SosteNica


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47% of New York State was in a severe or moderate drought in July 2016.

This summer, western New York saw the worst drought since 1943. Farmers have been hit hard. Dairy farmers, because they rely on wide expanses of pasture and often do not have the capacity to irrigate, are forced to purchase food for cattle that can’t forage enough to sustain milk production. Many farmers that do have irrigation set up use rivers and ponds as sources of water, and don’t have an alternate option when the rivers and ponds are too low to pump out of. The CSA farm I worked at for years in Hadley, MA used the Fort River to irrigate. Running pipes and pulling water was a massive effort saved for dire situations. 25′ sections of 6″ aluminum pipe had to be loaded onto the truck, then each section walked out into the field on our shoulders, attached by hand, and connected to a hydrant. My former boss, Michael Doctor, now runs Winter Moon Farm. The land he currently grows on doesn’t have the buried pipes and river access that we had back then, so in the midst of the drought he shelled out the money to drill a well. Since his whole business plan relies on fall crops that need to be seeded and germinate during the middle of the summer in order to mature before the first frost, spending the money was a make or break move.

All this talk of drought in Western Massachusetts felt like a bit of a deja vu to me. I spent a significant amount of time in Nicaragua in April discussing the drought, la sequía, that persists and dries up wells and rivers and the cash flows of smallholder farmers. The Eco-Centro that SosteNica supports started a new line of credit specifically for cattle farmers whose wells had dried up, to deepen them in the hopes that just a few meters farther would strike the tip of the receding aquifer. The new line of credit was designed to extend deeper than just what the well-diggers pickaxe could achieve. Recipients of the loans were invited to workshops on water conservation, and asked to commit to implementing water-saving methods on their farm, apply mulch to any irrigated land, and sign promises that they would only run their irrigation in the early morning or late evening to reduce evaporation and conserve water.

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Oh, I was hoping you were bringing an ice cold lemonade, not just some farming advice!

At Gertrudis and Antonio Solís’s farm, the pasture was dry and brittle. Their garden that I helped them establish four years ago was reduced to less than 1/3 the size to accommodate what they could realistically water. A loan had helped them successfully deepen their well so that it was recharging more often. But as Don Antonio launched into a long explanation of how, since the work on his well has increased the amount of still-limited water, he sets alarms to wake up every three hours all night to change over the valves on the irrigation system and avoid watering during the day, it’s hard for me to feel like that was a complete success. There is so much more that needs to be done to help farmers like these two people, who are so dedicated to sustainable, diversified food production, to live the quality of life they deserve.

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Antonio and the well we helped him improve.

Over the last six months I have watched farmers in two very different parts of the world, many of whom I have worked alongside of to plan and plant and harvest, struggle similarly under the burden of climate factors out of their control. This is not a kind of solidarity to celebrate. If prices actually rose to cover the costs that these farmers are pulling out of their pockets and from their nights of sleep, maybe consumers would realize the value in spending more of their own time and money voting for policies – and politicians – that support  climate change mitigation, investing in renewable energy, and protecting the open land that provides environmental services like carbon sequestration.

The design firm where I now work, Regenerative Design Group, helps farmers to develop master plans and implement land-management practices that over time build resilience to climate anomalies like drought. Establishing silvopasture for grazing animals, using swales to maximize water infiltration, and building the organic matter in soil through regenerative practices are proven methods of increasing a farm’s overall productivity and ability to withstand extreme weather. Bringing these technologies and practices to farmers around the world is one way that we work in solidarity with the stewards of the land and providers of our sustenance, whether they are in the tropics or in our hometowns. Supporting SosteNica’s equitable lending practices, that are accompanied by education and technical support, is another way we show farmers that we stand with them through thick and thin, floods and drought.

OK, I realize that the third word in the title doesn’t exist, and that the second one is a stretch.

