Certified Organic

La Roya

This is a re-post of my latest entry at the Social Business Network blog

This year, in the face of the leaf rust blight that has devastated coffee farmers across Latin America and the added insult that the coffee price on the international market have taken a sharp dive over the past year, Social Business Network has joined forces with The Community Agroecology Network and a farmer’s cooperative outside of Matagalpa called the UCA San Ramon to try to turn the onslaught of this double disaster into a turn for the better.

One of the small member cooperatives of the UCA has been hard hit by the leaf rust, losing up to 85% of their harvest this year.  A walk through the coffee parcelas reveals not only the damage of the fungus but also signs of underlying stress and neglect – vines cover the coffee trees in certain areas, and in others the forest floor is bare and eroding.  The farmers recount the difficulties they face – first among them, the rising cost of fertilizers and fungicides, and difficulties securing financing.  Then the increased intensity of the diseases, which mean even more financing needed to purchase larger amounts of fungicides, narrowing even farther their profitability margin.

Historically this community has grappled with “organic” farming.  After a bad experience with poor technical assistance and costly certifiers, mentioning the word to any of the coop members sets off a tirade of a million reasons why “organic farming” doesn’t work.  Lack of quality organic fertilizers on the market and strict certification standards that rely heavily on verifying what farmers are NOT doing (NOT applying any agrichemicals, NOT using any non-certified off-farm inputs, not even their neighbor’s cow manure) have left many farmers frustrated and with the impression that organic farming means doing nothing and leaving everything up to mother nature.

Our new collaboration has kicked off by organizing a series of workshops bringing together the coop members, a local succesful bio-dynamic coffee farmer, and an agronomist.  For two days, we transformed a local school into a laboratory complete with microscopes and a centrifuge.  Even though the farmers have had their soil tested before, the samples are sent away to a laboratory and no one learns how the tests work.  Using a type of soil test called chromatography which reveals mineral content but also the microbial life of the soil, farmers were able to perform the entire soil test in their own community.  The agronomist, after a straightforward presentation on several different types of beneficial and detrimental fungi that either attack coffee plants or contribute to the plant’s better absorption of nutrients, went with the farmers to gather soil samples from around their farms and then used the microscopes to identify and see the different physical structures of different fungi.  Demystifying the invisible biological world that impacts so directly farmer’s livelihoods will hopefully not only empower them in this moment of crisis by giving them a new understanding of part of the crisis, but also impact how they manage their land.  Although it is common knowledge that the leaf rust virus travels by spores through the air, seeing the millions of tiny round balls on each leaf (see the image header on this post) revealed clearly how this fungus has been able to cause such devestation in the region.  Examples of beneficial fungi that were found locally were isolated using the microscopes and then used to innoculate seeds in sterilized soil to reproduce them and use them in a fertilizer that can be elaborated on-farm, improving the coffee plants absorption of minerals and nutrients in the soil.

The local farmer leading the soil chromatography process was very clear that this was not a workshop to promote organic agriculture, it was a workshop to promote better agriculture.  His own farm has only suffered a 15% decrease in production due to the leaf rust, well below the 50% national average.  In any other year he might have been met with glazed looks and disinterest from this group of farmers.  But this year, when the management systems they use have failed to mitigate the impact of this blight, their interest was keen, everyone participated, and they requested another workshop to continue deepening their understanding of soil life and assistance in using beneficial fungi to innoculate the new coffee seeds they will be planting to replace the portion of their farms that have perished due to the leaf rust.  Studies have shown that in small farmer cooperatives where management of the coffee and soil is tended to more carefully, there is less presence of rust.  Revealing the direct relationship between management and soil biology cuts through the layer of faith in purchased inputs that disempowers producers.  With the right approach, the double crisis hitting small coffee farmers right now could be transformed into an opportunity to reinforce better management practices that will help protect farmers and their livelihoods over the long term.


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.

Right now the Occidente of Nicaragua is flush with flowers.  This year the rainy season was particularly heavy, and the remaining moisture in the ground – unusual for early February – is reflected in the abundance and quality of fruits and flowers.  The jocote fruits and mangos in the market are earlier and larger than usual, and the veranera, or bougonvilla, is particularly spectacular.  The forests along the highways where I travel regularly have changed from thick green vegatation to multicolored landscapes, as the madero negro, poroporo, laurel, roble, sacuanjoche, and sardonilla trees, among others, are all blossoming at the same time.  Trees are much easier to identify when they are flowering, when they stand out from their neighbors and can be seen from a distance.  For example, I’ve always known that Madero Negro is an abundant and common tree, but now I really understand as a pass by  whole hillsides shrouded in its pale pink blossoms how abundant it really is.

Madero Negro and Laurel are two of the types of trees that one of the producer in SosteNica’s Reforestation Project has chosen to plant on his farm because of their abundant flowers and attractiveness to bees.  Edgar Cisnero has 20 bee hives and plans to expand, and one of the reasons he has joined the project – besides investing in the family farm he and his four sibling are jointly running – is to increase the number of flowering trees and improve the quantity and quality of honey.  Last week when we visited he helped us to measure the growth of the pochote trees he planted in June.

