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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.

 

ImageThe Tuesday before Ash Wednesday was celebrated as Fastnacht Dienstag by my grandmother. She explained to us that you had to use up all the sugar in the house because there were no sweets during lent.  The traditional way to do this in Pennsylvania Dutch households are Fastnachtkuchen – fresh fried donuts.  We made them a few times growing up, at least once using a recipe that called for mashed potatoes.  I remember them being delicious. A few weeks ago we stopped by the women’s initiative in Achuapa where the Social Business Network and Juan Francisco Paz Silva Coop are currently offering courses to women organized in groups – Baking, Piñata making and Crafts, and Natural Medicine. The baking class was in the kitchen – frying up donuts. And it happened to be Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. I shared the story about my grandmother’s Fastnachtkuchen and found out that while it really was just a coincidence that the class was making donuts that day, there is a Nicaraguan tradition of making and eating buñuelos the day before Ash Wednesday. Sweet!

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Mari, a student in the course, proudly holds up the tray of donuts they had learned to make. They were delicious!

Continuing the Thanksgiving Theme, here is my favorite table grace in Spanish:

Gracias Señor por el pan.  Da pan al que tiene hambre 
y hambre de justicia al los que tienen pan.
 Gracias Señor por el pan.

A rough translation reads:

Lord, bless this food we are about to receive.  To those who hunger give bread; and to those who have bread give the hunger for  justice.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone where ever you are, may you all be surrounded by family and sitting down to a table of good food, grown by loving hands that worked in justice and dignity to provide us with our nourishment.

My grandmother on the porch of her house in Pennsylvania, Spring 2013.

My grandmother on the porch of her house in Pennsylvania, Spring 2013.

I try to keep this blog to topic: farming and sustainable living anecdotes from Nicaragua and Latin America.  But this time I’m stretching that to include something much more personal.  My maternal grandmother passed away at the beginning of November, prompting a last-minute ticket purchase back to the states to be with my family.  This being the month that starts with the Day of the Dead in Latin America, and also being Thanksgiving time, I’ve done a lot of reflecting about her, my late grandfather, several other family members who have passed away, and how they have all contributed to who I am.  Much of the time I spent growing up with my grandparents centered around family agriculture:  working in the garden, preparing food from the garden or nearby farms, preserving fruits and vegetables, and even special trips to the local tourism attraction, a dairy farm with a kids “petting farm.”  Even though my grandmother never came to Nicaragua, she lived many of the values that I and so many others work to promote here.  Talking about it helps to instill pride and value in what has historically been viewed as a humble means of subsistence, and so I want to share the eulogy that I wrote for my Grandmother, Virginia Elizabeth Kavash Metz, who passed away at age 90 on November 5th:

“Our grandmother was an ideal grandma, in the sense that she knew exactly what grandkids liked: fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, lots of stuffed animals, singing and games, and trips to the petting zoo and the ice cream store.  When we visited her and Poppop in Pennsylvania she was the heart of the house and most often, I remember her in the kitchen.  There was always something wonderful happening there.  Pickled beets, canned tomatoes, freezing 100 ears of corn at a time, and making peach custard or ground cherry pie.  She kept the top left hand corner cabinet of the kitchen stocked with candy and marshmallows that could easily be accessed once you brought a chair over and climbed up on the counter.  Once banished from the kitchen for being underfoot, there was a world to explore.  A patch of woods with a dirt bike track in the back yard, a lawn to play baseball, and a vast garden with strawberries, string beans, peas or tomatoes to pick.  The piano in the living room is lined with pictures, and after family dinners Grandma and her brother, Uncle Herbie, would play.  The piano bench was filled with sheet music – hymns and popular songs from the 1920’s onward.  She taught us how to play chopsticks and would play the left hand part with us.  Years later, struggling with hands knotted with arthritis, she still loved sitting at the piano, Ginny in the middle of her family, picking out the melody to her favorite hymns.

Our lives have been greatly influenced by time we spent with our grandparents in Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I chose to study German at school because of Grandma’s family.  Her father emigrated from Austria-Hungary, and Grandma grew up speaking German with her grandmother, and shared her bed-time prayers and table graces with us.   When I lived in Germany for a year, Grandma was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of going to Germany.  I’ll never forget proudly listening to her labored but successful attempts to relay the stories of her childhood to my host family in German she hadn’t used fluently for years.