The connection between high levels of biodiversity within an ecosystem and increased stability and resilience is fairly well understood. The more genetic diversity there is within the plant and animal communities, the more likely the overall population will withstand disturbances like famine, shifts in climate, or diseases. Does that theory of diversity hold true, for example, when looking at an organization’s approaches to raising the quality of life for rural communities? Or strengthening the economic stability of a region?

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At Efrain and Luz Maria Solis’s house, some serious retaining walls were built to capture soil eroding from yards up-slope. The 20ft x 3oft garden contains a mix of plantains, yucca, mint, squash, hibiscus, grasses for animal forage, and tomato and pepper seedlings. The biodiversity in these kitchen gardens helps to ensure that families will always have something to harvest, and no one kind of disease or pest will wipe their whole garden out.

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Two years ago farmer Jose Natividad Padilla planted ten acres of citrus trees. The EcoCentro worked with him to fill in the space between the young trees with plantains, canavalia beans, and squash and watermelon crops. Increasing the biodiversity of these larger fields not only increases their productivity and economic value, but will help to conserve water and protect the soil from erosion by establishing dense root structures.

The team at the EcoCentro believes it does. They are taking a super diverse approach to working with rural communities in Nagarote, Nicaragua. Workshops in companion planting and forest gardening encourage biodiversity, a handful of ecotechnologies like fuel-efficient stoves, rainwater catchment systems, and composting toilets help to conserve natural resources, and working with people who may only have 1/4 acre as well as with farmers who manage 25 acres of land makes it possible to have a significant impact within a community.

Theoretically, there are many arguments for community development organizations to have a diverse approach toward solving environmental and economic problems. No one solution will fit the many types of people in a community, and not all them experience the same problems. But what are the costs associated with tackling so many approaches at once? We spent some time over the last two weeks digging into the programs that the EcoCentro offers and trying to flesh out how they are connected, which activities support others, and what kinds of the benefits are reaped from different approaches.

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Veterinary student Juan Pablo disinfects a small wound in the leg of a calf at a one family’s house. Animals are an integral part of the rural family’s income and food security. In the past, the EcoCentro has heavily promoted the use of animal fertilizers in compost, and are now offering resources to help maintain the health of those animals as well. 

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EcoCentro team member Eduardo talks with Magali Solis about maintenance for her fuel-efficient stove. The Solis family harvest all their own wood from land they own outside the village. The new stove has saved Magali hours of time cutting and hauling firewood. 

We started with a simple graph of a multitude of programs – school and family gardens, a farmer’s market, co-investments in cash crops, agroecological extension services, ecotechnologies, and hosting voluntourism groups. As we began to discuss the interconnections between programs, different classifications of relationships began to emerge. We talked about liquid capital – the cash needed for agricultural investments or supplies to build a stove – and “corazon” capital – the “feel-good” social capital gained by supporting educational and community-strengthening activities like intercultural exchanges and school gardens. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of relying on certain programs to generate income, and the risks associated with them. The market leapt out as an “indicator” program – if it is going well and farmers are coming and selling things, then it means that the gardens and farms are doing well.

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Can you see all the hearts? Hint – they aren’t all red.

Hopefully this was the first of many ongoing visioning exercises the team will have on the programming structure. We didn’t come to any concrete decisions, but a few things jumped out. Many activities that support food security also have the potential to generate huge amounts of “corazon” capital (heart capital!), monitoring and tracking each program – both the costs and the measurable impact – will be super important going forward, and every program positively benefited at least one other one: a hopeful indicator that the biodiversity, technodiversity, and scaleversity of the EcoCentro’s work will increase the resilience of the both the EcoCentro and the communities who work with it.

 

Wednesday I spent the morning on the back of a motorcycle driven by Fanny Mercado, a graduate of the UNAN Agroecology program who is working for SosteNica‘s EcoCentro and is in charge of helping six local schools create and take care of educational gardens.

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We hit some traffic along the route to Chilama.

