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….)

Thursday it rained in Nagarote for the first time in 48 days.

This is the winter, or rainy season, when small farmers plant and harvest all their corn, sorghum, beans, and pasture for the whole year.  In October the rains will cease, and not start again until May.

Normally, there is a month-long dry spell that starts around the middle of June called the Canicula, or mini-summer.  This year it just kept going, and going.  Thursday morning I was visiting clients with Luis Rivas from CEPRODEL, and we kept hearing the same stories.  “I haven’t been able to plant corn, or sorghum, because it’s too dry.”  Here people often say caer agua, or water that falls, instead of lluvia, the word for rain.  “Tengo que esperar hasta que cae agua!” Everyone is working hard to keep the trees from the reforestation project alive.  We timed the project so that the trees would be distributed at the beginning of the rainy season and would be well established by the time summer hit, but we didn’t anticipate the arrival of el niño this year.

A dry struggling sesame field

A dry struggling sesame field

Friday I visited some agricultural clients with Edgard, from the León office.  The soy, sesame, and yucca were established, seeded in the early months of winter when it was raining.  The crops were all showing signs of stress, however.  On some plants up to a third of the flowers in the soy, which is just beginning to set fruit, where dried and brown.  The sesame, which should be over a foot by now, was stunted at a couple inches, but still alive. Edgard and I discussed the factors involved in deciding whether to release the next round of credit for the farms.

Agricultural crop credit works differently that urban loans or even loans to buy cattle.  Because of the long season for crops like yucca (seven months from seeding to harvesting, not including soil preparation) and the incontrolable weather risks involved, credit is not dispersed all at once.  A farmer works out a plan with the CEPRODEL officer, how much they need for soil preparation, to purchase seeds, to hire labor for planting and weeding, and to harvest.  The amounts for each activity are released only when they happen, not months ahead of time. This way, if the crop dies during a drought, or if the harvest is significantly lower than expected, the farmer is only in debt part of what he intended to take out. The client also only pays interest on the portion he has been given, so the delayed payment also helps keep the loan affordable.  The farmer can also choose not to withdraw the whole credit if it isn’t needed.

All loans are given for specific activities, and amounts vary depending on the crop the farmer wants to plant.  The timeline, cost of labor, and cost of supplies are standardized for many crops, and are tailored to the acreage of each client.  But the ‘flexibility’ of tailoring each credit personally results in an inflexible credit at the end of the day.  One of the farmers we visited was frustrated, because he had solicited credit for yucca and sesame, and he hasn’t been able to seed the sesame because of el niño. He is running out of time, because even if it starts to rain regularly this week, there probably aren’t enough weeks of rain left to ensure a good sesame harvest.  He could plant beans, which require less time.  That is probably what he will do, but he won’t be able to use credit to buy the seeds without returning to the office and re-working his plan with Edgard to tailor it to beans instead of sesame. I can understand how that is frustrating, on the other hand it seems like the rules are there for the farmers advantage in the long run.

When it did rain in Nagarote in the afternoon the sun burned through the clouds to the west adding theatrical lighting to the long awaited storm.

When it did rain in Nagarote in the afternoon the sun burned through the clouds to the west adding theatrical lighting to the long awaited storm.