Our grandmother was born and raised in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.  She had 4 much older half siblings and a mischievous younger brother Herbert.  Herbie remembers her as a very caring sibling, and recounts how when they were young she found an injured robin, tended to the injuries and after the bird was healed, trained the robin to eat from her hand, come upon her call and sit on her shoulder.  She loved animals and enjoyed the companionship of pets for her whole life.  More recently, her morning routine in our house included slipping bits of her breakfast to our dog at her feet, calling the cat to sit next to her, and happily watching the birds at the feeder.

During World War II Grandma joined the Volunteer Medical Service Corps where she enjoyed being part of the Color Guard and especially having the honor to carry the American Flag in parades.  We continued to hear stories of the military balls she attended years later.  She met her husband, Stanley, while in the Medical Corps and they were married in 1949.  For ten years they lived with her family until Stanley finished building a house in Hatfield, where they raised their daughters and established the garden that we knew.

Grandma was a hard worker and supported her family.   After high school she worked at a local Hosiery Mill, and for over 30 years she worked at the North Penn Water Authority in the billing department where she hand-wrote entries in the company ledger in her elegant script.  Although she retired when I was small, I remember going with her to the office to visit her colleagues, as well as to sewing circle and Sunday services at Lutheran and Mennonite Churches.  Her friends called her “Ginny”, and she loved to dress up and go to social events and parties, greeting everyone with a brilliant smile and sparkling blue eyes.  She had a great sense of humor that grew more wry as she aged.  In the morning, when you asked her how she slept she often would answer nonplussed, “With my eyes shut”.  Even as she later struggled with Parkinsons and the mood swings that come with it she always enjoyed making a good joke.

The German table grace Grandma always said roughly translates as, Come lord Jesus, and bless what you with grace have shared with us.  Our grandmother shared with us her love of music and animals; the joy and satisfaction of transforming a garden’s harvest into exquisite dinners, pies and jams; her sense of humor; and our heritage.  We are so blessed to have all these things that Grandma has given us to continue sharing amongst ourselves.

Komm Herr Jesu, sei unser Gast, und segnet was du uns aus Gnaden besheret hast.  Amen.”

As a woman who has dedicated much of her education and career on farming and farming related activities, many organizations and programs directed toward women in agriculture have caught my attention.  In the states, there are strong women farmer movements, bringing women who run small farms together in networks or organizing workshop and lecture series specifically for women who want to learn to farm.  In Nicaragua I am very excited to be working to highlight women farmers and pushing the study and recognition of women’s contributions to family agriculture farther through my work with Social Business Network and Ético.

Historically, land ownership has been granted to and passed down through men in the family, and even though that is slowly changing most farms – and loans for farming – are owned and managed by men.  Which means that men have more access to financial and technical resources connected to farming.  In Nagarote, the sustainable farming project I ran had to put an extra effort into finding women who had land titles and wanted to invest in their farms – and even then women made up only 25% of the participants.  Interestingly, when we created a special initiative to promote urban gardening that did not require land ownership or have gender-specific outreach, nine out of the ten participants were women.  In the development world, there has been increasing focus on women’s access to financial and educational resources.  Women-only micro credit organizations, women-to-women investment programs, and scholarship programs to help girls and women reach higher education have been backed by statistics generated by reputable organizations such as the UN:  Women tend to invest around 80% of their income in their family’s health and education.  If women farmers had the same financial resources available to them as men do, their yields would increase by 20-30%.

The really exciting initiative we are piloting in sesame and coffee supply chains aims to stretch the concept of women in agriculture further by acknowledging that for rural farming families, the traditional domestic work done mainly by women – fetching water, washing clothes, cooking and bringing meals out to the fields – is an integral part of the family’s ability to produce a cash crop and should be counted as an input cost in agricultural production.  When products include the value of these essential – and unpaid – activities, the money generated is used for women’s empowerment, effectively taking the often ignored, unpaid work of women and transforming it into a valued, celebrated role in the family and community.  A key factor in the success of this initiative thus far has been working with well established farmers cooperatives, who already have a desire to work for gender equality and have strong grassroots organizations that allow women and farming families in the communities to provide input in how the funds are used.  In Achuapa, where our pilot began, the additional margin created by including a calculation of women’s unpaid contributions to family production during sesame production has been used to establish a special savings and loans fund through the farmers cooperative and educational opportunities for women throughout the region.  Among the most popular activities the women choose to invest in – family agriculture, mainly purchasing pigs, chickens or calves.

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Fresh picked El Salvadorian organic coffee

In December I had the opportunity to represent the Social Business Network on a trip to northern El Salvador to piece together the puzzle of helping a small coffee cooperative export their coffee directly to a coffee roaster in the US.  If you spend any significant amount of time working with social or community development you understand that organizations and movements work along sine curves.  At any given time they have better participation or worse communication; garner support from the greater community and put extra time into initiatives, or view their past struggles with a cynical eye and degree of despondence.  The cooperative we were headed to meet with has a long history of working successfully together but have slumped into a current low, resigning themselves to making ends meet through efforts necessary to keep the coffee farm running.  Our hope was that our presence would act as an injection of adrenaline, and grease the squeaky cogs of self-directed community development that have been working there in the past back into motion.

The cooperative  – of only 19 farmers – received their land in the Agrarian Reformation in El Salvador.  My understanding of El Salvadoran history is extremely limited, and their story of receiving their land was very moving.  The cooperative movement has evolved over the history of Nicaragua, but has remained a persistent force in the development of the country during the last three decades, and most recently has garnered incredible support from the government as well as private and non-profit sectors.  During the violent Nicaraguan revolution and contra-revolution, cooperatives were used as a social and political tool to protect the land in the hands of campesinos.  Although most cooperatives today function primarily as a business model, the movement still tends to embrace the Sandinista political agenda and retain it’s identity as a revolutionary model of society.  I admit that I was naïve to the particular context that agricultural cooperatives have played in El Salvador, and was very struck by the story of how the community struggled to gain legal possession of land given to them peacefully through legislation, but still faced potential violence and intimidation.  The cooperative movement in El Salvador has not been blessed with the same strong support that the movement in Nicaragua has received, and they have struggled with changing legislation and political environments.

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Most important item on the business agenda – home cooked lunch with tortillas.

We spent two full, productive days with members of the small cooperative, a larger cooperative with a processing plant, a local NGO designed to bring together individual organic coffee farmers in the region, and representatives from the export company and coffee roaster interested in purchasing the coffee.  We each shared our visions, histories, took a short hike around the coffee land, shared a home cooked meal, and were surprised to find how well we understood each other.  If a feel-good energy building event to bring together the farmers and motivate them to improve quality and production was all that we had planned, the whole visit would have been a breeze.  Since the goal was actually to settle on a price and quantity to purchase, there was some tougher negotiation included, but in the end an agreement was met.  In the end the 11 hour drive from Nicaragua, crossing two country borders (with minimal hassle!) was entirely worth it.  The level of trust, understanding, and value of our shared experiences among so many links of the coffee chain would have been entirely impossible to achieve over skype.

Several things about the farmers’ situation in El Salvador struck me – often in the light of my previous experiences and knowledge of coffee cooperatives in Nicaragua.

Centralized processing has pros and cons - such as the cost of returning that mountain of coffee cherry pulp to the fields as compost.

Centralized processing has pros and cons – such as the cost of returning that mountain of coffee cherry pulp to the fields as compost.

The difference that on-farm processing can make on production management.  In Nicaragua, many small farms have their own de-pulping machines (either hand cranked or electric), and in general, the wet processing (taking the fruit off of the coffee bean,  allowing for a controlled fermentation and washing them) takes place either on farm or at a centralized location accessible to each farmer in the cooperative.  This in part ensures a higher quality of coffee (allowing freshly picked coffee cherries to ferment in their fruit is the first mistake in the processing chain that will result in lower quality coffee), but also allows farmers to maximize the re-circulation of nutrients onto their farm.  Every coffee farmer I have visited here – whether organic or conventional – composts and reapplies the coffee fruit to their fields as compost in some form or another, and some have developed systems to treat the water used in washing and return it to the land as well.  In this case, the particular group of farmers we are interested in helping improve their organic production methods sell their coffee in cherry form, meaning that they lose both control of the washing process and have to pay additional resources to transport their own composting materials from the processing plant.  As a rule, gaining control of as many steps in the process chain helps organized producer groups of any product gain control, raise quality, and benefit from increased margins.

The importance of clear communication, leadership, and education.  One of the farmers more involved in the technical farming aspect of the cooperative told me that an organic certifier had told them using fresh cow manure in any kind of fertilizer (even fermented), violated the certification and so they are now purchasing chicken manure from a distance to use in a type of compost called bokashi.  This is probably a misunderstanding or miscommunication that we can easily look into and clarify with the cooperative, but it reveals the potential setbacks of a regulatory system that is entirely for the benefit of the intermediary and consumer and not designed to empower or address individual needs at the production level.