When we conducted a survey at the end of a project promoting family gardens a few years ago, one of the most common reasons that crops failed was because children or pets destroyed them. Families here often live several generations in one house, with a small yard, and space to run around is also valuable! When we stopped by to check on the gardens, we always made sure to involve the youngest family members so they learned to understand and respect the plants. But not all kids have that opportunity at home – so school gardens are another place where they can learn to value gardening.

When Fanny visits the schools weekday mornings, a few students are selected to work with her each day so that they get to integrate into the work. Sometime if there is an activity that is appropriate for all the children, the teacher will invite Fanny into the classroom. When we arrived at each school, the kids were excited to see her, and clearly saw the opportunity to work in the garden as a prized experience.

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Fanny works with a group of students to start a compost pile in the corner of the school yard next to the garden. In this school, they are close enough to the urban center to have potable water (with water pressure!) from the city. 

The drought right now at the end of the dry season is very serious. Even though the students take on the chore of watering the gardens twice a day, the gardens in full sun have had very low germination rates. At some schools, there are only artisanal wells and no water pressure, so the children draw water by hand and walk it to the garden to water. Now is the time to start seeds in the shade – tomatoes, beets, peppers, onions – so that they can be transplanted in a few weeks when the rains start.

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Fanny starts the hard work of cranking the wheel to bring water up from the well to water the garden in Chilama. 

At the first garden we went to the importance of a fence became incredibly obvious. The elementary school in the village of Silvio Mayorga is in the middle of a group of houses. The barbed wire fences don’t keep the chickens from the surrounding families out of the schoolyard. Just outside the chain link fence surrounding the garden, the dirt was filled with the marks of chicken feet scratching and digging for bugs or sprouted seeds. Fanny told me that before there was a fence, they planted squash seeds in the garden. A few days later a neighbor’s pig escaped and spent a lovely evening digging himself a cool spot to spend the night in the damp soil of the garden. So this time they waited until the fence was built to plant any seeds.

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Radishes!

At the school in the village of Valle de Jesús a boy ran out to greet us. “What are we going to plant! I want to plant seeds!” But the fence there isn’t finished yet. A group of parents had come over the weekend and put posts up, but it wasn’t finished yet. He was disappointed, so before we left Fanny pulled out her seed packets and gave him a few watermelon seeds to plant at his house. Whether they sprout or not, it’s great to see such enthusiasm here for gardening.

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Two young sisters in Chilama carefully water the beds with a bowl to not disturb the sprouting seeds. The stand to the right will hold a tank of water to operate a small drip irrigation system.

A few weeks ago, as I was planning this trip, the current director of SosteNica‘s projects in Nagarote apologized that they had a workshop scheduled for my first day in Nagarote. I was thrilled. To go straight out to the campo right away, see the program in action, meet the farmers we are working with now – fantastic! It was as good as I could have hoped for.

The farmers gathered at Manriques farm on the porch.

The farmers gathered at Manrique’s farm on the porch.

The topic of the workshop was rotational planting, and designed to help a group of farmers who have been working with the EcoCentro to be able to provide an exciting new market with products for as much of the year as possible. Another SosteNica investor and old friend of mine, Delaura Padovan, is volunteering here for six months to help get this new market up and running. (She is also writing a beautiful blog!)

The farm where the workshop was is owned by Manrique, a farmer who was injured by a hand grenade in the revolution that left him nearly deaf. He built his house himself, and has dedicated himself to his farm. He recently invested in a pump and irrigation, and has a beautiful patch of mixed hardwood trees, papaya, plantains and watermelon.

Delaura and Manrique discuss details of his next planting by his field of mixed papaya - plantain - fruit and hardwood trees.

Delaura and Manrique discuss details of his next planting by his field of mixed papaya – plantain – fruit and hardwood trees.

Some things here haven’t changed much in six years: the park at the entrance to the town is still under construction, the oppressive heat of april at the end of the dry season beats just as heavily on my head as ever, and the positive attitudes and energy of the team working with food security and sustainable agriculture are just as obvious in their ambitious  plans and visions.

Other things are noticeably different: Instead of arriving on a fleet of horses, bicycles, and ox carts, most of the farmers came on motorcycles. Over half of the farmers were women. The workshop was not a presentation, but mostly a conversation and then an exercise that the farmers did together to model a field with crops in succession.

Fourteen motorcycles and one truck brought 24 farmers to our workshop!

Fourteen motorcycles and one truck brought 24 farmers to our workshop!

They were given blank pieces of paper to fill in with crop names. At the end of the exercise the farmers presented their designs to the larger group: watermelon, tomatoes, and cucumbers separated by living fences of canavalia or gandul beans. They explained, these were to prevent the spread of diseases and to fix nitrogen.

Seven years ago, we began talking about green manures and nobody had heard of gandul. Living fences was a part of a soil conservation component that we dedicated a whole three-hour workshop to. Seeing a different group of farmers present designs and bring these concepts to the table on their own was incredibly gratifying.

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My sketch of some observations in the yard: Water to irrigate, motorcycles to arrive (in Spanish it rhymes….)

It’s hard to believe – it’s been seven years since I first arrived in Nicaragua, excited to learn everything I could about tropical sustainable agriculture. Although I’m living in the states now, I know the connections I made over the six years I lived here will persist for the rest of my life. One of the ways that I know this will happen is through the work of SosteNica: The Sustainable Development Fund. Now in existence for over 20 years, SosteNica makes it possible for people in the US to invest in family-run enterprises in Nicaragua, and support sustainable agricultural extension work in Nagarote, a town just north of the capital city of Managua.

As an investor since 2000, former employee, and current board member, I’ve been able to see and be a part of many eras of the organization. As a Fulbright scholar, I participated in a shift of programming from primarily investments to slowly building up a robust agricultural extension program, with tailored loans and educational resources for farmers, urban gardeners, and school children. There was an economic crisis to overcome, there has been political upheaval, there are active volcanoes that spew ash only miles from where many of our participants live and work their land. Living and working in Nicaragua is real, vibrant and never boring.

I’m excited to be back to participate in some of SosteNica’s new programs, to reconnect with old friends and document some of the new changes, and revive this stagnant blog again with photos and stories of the real struggles and good work happening here!

 

When two volunteers asked to come and work with SosteNica a few months ago, we and our partner organization saw an opportunity to shift the nature of our work in Nicaragua and focus on bringing some of the food security work from the rural area into the urban, and on education and capacity building rather than on lending.  Our volunteers helped design the project, and after visiting Estili, a city in northern Nicaragua known for its mural-covered walls, they proposed including designing and painting a mural as part of the project.  For the project, we partnered with the Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project, and they approved of the idea and chose a wall for us on their brand new community center.  The idea was for the mural to be a community activity, bringing the youth and kids from the families in the gardening project together to express the importance of gardening in another medium.  In the end, the mural became a much broader process, involving many people who were not part of the gardening project.

SosteNica volunteer Danya and the Sister City project field director Ramon gathered a group of local kids to start a brainstorming session.  They created drawings and wrote verses and their own reasons for gardening.  Danya used the drawings in her own design that formed the base for the mural.  Ramon suggested that the kids be given an opportunity to paint directly on the wall, and so nobody really know how it was going to turn out.  The design created environments – fields, patios, a river – and the kids filled the environments with plants and animals of their own design.  Danya painted a sketch version for us to follow, and we invited some of the older kids to help lay down the base design.

Juniette (above) and Junior, whose family is part of the Urban Gardening project and has built a very creative kitchen garden with raised beds lined with recycled plastic bottles, helped often.  When the “environments” were created, we organized a community painting day and invited all the kids from the Sister City project classes, the neighborhoods where we are helping to create kitchen gardens, and the neighborhood where the community center is.  We organized colors of paints, collected empty bottles and egg cartons, bought some refreshments, found some scrap paper, and braced ourselves for chaos.  And chaos it was!

