Monday, September 26, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 12-14 Selva Negra, Matagalpa, and Managua (Nicaragua)

The final days of my assignment were spent taking in more of Nicaragua's sights and doing administrative work.

Selva Negra is a private reserve in the cloud forests. You can enjoy the walking trails, try the delightful assortment of cakes in the restaurant, and visit the coffee farm. The term "coffee farm" should only lightly be applied. In addition to organic shade-grown coffee production and processing, Selva Negra also maintains horticulture greenhouses, fruit trees, composting and bio-gas facilities, a cheese-making dairy, and an abundance of livestock (cow, sheep, goat, chicken, duck, and quail for starters). Most of the products and produce get used in the restaurant or by the farm workers, but through a partnership with the Rainforest Alliance, you might find their coffee being sold in your local Whole Foods. My overnight visit was a good chance to see another dimension of Nicaragua's agriculture.

Our return trip was not without its own excitement. President Daniel Ortega, whose face and logos and slogans are all over billboards, bus stops, and bumper stickers in Nicaragua (elections are later this year), was giving a speech in Matagalpa. It seemed like everyone in the highlands was turning out to see him. The roads were packed with caravan after caravan of wildly hootin' and hollerin' supporters. Then, we even passed the president's own car!

Our arrival into Managua itself was more subdued. I did finally have a chance to taste that traditional weekend Nicaraguan treat - the nacatamale. On the outskirts of the city, we drove into an unremarkable residential neighborhood. We stopped outside a house with a tiny handwritten sign ("Hay nacatamales") and shouted through the gated door how many we wanted. The lady of the house came out to hand us the steaming bundles in plastic bags. Slow-cooked, spiced pork was encased in masa (corn meal dough) mixed with potato chunks, peppers, and onions. The sizeable mass - roughly 2-4 times the size of any Mexican tamale I've ever had - was topped with a slice of tomato (and possibly a grape leaf) and then wrapped in a giant plantain leaf to steam. It all made for a greasy, spicy, porky bundle of absolute deliciousness.

We headed back into the office for my final work day, exchanging pictures and checking paperwork. I continued to work on the report, the single most important document for a Farmer-to-Farmer program volunteer's assignment. Aside from chronicling our activities, it also details all the recommendations I made to growers, the Farmer-to-Farmer program itself, and even future volunteers. My assignment was part of a larger, ongoing horticulture project in the Nicaragua Farmer-to-Farmer program so it was also interesting to observe any changes made based on previous volunteers' suggestions and document them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 10-11 Estelí, Jinotega, and La Concordia

My impression of Estelí, as formed through the windshield of the truck, was a boom town. At least, every other building appeared to be a ferretería (hardware store). How can it possibly support all of them? A little digging told me that Estelí tops the list of most efficient cities for obtaining a construction permit in Latin America.

Being on the road wasn't too bad. The stretch through the city is actually the Inter-American Highway, which is the Central American leg of the Pan-American Highway. The latter, for those of you wondering, is the crazy route that runs all the way from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. How's about 30,000 miles sound for a road trip? So I got a little kick out of taking it for a spell.

Onward to Jinotega and La Concordia we went, where more potato and horticulture growers awaited. These were some of the most packed rooms yet. Members of the National Potato Commission, Ministry of Agriculture technicians, and chemical industry reps also were in attendance. Discussions about physical controls (e.g. using mulches and black plastic) and pesticide safety were active, and everyone wanted to talk about the new pest and disease problems in Nicaragua. Breaks came with typical Nicaraguan snack packs (carb base in the form of rice/yucca/or tortilla, shredded meat, and usually topped with a vinegar cole slaw) and drinks... even juice of nancite, a sort of sweeter tamarind or tangier membrillo flavored fruit.

As these days were partly organized with ongoing field schools, we got to hear some of the other guests also speak. It was interesting being on the audience side of things in Nicaragua and even more curious to hear who was making what recommendations. When you hear someone of influence talk, it's not too hard to figure out how growers might decide to make a mind-blowing two applications per week of multiple pesticides in homemade "bomb" recipes!

