The ground seems fertile for new sustainable agriculture markets, pun intended.  A recent estimate places a $4.5 billion value on the “green agricultural technologies” market over the next decade, including improvements in available biopesticides and organic non-petroleum based fertilizers.  Which is great, except that with harsher climate extremes and increasing intensity of pests and diseases, it is unclear whether this investment will result in increased production yields or simply be necessary to maintain the current level of production.  And of course, this doesn’t mean $4.5 billion for farmers – unless farmers come together to invest in the development and creation of amendments.  The infrastructure within the agricultural cooperative movement should give farmer cooperatives an advantage in centrally producing economical and ecological inputs for their member farmers, retaining some of the value of this growing industry in the hands of small farmers.

UNCTADThe recent United Nations Trade and Environment Review 2013 is entitled “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late” and stresses the need for transformations in our food systems that strengthen farmers’ ability to employ ecological practices that increase the stability and health of agriculture.  The report, compiled by over 60 experts in the field, lists as one of its key points the need to recognize farmers as more than just producers.  Farmers are managers of agro-ecosystems that impact public goods and services including water, soil, land use, energy, biodiversity and recreation.  When we recognize them as managers with influence in several areas of long-term impact, the resources that we make available to them and the role they play in trade relationships and business takes greater importance.  In one section entitled: Democratizing the Role of Agriculture to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century” the report outlines the effects of the consolidation of corporate interests in agriculture – from monopolization of the input markets including seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, to lobbying and influencing policies that are not in the best interest of farmers.  Although as stewards of the land farmers have the potential to greatly impact carbon sequestration, erosion, local food systems and energy production, the consolidation of corporate interests effectively prioritize profit margins on fertilizers, seeds, and retail over supporting good farm management and profitability.  As the graph below from the Canadian Department of Agriculture shows, the price of fertilizers is rising at a faster rate than the price of crops, cutting into farmers profitability.

The fuel, fertilizer and crop price trends for Canadian farmers.

The fuel, fertilizer and crop price trends for Canadian farmers.

The report suggests a variety of concrete actions that should be relevant especially within the movement of organized farmer advocacy groups and cooperatives.  There are examples of farmer groups who have made investments in the production of fertilizers and seeds.  I have previously written about SOPPEXCCA’s fertilizer plant as a model coffee cooperative’s initiative to take into their own hands the lack of effective organic certified fertilizers on the market.  Because the farmers themselves have a stake in the fertilizer production, the quality of the finished product, and the profitability of the coffee production, the investment includes annual tests and improvements in the composition of the fertilizer they make, effectively lowering the cost of the fertilizer for farmers rather than raising it.  Other examples of farmer groups taking a pro-active stance to protect available cost-effective quality inputs for farmers that are not controlled by  are seed savers groups and seed banks.  The difference between farmer-driven and corporate-driven amendments is simple – farmers have a vested interest in the effectiveness and quality of the product, as well as in their affordability and long-term ecological impact.  Corporations only have a vested interest in the first.

What other innovative farmer-initiated production models or policies do you know of that shift market control and profitability toward farmers?

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.

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.”

I receive many comments from people who want to come to Nicaragua and get dirty – volunteer on a working farm or with an organization promoting sustainable farming or gardening.  So here is a quick list (by no means exhaustive!) of recommendations with organizations and volunteer opportunities I personally have experience with.  If you are planning a trip, I have also written about my general recommendations for how to prepare and what to bring with you!

A note about volunteering in a developing country:  When I first began researching volunteer abroad opportunities ten years ago, I was taken aback at the fees requested by many organizations.  Why should I pay to volunteer?  Isn’t my help enough?  After living in a developing country and supervising volunteers I understand why and believe it is very important to take into consideration.  The time and investment in training volunteers to adapt to a new culture, a new language, entirely different transportation systems and work ethics is time intensive and costly.  A days salary at minimum wage is approximately half of what a bed in a hostel costs.  Trading a day’s worth of (probably unskilled, at least at first) work for room and board just doesn’t make economic sense for many NGOs.  Research the costs of living in the area where you want to work and make sure that is part of your decision and commitment.  There are some hostels who offer discount rates for guests who are volunteers, or who run their own charitable projects and may offer room and board in exchange for working with their initiative, but in general expect to at least pay your own room and board.  Making a contribution to the organization you are volunteering for is a way to ensure that your time volunteering really does contribute a net positive to their efforts and doesn’t become a strain on their resources because of the additional time/attention you require.  If they ask for a fee to volunteer, ask them how they calculated it to understand their justification before making a judgement about whether it’s reasonable or not.

Study Spanish First: Your ability to contribute to an organization is severely limited if your communication is limited to English!  Unless you have a specific skill that you know you have to offer and know that you are willing to help an organization by doing more office based work like online research, writing grant applications in English, helping with marketing materials, or web design, dedicating the first portion of your trip to language acquisition will be well worth your time.  If your interests lie in working with the rural sector here (as I imagine most of this blog’s readers are), I highly recommend the Hijos del Maiz language school in Achuapa.  The school offers one-to-one classes with young members of the rural community of El Lagartillo who have been certified as Spanish language instructors.  The school is unique in Nicaragua in that it provides a real rural living experience with comfortable accommodations, quality instruction, and the ability to spend the afternoons helping cattle, corn and bean farmers, learning to cook traditional Nicaraguan foods, or volunteering in a rural school.  I highly recommend this school to anyone who wants to understand not only Nicaraguan Spanish but also the campesino lifestyle.