After we finished measuring and marking the trees Edgard showed us a pila, or trough, that he keeps filled to the brim for the bees to drink from.  The edges of the rectangular concrete trough were lined with bees, and there were sticks floating in the water as well for bees to perch on and drink.  We walked right up to the pila to watch them; they were much more intent on drinking than paying attention to us.

We got so close we could see their tongues.  Look at the bee on the left.

In the middle of the dry season the sun beats hard, all day, and many of the trees like madero negro and the pochote trees we measured drop their leaves.  No shade and hot sun means that Edgard needs to pay careful attention to keeping this pila filled level with the brim and not let it evaporate.  If the bees fall in they will most likely drown.  Right next to the bee – pila, another larger pila was filled with water, but not all the way up.  This was the pool, for humans to enjoy.  And as long as they keep it free of floating sticks, the bees don’t go near it.  There is also a 5 meter tall water tower to provide irrigation for Edgard’s agricultural fields.  From the top, I could see all the way across to Momotombo and a geothermal electrical plant at the base.  The view inspired my new photo heading.

Three days later I attended the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Juan Francisco Paz Silva cooperative in Achuapa.  The cooperative’s principal focus is sesame, and they have a processing plant to press unrefined sesame oil.  This past year, however, they have encouraged their farmers to diversify, offering their farmers technical assistants and special loans to invest in one new crop on each farm.  The farmers have a menu of choices – fruit trees, vegetables, coffee, rice, grains, or bees.  In all cases the technical assistants are trained in organic production methods, but only the coffee and honey is required to be certified.  Why?  Because now that the cooperative is exporting one product, they may be able to export coffee and honey, and both of those products receive a much higher price on the market if they are certified. The farmers at the celebrations displayed some live combs and sold bottles of their clear, incredibly flowery honey.

Increasing the production of honey in Nicaragua can only be good.  Not only is it healthy for all of us to consume more honey and less refined sugar (not to mention the terrible labor and environmental practices of sugar production), but honey farmers, who are of course also beans and corn and sorghum farmers, cannot spray pesticides on any of their crops or they will endanger their valuable bee hives.  And where the farms are smaller, they may have to convince their neighbors to take up bees and lay off the pesticides as well in order to protect their hives.  It seems that here, where is no national market for organic produce but honey is both popular and expensive, the possibility of producing honey may be one of the strongest incentives for sustainable farming.

This video was shown on Nicaraguan television and shows the Central American stand at BIOFACH, the World Organic Trade Fair in Nürnberg Germany.  At the end of the video you can see our Del Campo display of organic sesame in the glass case, and below it some bags of hibiscus flowers, cashew nuts, and peanuts which the cooperative also produces.  Having worked on organic farms in the States for several years and now with small farmers and organic farming initiatives in Nicaragua, it was quite a different thing to see the international trade side of the Organics world.

The fair is enormous.  In four days if I had done nothing but wander through the halls I doubt I would have seen everything.  the investments in temporary booths were astounding – cheese companies with life size cow sculptures, natural food distributors who had bordered their section with fully grown bamboo trees growing in enormous pots.  The halls sparkled, and then of course were all the free samples.  The Central American booth was a bit out of synch with the rest of the fair.  Paid for by a European company as an act of charity, it was located in the European hall between Switzerland and Italy, and had an enormous European flag at the top of the booth.  Next to the european flag the banner announced:  Central America, Mexico, Cuba.  Actually the booth housed a hodgepodge collection of Honduran, El Salvadoreñan, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan sellers. Frankly, we found it a bit pathetic that the European donor paid to have their own flag and logo larger than any other, and mushed us all together without any definition between companies.  That being said, our important buyers found us.

A small part of BIOFACH is presentations.  There are different themes; this year two big themes were natural cosmetics and fair trade – organics.  I went to a marketing talk, one on organic farming and climate change, and another on small farmers and how fair trade and organic supports them.  All the topics were fascinating and relevant, and the speakers were certainly qualified.  Unfortunately, I came away with a bitter feeling of disillusionment.

At the climate change presentation, the first presenters showed scientific data showing how proper organic soil management can sequester enormous amounts of carbon, and how even with land conglomeration, small farmers own 40% of the worlds arable land.  If that forty percent were farmed according to the health of the soil, small farmers substantially slow climate change.  Problem is, the talk highlighted an innovative new certification system based in Sweden that calculated carbon footprint as part of the certification.  Good for Sweden, but no one seemed to catch the irony between the educated white men on the stage first claiming that small land holders (concentrated mostly in Asia, Africa, and South/Central America) switching to organic could have a significant effect on our climate, and then extolling a certification system that not in a hundred years was going to change how those small holders farmed the majority of their land.

