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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.

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!

 

The Nicaraguan summer, or verano, is November through May, during the dry season when it doesn’t rain.  The only crops that survive are perennial crops like fruit trees, crops that have been well established during the rainy season, and anything planted with irrigation.  Because many of the fields are bare right now, waiting for late April and early May plowing and soil preparation, the Reforestation and Watershed Protection project that I work with through SosteNica is concentrating on soil conservation.  The open fields are ideal for marking out  terraces with an Aparato A, a simple instrument used to measure the slope of a field and find the level terraces that will, when planted or lined with rocks, help to prevent soil erosion in the heavy rains that begin in May.

The days when we go out to the farms to lead workshops or work with farmers are long.  We leave León by 7 am, taking either the fast newer highway or the old potholed highway toward Managua.  At some point I get off a bus and onto the back of the motorcycle, driven by Vernon, our Agroecologist.  The country roads right now are incredibly dusty, we wear heavy jean jackets to protect ourselves from the sun and dust, and I carry a handkerchief to hold in front of my mouth and nose so I don’t choke.  Sometimes the dust is so deep that Vernon has to slow the motorcycle down and put his feet down as if he’s crossing a river to keep our balance on the bike.  There’s a very short season change here between dangerously muddy: slippery and poor traction – to dangerously dusty: powdery and poor traction.

The first step when we work with the farmers is making the Aparato A.  The poles need to be straight, carefully measured, and the last detail is making sure it is properly balanced, and the exact point is well-marked in the center of the cross-pole where the string rests when the Aparato is perfectly level.

On this farm, we started at the top of a shrubby hill behind the farmers house.  The Aparato A measures the slope of the hill; with one leg uphill, the downhill leg is held up until the string falls on the center mark.  By measuring the distance in centimeters the second leg hovers above the ground, and dividing by 2 (the legs are 2 meters apart), you can deduct the slope of the hill.  That will tell you the distance you should build the terraces in order to sufficiently reduce erosion.

Two of our participating farmers, Pedro Sabino and Juan Enrique working together to measure the slope at Pedro’s family farm.

After the slope is measured and you know how far away to make your terraces, you can use the same Aparato A to mark them.  This time, both legs of the tool are on the ground, crossways around the hill, and the level point is marked with a stake.  The stakes are then connected, like a big connect-the-dots, and planted with grass, shrubs, or nitrogen-fixing plants.  The roots on the plants retain the soil, and the plants themselves catch sediments carried downhill by rainwater.  On Juan Enrique’s farm, the terraces will protect the back of his new house from being washed in by sediments.

While we’re onto soil conservation, might as well take the time to make a compost pile.  Instead of burning all the leaves and kitchen scraps, why not turn them into the rich organic matter which feeds your crops and helps filter the rainwater down to the aquifer.  Of course, when you are on your own time and not in a workshop, you can make your compost pile in the evening instead of under the scorching mid day sun.

At this farm, the family earns much of its income making and selling charcoal.  The dead wood from nearby forests is cleared out and then burnt very, very slowly in a big pit.  The chunks of charcoal left are sorted by size and packed into sacks and bags to be sold in markets.  The woman on the right is paid just under US$1 for making up 100 small plastic bags of charcoal.  Dirty work.

Luis Picon and Felipa Mayorga at their farm.  After we built the compost pile and talked for a most of the day about soil amendments, the conversation moved to their granddaughter who is still single at 26, and how young people just aren’t the same as they used to be.  There aren’t any young men good and responsible enough for her, said Luis, trust me, we weren’t so well behaved ourselves when we were young but they’re worse now these kids.  Oh yes, agrees Felipa, if you know what he put me through!  He’s caused me some trouble over all these years! I know why she’s still single, believe me.

One of the farms was an hour off of the main road, only accessible by horse or motorcycle.  At the end of the day, I was elected to ride the horse while my two colleagues set off on motorcycle.  My guide was the farmers eight year old son, Osmar.  He spent the entire hour trying to face backward on the horse while talking constantly.  I heard the whole history of his family, how his grandfather was forced to sell a whole piece of land, how he was born at home with a caul and was lucky his father had a cigarette ready so when they took the amniotic sack off him the cigarette smoke made him alert and saved his life, and how that very same horse he is riding once spooked at a snake and bucked him off and he hit his head on a rock and nearly died.  I was glad he was riding that horse instead of me.

The horse I was riding was blind in one eye.  I thought for a while about whether that was good, i.e. 50% less chance of spooking, or not good, i.e. more nervous.  But aside from the chatter it was an uneventful hour of slow walking to the main road, where there was a little venta for Osmar to buy some chocolates for his sisters before returning to his house with both horses.  I waited until the painted school bus going toward León passed by, getting back to the city around 7pm.  Another long hot dusty summer day done.

For SosteNica´s promotional tour this fall I´ve made a short video highlighting our environmental work with borrowers.   Tell me what you think.