Volunteer for Sustainable Farming/Gardening: Many people are interested in supporting sustainable gardening and farming in Nicaragua.  The first thing you should do is be realistic about what type of skills you can offer – even if you already speak fluent Spanish.  What experiences do you have that can contribute to the organization?  Be upfront about what you can bring to a project when you first contact an organization.  If you do have experience farming in the states or Europe, be prepared to encounter completely different crops, diseases, and issues than you are familiar with!  Budget time for your own learning before you will be able to then teach others.  You definitely don’t need to have had direct experience growing plantains, yuca, chayote, passionfruit, or pitaya in order to participate in a gardening initiative (although if you do that’s a definite plus!)  Experience working with youth, graphic design, networking skills, connections to agricultural universities that could offer technical support, are all good ways you can boost the efforts of a small NGO without having direct farming experience yourself.  Here is a short list of a few organizations I have come across that I know have the conditions to take volunteers and are good starting places – contact them and they can probably refer you on if they don’t offer the experience you are looking for or it doesn’t seem like a good match.  There are hundreds of organizations in Nicaragua and this is only a very few – if you have had experience volunteering with gardening or farming specifically for an organization and want to list it send me the link and your recommendation and I will post it.

NicaPhoto: An excellent small NGO in Nagarote that provides after-school education for primary and secondary school students.  The project includes several opportunities to garden with the children – in a good-sized project garden that grows food for the kids lunches, or in the garden/park/playground at the nursery school NicaPhoto helped to build.  Ronnie Maher, the director, is from the US so she can help with language transition and has extensive experience organizing volunteer groups.  

Norwalk Nagarote Sister City Project:  Also in Nagarote, close to Managua, this is a sister-city project that also has many opportunities to work with youth – sports, education, computer and English classes – and runs a sustainable educational farm.  Their farm provides food for nursery school snacks, events, and also the local market.  At 2 manzanas (3.4 acres) it definitely qualifies as a small farm and is a great opportunity for someone with some farming experience in the states who would like to contribute to an agricultural project on a larger scale than a kitchen garden.  The farm is managed jointly with SosteNica, another US-based NGO working with sustainable housing, farming, and Microcredit in Nicaragua.

UCA San Ramon: This is an active, vibrant union of small coffee cooperatives.  The UCA San Ramon was one of the first small farmer cooperatives to invest in rural eco-tourism and they currently offer a range of tourism opportunities from sustainably built adobe rural hostels to home stays and wild-life treks.  There are a myriad of opportunities to volunteer with coffee farmers, in kitchen garden projects, or with some of their other agricultural products they support that contribute to local food security and economy.  They are also known for their progressive development policies that include gender equality, anti-domestic violence and sexual education.

UCA Miraflor: Located in the cloud forest reserve Miraflor just east of Estelí, this small farmer coffee cooperative also has a reputable community tourism project that offer either a night or two at the house of a campesino family or a longer term stay with volunteering in the coffee plantations (make sure you plan your trip between November and February if you are intent on being there for the harvest!), in a kitchen garden project, or in the local schools.

Center for Biointensive Farming in Nicaragua:  This is a new demonstration, investigation, and training center for the Biointensive farming method in Nicaragua is in Tipitapa, very accessible from Managua and Masaya.  Strictly organic, the biointensive method has been scientifically proven to conserve water, build soil, and provide more food per area than other types of sustainable farming.  As it becomes more established, the center would benefit from some enthusiastic, independent volunteers to put some labor into its first season.  The list of members of the Biointensive Movement in Nicaragua is a great page to browse if you are looking to connect with other organizations in Nicaragua that promote this type of small-scale farming.

Nuevas Esperanzas:  You can live comfortably in the vibrant colonial city of León and volunteer with Nuevas Esperanzas, which works with communities in the impressively volcano chain east of the city.  Known for their high-quality work with creating potable water systems and rainwater catchment tanks, the organization also works with sustainable farming and food security issues, family gardens, and is starting a rural community tourism initiative.

October 2013 is Fair Trade Month, when consumer advocacy groups, companies, and certifications raise awareness of the reasons why fair trade is important, and promote buying and using socially and commercially sustainable, fair trade products in place of commodities which may harm the environment, the economy, communities and disadvantaged individuals.  Despite it’s good intentions, the campaign hasn’t been visible at all on the ground in this Fair Trade producer country.  I can’t help noticing the one-way flow of information and energy within this movement that has legitimately transformed the way that trade impacts hundreds of thousands of small producers’ lives.  Since beginning my work with agricultural cooperatives almost a year ago, I have had the privilege of seeing and experiencing the incredible results of implementing a trading structure that supports small producers.  And I also am able to see its shortcomings in the field, where the newest innovations in ethical trade need to be focused.  Like a missed opportunity this “Fair Trade” month for companies and advocacy groups to support producer cooperatives in recruiting new members and launching local awareness campaigns in their own countries, not only in consumer countries.  When Fair Trade USA decided to break away from the Fair Trade Licensing Organization’s international standards to certify plantations and reduce the amount of certified ingredients necessary for labelling, they sent a clear message to agricultural cooperatives that have toiled for years to create successful democratic businesses – we care more about profit margins and consumer demand than your participation in the market.  Ouch.  So while consumer advocacy groups shuffle around to take sides and pour resources in re-educating the public on new standards and symbols, agricultural cooperatives have to huddle, suck it in to prepare for an even more competitive market on top of coffee rust and whatever climatic disaster is waiting around the corner.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tomorrow Oct. 16th is World Food Day.  This year’s theme is Healthy People Depend on Healthy Food Systems.  Access for consumers to quality food is just one piece of a food system, and it’s an important one – besides the social and other health costs associated with lack of access to good food, the costs of malnutrition alone could account for as much as an estimated 5% of the global gross domestic product (GDP).  Both upstream and downstream from agricultural food production are important links in the food system that impact the lives and diets of many people.  Availability of soil amendments, financing, regional land policy, and road quality all have an impact on both local and global food systems.  Ethical trading structures like Fair Trade can have a direct impact on a subsequent food system – like the example of this Coop in Achuapa, Nicaragua.  Innovations to ethical trading structures should improve information and resource feedback, continue to empower small producers and provide ways for them to increase ownership over links in the supply chain, and support them in building parallel local markets so the overall effect of good fair trade is healthier food systems – and healthier people – around the world.

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

Once upon a time I believed that creating and supporting healthy local food systems meant eliminating imported products – for example, sticking to a 100 mile-diet.  I believed that preaching a local food only diet could solve societal issues such as a disconnect from agricultural businesses and the source of our food, struggling local economies, and poor health and nutrition.  But I began to question that belief as my work in Nicaragua evolved from development centered NGO work to trade oriented development work.  As I have gotten to know several fair trade cooperatives, their histories and their work today, I have had to reassess to a certain extent my intense focus on the benefits of consuming only local food.  Maybe there is a space for positive global trade, one that can, despite the enormous capital and fuel resources, create net positive social impact and work pretty hard on the environmental ones too.  After all, while many local farms in the US have sprung up, grown and profited off of the local food movement, local independent coffee roasters have too!  In general I am a supporter of positive campaigning (put your energy behind what you DO want – if not instead than at least as well as what you DON”T want).  I would not recommend to any local food advocate to go an a campaign to convince the masses to stop drinking their coffee.  Not worth your energy.

It is worth your energy to drink the right coffee though!  Over the years I have found that the agricultural cooperatives I work with here that export coffee and sesame share many of the same values as movements I connect with in the states, such as the local food movement.  The funds they generate – through exporting a commodity to people in countries whose climates or economies that do not support the production of that crop – are often invested in funding environmental youth movements, organic fertilizer production, educational scholarships, and strengthening local food networks.  Every coffee coop we work with has or is currently developing a national brand of export quality coffee to market nationally.  This focus on raising the quality of the Nicaraguan coffee culture through national distribution is a strategy that I find both empowering and an example of good business.  Investing in a product for local markets will help the coops grow, reach new markets, and give them a way to leverage the difference between national and international prices to make the best business decisions each year – as well as strengthening the local food system by providing Nicaraguans the opportunity to drink high quality Nicaraguan coffee.

Another coop we work with, the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, exports sesame oil to Europe, mostly for use in cosmetics.  The exports work like the engine that fuels the Cooperative.  It means the Cooperative provides jobs for locals (many of them youth) to run the oil press, the business administration, and the services the coop offers, it generates fair trade premiums – funds that are ear marked for social or environmental projects.  The profits are invested into the business and distributed amongst its members, similar to dividends in a public company.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Because the cooperative has been successful both in producing a quality product that has demand on the market and in investing their profits in the community, other organizations are attracted to working with them, and they have been able to collaborate with local and international development organizations on projects improving farm diversity, establishing technical schools, improving access to potable water, and strengthening local food networks.  Over the last three years, the coop has invested in developing a local line of products using what is available and abundant – including sesame, a very nutritious grain which is not a staple of Nicaraguan cuisine.  Through the creativity of some coop members and employees, and now through a new initiative to Recognize the Unpaid Work of Women in the cost of the sesame and use those funds to help women fully participate in local communities and economies, the coop is lending their facilities and marketing support to the development of new products.  The first Nicaraguan-produced Tahini, which has at least made a splash amongst some local expats, was revolutionized when Doña Ernestina, who works at the coop, mixed it with honey produced by the coop and created a sweet sticky spread that appeals more to a Nicaraguan palate.  Individuals and groups of women in Achuapa have the full support of the cooperative in developing and marketing foods made from local ingredients to local communities – funded through the export of sesame oil and sesame seeds to communities as far away as Europe, the US, and Japan.

Suddenly, export vs. local isn’t so black and white anymore.  When a democratic organization with a strong social and environmental vision successfully enters an international market, the impact can be felt very locally.