Not all recommendations were so horrifying, of course. There were also highly knowledgeable, dedicated, and conscientious people sharing their experiences and suggestions. It was really great to see when one of them would get behind an idea or new approach. Other growers respected their opinion, and a few more previously skeptical people might start to pay attention.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 5 - 9 Granada, Managua, Matagalpa, and Estelí

At 6 am, we caught the local bus from Granada to Managua. There were no chickens on board, but the guy drumming up business on the door did his best to keep it packed with fares. The constant stopping and starting nearly doubled the time, but at 20 córdobas (~ 90 cents) a ride, they had to line their pockets somehow.

In Managua, we got into the truck and straight back onto the road, heading to the main potato-growing region. While the highlands of Nicaragua are gorgeously pastoral and green, it can be rough going from a farmer's point of view. Since other pursuits like drying coffee and growing rice occupy the ideal land in the valleys, the steep and rocky slopes make manual and animal labor the norm for potatoes. Potatoes in Nicaragua are grown mainly for consumption. Some are used for seed, but not enough to meet demand, so much gets imported from as far as away as Europe. Very little goes for processing although french fries (chips) are on many menus, and chips (crisps) are also becoming more popular.

In Matagalpa and Estelí we met with members of potato growers' cooperatives. In the fields I saw plenty of familiar faces from my past, that is, of the insect and disease kind (e.g. leaf beetles, leafhoppers, whiteflies, white grubs, late blight, and Erwinia spp.). Growers were also worried about the newer guys as there are a couple of serious, emerging problems in Nicaragua. While there was plenty to chat about in the fields, we did formal training sessions, too. Sometimes in the most unlikely places. One was a tin-roofed, dirt-floored shack in the middle of a nature reserve, where the solar panel eeked out just enough juice to fly through one presentation and a couple videos. The ensuing discussions - almost in the dark - though were some of the most dynamic, which just goes to show that you don't always need the technology.

Visiting a warehouse gave us insight into post-harvest practices, and some suggestions were made for improving sanitation and storage. We also got better informed about the resources available by trotting around to several agricultural supply shops in town. We had to go incognito, posing as interested buyers. Apparently, the clerks in general in Nicaragua tend to deliver death stares to the shopper who dares to tell them, "I'm just looking."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Granada (Nicaragua)

Founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (for whom Nicaragua's currency is named), Granada was one of the first cities on the mainland of the Americas. It's pretty, too. The colonial architecture helps. I also suspect there must be some kind of municipal law that no building can be painted less than three bright hues.

Boat tours of Las Isletas in Lake Nicaragua leave from Granada regularly. The 365 small islands were formed when nearby Mombacho Volcano blew its top long, long ago. You can even buy one for yourself. The lake was warm and remarkably peaceful. This must be why the rich and powerful of Nicaragua build luxury complexes on some of them with infinity pools and basketball courts. One even had a helipad! I wonder what they must think of their decidedly poorer neighbors, a few of the locals who still make their living with a well-cast fish net.

Granada is also a great base for exploring the area. At about 1300 m, Mombacho Volcano is home to a cloud forest. We didn't get to see a sloth. Quite possibly the boisterous tourists, blasting Pitbull's "Give Me Everything" from their iPhone on the trail, scared them away. See-through butterflies and bromeliads like bird-of-paradise were still around. I even caught a fleeting, shimmering blue glimpse of a gorgeous morpho butterfly. ¡Toma!

Lower down on volcano, zip-lining was offered for another view of Mombacho. After suiting up in the protective gear, we got to see - and hear - howler monkeys before heading up. I felt some trepidation doing an extreme sport without Rich, especially after the guides asked us if we wanted to do tricks. I opted out of the upside down variations, but "Bouncing Seat" and "Superman (with the guide)" were good fun. Really, "Wheelbarrow Race" would probably be a more apt name for the latter. Despite the rain starting to come down, "Bouncing Superman (solo)" made for a great ending!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 3 - 4 Managua and Nandasmo (Nicaragua)

Heading out to Nandasmo, about an hour's drive outside of Managua to the southeast, I was impressed by the quality of roads in Nicaragua. I came expecting pockmarked death traps, and instead, found smoothly paved motorways and working roundabouts. Granted, there is still a bright assortment of frequently stopping chicken buses and the occasional horse cart slowing down traffic... but these just add to the local color, like the guys who rush the car at the stoplight, offering to wash your windscreen or sell you cashews and coconuts. Taxis seem to be a tad unlucky though, as we saw loose parts work themselves free of two cabs in as many days.