The ritzy environment of the trade fair did nothing to assuage my cynicism.  Business suited men and women, the majority European (which figures: Europe is the worlds largest certified Organic consumer, importer, and also the location of the fair), professionally displayed their healthy and environmentally conscious processed products, and the assumption was that their product was clearly benefitting the worlds invisible small and organic producers behind their fancy cheeses and gourmet bread.

I would like to see an analysis on whether the growth of the organic market has affected the majority of small landholders in the world.  My guess is that the answer is not as straight forward as marketers would like us to think.  Here, small farmers certify their sesame and coffee for export, and then use chemical fertilizer on their corn if they can afford it.  In China, small farmers use high doses of chemical fertilizers on their market crops, but farm their own garden patch organically.  The biggest national force in Nicaragua behind small farmer organic and sustainable agriculture is possibly the Campesino a Campesino movement, a Central American movement started in Mexico by proponents of Agroecology, who do not have a vision of exporting or certifying any of the crops but promote an integrated farming system that is healthier for the soil and workers, because.  Just because.

Don’t get me wrong, I will still buy my organic coffee and milk.  Organics are not bad.  It just needs to get beyond its enormous ego, to realize that it isn’t the international certifications that are going to change the whole world and reach into every corner, and that there are many many little ants working hard to battle against the agrichemical marketers that have done a much more effective job of reaching into the nooks and crannies.

Cashew fruit, or marañon, in an orchard in León. The nut encased in its shell forms first (the skinny unripe fruit with the large green nut) and as the fruit matures the shell darkens to blueish gray.

Entering the town of Somotillo traveling north on the newly re-done highway there is a lone gas station on the left.  Across the street is a green building, set back, with a small sign that most likely goes unnoticed by travellers passing by in bus or interlocal.  Actually, it is worth stopping at that gas station that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, because the building across the street is one of the best discoveries an agricultural and organic food fanatic can find in Nicaragua.  It’s a completely unassuming but very impressive cashew nut processing plant, started by CIPRES and run by a cooperative of women.  I stopped and then wondered if it was even open; the first offices inside the gate were shut and locked.  But I heard some voices, and followed them to find Flor, one of the managers, who warmly invited me in to see the whole process.Cashews grow on a fruit tree, and the nut is encased in a hard acid shell and hangs hilariously from the bottom of an avocado sized red or yellow fruit.  The fruit is sweet and bitter at the same time, and the juice leaves a funny itchy feeling on my tongue.  I’m not crazy about it, but Nicaraguans love it both fresh and in juice.  The nuts are harvested and can be stored for a year raw in their shells.  The nuts I saw being processed were harvested in 2009.

Artesenal processing in the countryside homes is simple but requires precision.  The nuts with their shells are thrown into a fire, where they begin ‘popping’ as they roast.  When they are thoroughly charred and blackened, they are pulled out and the burnt shell smashed away with a stone pestle or rock.  Not enough time in the fire and the shell won’t leave – or the strong acid can scar your hands.  Too much time and the nut inside is burnt.  But just right and the hot roasted cashews are delicious.

Shelling the boiled cashew nuts.

The processing plant ensures an evenly lightly roasted nut, export quality.  The nuts are first boiled inside their shells, then cracked open with a special blade that the cooperative purchases from Brazil.  The blades slice the shells but not the nut, which is extracted whole.  The boiled nut has a tough pink skin on it.  The cashew nuts are then lightly roasted in an oven, which dries the pink skin out so that it can be cracked and peeled off.  There are about thirty women that work in the processing plant, running the whole process of boiling, shelling, roasting, peeling, and then finally sorting into grades A (whole), B (halves) and C (peices).  The grade A nuts sell for about US$5 a pound.

Rosa, who shells nuts while monitoring the large oven that roasts them.

I was very impressed with the quality of the cashews as well as the organization of the women, and left with over two pounds of nuts.  This week Nicholas and I are going to BIOFACH, the world’s organic product fair, in Nürnberg Germany, and we are going to display some on our Nicaraguan products table along with sesame seed, sesame oil, and coffee.  At the moment the cooperative is not producing their maximum volume.  Once the nuts are shelled and processed, they have a much shorter shelf life, and so they only fill orders as they come in.  At the moment, they are operating around seven months out of the year, on a completely random schedule.  Flor said when they fill the orders and there are no more, the women stay in their villages and work out of their houses.  When the next order comes in, the managers have to go to all the villages to round the workers up again.  Their biggest buyer at the moment is OXFAM Spain, who purchase the nuts packaged in little snack sized bags.  They purchase a thousand pounds of nuts a year – which doesn’t even nearly reach the maximum production capacity for the plant or the farmers.  The missing piece in the puzzle to me is the marketing – why aren’t the beautiful large organic cashew nuts that benefit rural women a hot commodity, both locally and internationally?  Clearly this unassuming small plant on the side of the highway to Honduras is a well kept secret in Nicaragua, but I don’t think it should be.