The extra table for kids to practice their plant or animal, or just to keep them occupied while the wall was overcrowded was very helpful.  Needless to say, we had a few incidents of paint throwing, uninvited additions, and squabbling, but by the end of the afternoon the mural was definitely more lively.  We continued working over the next week with smaller groups, and fell into a good groove, adding some people and using the images the original group of kids had drawn to fill in the gaps.  The final design is rich and luscious, filled with life and creativity.  There is a sign in the middle for a very simple verse that one of the kids wrote at the beginning of the process: “we protect our plants because we depend on them for our food and our good health, thank you…”

You can read more about SosteNica’s work on their homepage.  Our volunteer, Danya, maintains her own site www.danyafrench.com with pictures and descriptions of her artwork and other community art projects.

The only possible thing to do after coming home from the market with this glowing fruit was to dig out some dusty pastels and spend a half hour focussing my attention completely on its color and form.  And then, of course, cut it open and slurp up the slippery tangy orange fruit.  The most perfect mango ever.

This year the early rains have pushed the mango season earlier, and the markets right now are flooded.  Nicaraguans eat mango in pretty much every form, and some other foreign friends and I have been enjoying pushing the limits of how to eat them.  It’s not a far cry to call my friend Emma and I mango nuts.

For example, here is a picture of about half the mangoes that I happen to have in my house right now.

The largest four mangos on the upper left are “Mango Papaya”, the next three to the right with the lovely rosy yellow color are “Mango Rosa”, the pile of little green ones are “Mango Liso”, and the four yellow longer ones in the front are the every abundant common “Mango Mechudo”.

The largest mangoes at the moment are three for 20 cordoba (just less than US$1) and the mango mechudos – 3 for 1 cordoba!  Yes, that is three lovely ripe golden mangos for less than a US nickel.

Yesterday on our routine visits to farmers in SosteNica’s Reforestation Project I found…yes, more mangos.

Carmen Reynaldo Morales, one of the project’s participating farmers, shows off the mangoes on his young mango tree we helped him plant.  The trees are all grafted, which means they produce more quickly and maintain their true variety (in this case a large mango suitable for export called a Tomy).  However, this tree is only in its second year, which is early even for a grafted tree to produce!


Mango flowers are large and airy.  The poke up at the ends of all the branches and then slowly tip down as the tiny little green mango balls grow heavier and heavier, dragging the branch down until each branch ends with a wiry bunch of heavy fruit.

Mango Liso and Mango Mechudo trees surrounded the tiny house of one farmer, who clearly couldn’t keep up with the harvest from these towering trees.  A mango tree can grow up to 40 meters tall, and often provide a wonderful deep shade over Nicaraguan campesino houses but also prove quite a challenge to climb and harvest.  The ground underneath our feet was littered with rotting mangos, and swarming with bees and butterflies.  The smell was sweet and alcoholic, and reminded me clearly of the smell of rotting apples in the New England orchards I know.  I calmed my panic at seeing so much valuable mango flesh rotting and wasted by thinking, this must be how horrifying an Apple orchard looks to a Nicaraguan, who’s only context for fresh apples are the tiny imported Red Delicious in the markets that cost one US dollar a piece.

Needless to say, mangoes have been making it into nearly every meal recently.  I’ve learned to snack on semi-ripe mangos with chili and vinegar sold on the streets in every busy intersection, made some amazing mango curries, mango salsa, put my good New England food preserving skills to task with mango chutney and mango-passion fruit-pineapple jam, and of course my crowning mango ginger molasses pie.


A last and final word of caution – beware of the effects of over exposure to mangos for northern temperate climate foodies.  Symptoms may include but are not limited to obsessively filling pockets with harvested mangos resulting in very sticky stained clothing; a slightly yellow mango colored glow on white skin from overindulgent eating, and immature jumping and snapping at mangos hanging on branches.  Viva el Mango!!!

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