We were meeting with a community organization of women growers, but upon arrival, found the eager crowd to be closer to fifty-fifty. A brief tour allowed the leaders of the group to showcase the work they have been doing to promote home gardens (an asset in the face of rising food prices), composting, and new products like nursery plants and different vegetables (Yankees out there: Nicaraguans are also not sure what to make about okra either!). After the welcome speech, a local girl gave us a folk dance - not on the agenda, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless.

Our program offered slightly less opportunities for creative expression... although it did involve an arts and crafts project: Make-Your-Own Yellow Sticky Traps. Think flypaper, except it's for things that will eat your crops. I also preached about that cornerstone of my undergraduate program (Can I get a "Boiler Up"?) : Integrated Pest Management - a strategy of combining physical, cultural, biological, and chemical control methods to reduce pest and disease problems when they have reached an economic level of damage. I say "preach" because these folks made quite a good "choir." They were happy to learn new methods and chime in with their experiences and ideas. Scouting (regular, systematic monitoring of your crop) and encouraging beneficial insects ("good" bugs that like to kill the "bad" bugs) were also big topics. The group went back out to the field for hands-on I Spy. Seriously though, their good observations and samples they collected opened up on-the-fly discussions about insects and diseases and how to manage them. Finally, we ended with the cooking show portion of the program - recipes for quick and easy insecticidal sprays. Take that, Rachel Ray!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 1 - 2 Managua (Nicaragua)

After two delayed flights and a complementary personalized screening by those oh-so-kind Homeland Security folks in Miami, I finally arrived in Managua 20 hours later. The capital of Nicaragua sometimes gets a bad rap for safety, but I didn't really get to test this out. What with the -8 hours of jetlag, most of what I saw was the office or the inside of the hotel room. I did make a mental note that the security guards did patrol with a shotgun or handgun outside the hotel. However, I was told this was not necessary.

The first real day was spent in orientation at the Partners of the Americas office. In addition to the Farmer-to-Farmer program, the organization in Nicaragua has a variety of other development programs and projects, not all related to agriculture. They have a special relationship in particular with Wisconsin (their "Partner"), which explains why there seemed to be so many UW Badgers among the volunteers.

I am lucky to have a Partners Field Officer accompanying me during this assignment. Elisa will be my driver, translator, logistics coordinator, tour guide, and boss... and ok, maybe a little bit my babysitter. I also got to meet the other volunteer, Heath, who will be joining us for the first week. We discussed the proposed agenda, watched some videos we could potentially use in training, and struggled mightily and fruitlessly with the presentations I had prepared beforehand. Frickin' Linux! To be fair, Windows 7 wasn't playing nicely either.

I did get to see a couple of Managua's fiercely air-conditioned shopping malls. Other than the kiosks selling quesillos (creamy, cheesy, oniony things I can't wait to try) and haunting Movistar ringtones (which I had hoped to get away from), the malls could be in the States. Department store gift wrapping is still alive here though, and you can get guanabana (soursop) ice cream. Grabbing some quick bites to eat, the food courts have a dizzying array of options, including traditional Nicaraguan food. Beans, if not in the national dish of gallo pinto (beans and rice cooked separately and then fried together), come in a refried puree but with a dash of sugar. With those addictive forms of chips/crisps (ripe ones thinly sliced, fried, and salted) or tostones (green ones sliced thickly, fried or baked, smashed, and fried again), I've got to say "Yay for plantains!"

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: the Sequel (Nicaragua)

In July, I completed a volunteer assignment with the USAID's (United States Agency for International Development) Farmer-to-Farmer program in Mozambique. It was a very good experience for me... so much so that when I received an offer for another assignment, I decided - aside from the whole being apart from Rich and Pepper again - "Well, why not? Sign me up!"

Partners of the Americas is the organization that administers the Farmer-to-Farmer program in Latin America and the Caribbean. I will be working in Nicaragua providing technical assistance and training to growers and cooperatives as part of their ongoing project improving the horticulture (e.g. vegetable agriculture) value chain. As a Pest and Disease Control Specialist, it's a great chance to actually use both the entomology (bugs) and plant pathology (plant diseases) sides of my background... as well as a way to see how that whole learning Spanish thing is coming along.

I will be updating the blog with my experiences if you want to read along. So here I go, once more unto the breach, dear friends...

To read more about my previous assignment in Mozambique, you can start reading here:

To learn more about the Farmer-to-Farmer program, visit the USAID and Partners of the Americas websites: