the first turned yellow, we picked them too soon but grudgingly swallowed the starchy not-very sweet bites because they were just so valuable.  When after a week the head ripened – like a living firework, spreading downward – it caught us off guard.  Within two days the entire head ripened to soft super sweet bananas and then blackened and they began falling off by themselves.  Begin: banana eating marathon.  Bananas on cereal in the morning, bananas for dessert after lunch, banano con leche in the afternoon, banana cake after dinner, bananas for all the neighbors!  Everyone enjoyed the banana binge, and hopefully we won’t have to wait two and half years for the next of the six teenage plants we have to sprout a head.

Katharine, Nick’s mother, did some beautiful paintings during their month-long visit, inspired by our patio container garden and the bright red cock’s comb that are blooming now.  Most of our plants began as cuttings urped from someone elses garden or seeds I picked up someone on my adventures.  The cock’s comb were taken as seeds from some flowers I bought on the day of the dead (November 2).  It’s a flower that is used traditionally to decorate gravestones.

The flower grows like a giant tumor, starting small and then growing riplier and curlier, and the seeds actually mature at the base of the flower and begin to fall out while it is still blooming, so they are very easy to collect.  These are the second generation I’ve planted here.

At the end of her visit, Katharine decided to give one of her paintings of Arsen (el gato) and our plants to Maria Jose, a good friend who helps us around the house and is the life of the party at all of our gatherings, for her birthday.

Have you ever known a monogamous cat?  Arsen has now had two sets of kittens with the same tortoise-shell gata from next door, and is so affectionate!  He calls her over when we put food out, and they lie around together on the cool patio in the evening.  She was initially very shy with us but is getting bolder, and now comes over and now asks for food directly!  We don’t feed her unless Arsen is asking too.  We just found out that he also hangs out over at the neighbors.  He has never brought any other cats in to our house, only her!  They always greet each other with nose bumps and tail sniffing.  This morning I caught them smooching on the wall behind the bananas.  

We have one broody hen right now who is sitting on eight green eggs, due to hatch three days before Easter.  The most common green-egg breeds in the states are Aracauna and Americauna, but I think probably all of what we have would be called “Easter Eggers”, or mixed breed unknown heritage chickens that lay beautiful eggs.  One little girl who lays green eggs laid an enormous double yolker.  Smallest chicken we have, biggest egg I’ve ever seen!  I’ll never get bored of all the colored eggs we get, and have ridiculous numbers of pictures of them.

We had a chicken health adventure this past weekend.  One blond lady was down in the soil panting, sitting in her own poo, and wouldn’t get up or even move.  She’s done this before – one time I was there and hand fed her some water, carried her over to the water feeder, and she perked up.  Another time Melania was house sitting and said she gave it a baby amoxicillin in water and said it got better.  This time she looked pretty bad, and to make matters worse had a wound on her back from the rooster trying to mount her while she was down, so I decided to do some research.  After consulting the omniscient internet, I did the following:

– isolated her from the rest of the flock in our patio, in a makeshift cage made of chairs on their sides.

– narrowed the symptoms down to two probable causes: egg bind (stuck egg) or blocked crop (food stuck in her digestive system).  I felt around her chest and abdomen for signs of either, and decided it was blocked crop.  She had a large lump in her chest about the size of a small peach that was hard and lumpy (like pebbles packed together with clay).

– with the help of Nick, we gave her a 1/4 teaspoon of virgin sesame oil with a tiny bit of powder from an amoxicillin capsule every six hours to lubricate her system.  I kept feeding her lots of water, and giving her crop a little massage every twenty minutes to help move things along.

– overnight, some major sticky dry poos and now she’s standing up for the first time!  Seems to have worked.  Some hydrogen peroxide on the wounds on her back, and I think after another day of cooked rice she might be ready to go back to the flock.  success (we hope!)