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View of the nearby community.

Shade grown coffee can have a drastic impact on the local environment.  Besides coffee, corn is the main crop planted in the northern region of El Salvador where we were.  The surrounding mountains were strikingly beautiful, and from various points on our hike through the coffee fields, strolls through the small town nearby, and roads to the processing plant we enjoyed vistas overlooking verdant green – nearly entirely deforested – mountains.  As we travelled around the region it became clear – if you look across the valley and see trees, it is because of coffee.  Thank you, drinkers of shade grown organic coffee.  The wildlife and topsoil in coffee growing regions thank you too.

 

This past year I helped to write and execute a project promoting urban gardening in the small town of Nagarote.  Around the world, kitchen or community gardens are popular activities for organizations and non-profits.  The tangible benefits from a garden are numerous – a healthier lifestyle, some exercise and fresh food, and maybe even some saved income or extra earned income from the produce you can grow.  The intangible benefits are even more numerous and also much discussed and debated in the academic and development worlds – an increased connection to place, spiritual healing and development, cultivating caring for the environment and natural world, and connections to the surrounding community and among neighbors.  For many of us, ornamental or vegetable gardening is a fun pastime or hobby that we enjoy but don’t spend much time analyzing.  I can’t really explain why it is that every place I have lived in I have planted something, it just doesn’t feel like home until I do.

For non-profits, accessing funding requires the justification of a project in tangible, or measurable, terms.  Although all parties involved in our project in Nagarote were enthusiastic about the concept of an urban gardening project, as we developed the proposal it became clear that our reasons for supporting gardening varied.  While we all agreed that food security was the main objective, one organization was particularly interested in the community building aspects of gardening, while another wanted the project to focus on the socio-economic benefits: how to maximize how much a family could save or make by consuming or selling the produce from a kitchen garden.  We tried to work in everyone’s objectives, and therefore the resulting project became rather complicated to measure, at the expense of the participants time answering surveys and our team’s time compiling them.

Theoretically, a kitchen garden can serve all these roles, and more, for a family!   Why not?  Many professionals use various aspects of gardening to propel their work.  Landscape architects plan gardens around their intended function, anthropologists study the social dynamics of gardens and green space, and community organizations celebrate the harvest with neighborhood gardening events.   Measuring the concrete impact of a garden in more than one of these functions, however, is a whole other piece of work.  The survey we created for the base line study with the ten participating families drew some laughs, smiles, and more than a few confused looks.  How much do you spend weekly on vegetables for your family?  What vegetables do you buy most frequently?  How many tomatoes a week?  I have never felt so pathetically ridiculous as I did asking these Nicaraguans questions I could never have answered myself – how many people do you know separate out their grocery bills by basic grains, vegetables, and other??  I knew that it was important for the structure of the project to go through with all the impact evaluation work, but at the same time it was hard not to feel indignant about the objective.  Why is it fine for us to garden because we just like to, but Nicaraguans need to prove socio-economic gains to garner our support?

At end of the project we conducted another survey and compiled the data to see whether our objectives had been met and learn how the project could be improved upon.  As can be expected, the results were limited and statistically questionable due to the extremely small participant base (only ten families).  In general, there was much frustration around the hoops and paperwork involved with measuring the impact of our justified gardening work.  However, there were some exciting conclusions that we could draw from our baseline study and the final survey.  Every one of the families who participated said they intended to continue gardening.  Instead of being a nuisance as we were wary of, every family enjoyed the weekly visits from technicians, and requested that they continue even if there was no funding for more supplies!  Only one of ten participants was interested in selling anything from their garden.  And perhaps the most surprising to us was a question that tried to get to the heart of the reason for gardening.  We asked the participants to characterize their experience with their garden and gave them five choices: hobby, investment, therapy, fun, or work.  They could check as many as they felt applied.  The most frequent answer: Investment.  The second most frequent: Therapy.  The least frequent: Work.  Although all of the workshops focused on technical aspects of gardening, and the project was developed to address food and economic security, it seems that many of the participants found an unexpected deeper personal benefit from their experience.  And I’ll admit, after feeling somewhat useless computing an semi-fictional value of produce  and offset cost of weekly groceries, the answers to that question made me feel a whole lot better about the project.

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