20160726_NY_trd

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.

IMG_0448

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.

IMG_0468

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?

IMG_0615

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.

IMG_0419

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.

IMG_0608

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. 

IMG_0604

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.

13051497_10207749893179297_1400200027782379244_n

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.

 

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.

sketch1.jpg

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

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.

Our ´Reforestation Teams´ had their first day of “training” today, a full day of information and demonstrations about Organic Fertilizers.  We started off the day talking about worms, and then covered Bokashi (an ancient Japanese recipe for a very fast-acting compost), compost, and bio-fermentation.  It was a long day, but I was impressed with how our young interns stayed engaged. The demonstrations were held at the Norwalk Nagarote nursery and garden, which is lush and beautifully designed; one of the most inspiring organic projects I´ve seen here.  The professor, Jorge Luis Rostran, graduated from UNAN Agroecology program and is now the professor of organic fertilizers and insecticides made on campus.  He is an excellent speaker, the only thing I wish was that the information was more tailored to the resources available to the clients we have.  The recipe for bio-fermentation that he demonstrated uses mineral salts that he goes to Managua to buy once a year, something that our clients do not have the resources to do.  So that´s our job next week  -to take the scientific based technical data that the professors from UNAN are giving us this week, and transform it into technologically appropriate workshops for our clients.

I was reminded of a lot of really interesting facts about worms, like:

– Worms have 5 hearts and 6 livers

– California Red worms consume the equivalent of their weight in a day.  Can you imagine what I would look like if I ate 120 lbs of food a day?

– Because worms are hermaphroditic, after mating they each lay 1-2 eggs.  From each egg hatches 2-21 worms.  21 worms from one egg!

– California Red Worms take 90 days to reach maturity, and after that they reproduce about once a week.

– Worms are the cheapest and most efficient form of protein to raise.  Are we ready for a campaign to solve world hunger with red worms?