Thursday, August 21, 2014

Supporting Dairy Marketing Initiatives in Nicaragua

Partners’ Farmer-to-Farmer program provides technical assistance along all levels of an agricultural value chain. This means that F2F volunteers may have expertise outside of specific agricultural areas. Last month, F2F volunteer, Diane Griffin, returned from her assignment in Nicaragua after spending two weeks providing technical assistance in marketing and strategic planning to three dairy cooperatives –COOPROLECHE, Nicarao, and CANISLAC.  Diane’s strong background in business development, leadership and management, and strategic planning allowed her to support the leadership of these organizations in several ways.

Diane with CANISLAC and F2F staff.
At COOPROLECHE, Diane mapped out business partners, donors, suppliers, and consumers in order to illustrate the strategic relationships that exist within their value chain.  She also supported COOPROLECHE in identifying opportunities to maximize their organization’s strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. During a marketing training for Nicarao, Diane helped identify how members of the organization contribute individually and collectively in shaping the future goals and objectives of the cooperative, thereby increasing members’ motivation and sense of ownership. Finally, Diane supported the development of CANISLAC’s Dairy Consumption Campaign by facilitating discussion on the direction and goals of their campaign and providing recommendations on how to address information gaps. Her work has helped COOPROLECHE, Nicarao, and CANISLAC identify organizational goals and develop a plan for achieving them.

Diane leading a workshop for Nicarao's leadership.
To read more about Diane’s experience in Nicaragua check out her blog here.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Artisanal Cheese Production in Nicaragua

Leonardo Castro with some cheese made during this visit.
Since 2012 the Nicaragua Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program has been working with Leonardo Castro on improving his family-owned dairy farm’s practices, production, and cheese quality.   His goals for the upcoming years include diversifying his cheese products, improving cheese quality, and increasing production, sales, and access to niche markets. About a year ago, shortly after receiving technical assistance from F2F volunteer Daniel Hewitt, Leonardo began producing and selling raw-milk Gouda through his start-up enterprise, Queso San Ramon.

Salting the milled curd before placing it in molds.
Due to customer demand, Leonardo has decided to diversify his cheese products by beginning to produce a cheddar-style cheese.  To support Leonardo in meeting his goal, Daniel returned to Nicaragua in July 2014 to train Leonardo and other community members in cheddar-style cheese production.  

Through hands-on activities and a five-day cheese-making workshop at the Queso San Ramon facility, Daniel was able to teach the principles and practices of artisanal cheese-making. Activities included tweaking and experimenting with different starter culture and salt amounts, milk heating schedules, and pressing weights. Throughout these interactive trainings, Daniel facilitated discussions with Leonardo and his team about how these changes could impact the final cheese product. The group also learned how to use new cheese-making equipment.

Testing the pH of the cheese after overnight press.
Thanks to Daniel’s trainings, Leonardo and his team are now well on their way to producing a cheddar-style cheese and there are also plans to increase Queso San Ramon’s production to twice a week. As Queso San Ramon continues to grow, Leonardo hopes to eventually expand and include two dairy neighbors.  

To learn more about this F2F assignment, watch the video below (in Spanish). A big thank you to Daniel for putting this together! And to find out more about how to become a F2F volunteer, please visit our website.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Partners’ Guatemala Farmer-to-Farmer Program Seeks Volunteers!

Last month, Partners of the Americas officially inaugurated its Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) office in Guatemala. Partners' F2F field staff are comprised of Country Director José Eduardo Cano, Field Officers Andrea Lucrecia Fión and José Abraham Jarquin, and Administrative Assistant Andrea Herrera. Partners' F2F program will focus on two key strategies: 1) strengthening horticulture value chains and 2) improving the productivity and competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises in Guatemala.

From left: Andrea Herrera, Andrea Fión,
Abraham Jarquin, and José Cano
The F2F staff maintain regular communication with the USAID/Guatemala Mission to ensure that the F2F program complements Guatemala's Feed the Future strategy and, in particular, the Western Highlands Integrated Program (WHIP). WHIP aims to reduce poverty and chronic malnutrition by focusing on the areas with the highest concentration of need and taking a collaborative approach with municipalities, community organizations, the private sector, and other programs such as Farmer-to-Farmer.

The first F2F volunteer in Guatemala arrived in the beginning of July and had a great visit (stay tuned for a future blog post about his trip!). And the field staff have several other open assignments (see below). The Guatemala field staff state, "We are enthusiastic to start working and have already started developing assignments, no doubt the commitment and dedication from the entire team will make the program a success in Guatemala."

Partners' Senior Program Officer Courtney Dunham, tours
CEPROCAL prior to the arrival of the first F2F volunteer
to Guatemala.

Open Volunteer Assignments in Guatemala:

Artisanal Goat Cheese Manufacturing and Marketing Expert (2-4 weeks in October):
A specialist in goat milk handling practices, quality assurance, and small-scale cheese manufacturing is needed to train extension staff at the Center for Goat Production in the Altiplano of Guatemala (CEPROCAL). The volunteer will train extension staff in proper goat milk product management to help ensure the production of high quality cheese. The volunteer will also assist with the development of a marketing plan to help expand market opportunities for CEPROCAL’s goat milk and cheese products. Spanish proficiency is desired, but not necessary.

Specialty Mushroom Production Expert (2-4 weeks in October or November):
A volunteer with experience in cultivating organic specialty mushrooms (i.e., shiitake, king oyster, enoki, nameko, and poplar) is needed to train mushroom producers in mushroom production on logs, mushroom pest and disease management, and post-harvest handling. Expected deliverables include the development of protocols for growing shiitake mushrooms on logs, guidelines on care and handling of mushrooms during production, methods to improve mushroom pest and disease management, and a Farmer-to-Farmer trip report and recommendations.

Food Safety Expert (2-4 weeks in November or December):
A specialist in food safety with experience in vegetable handling and packaging (particularly of peas, green beans, and bell peppers) is needed to train small-scale farmers in the central highlands on safe handling and packaging of vegetables for export. Expected deliverables are to develop a guide on procedures to ensure the proper packaging of vegetables and a Farmer-to-Farmer trip report with recommendations on  how farmers can remain in compliance with local and international protocols for vegetable packaging.

To find out more about how to volunteer or to view other volunteer assignments, please visit the Partners website at:

To learn more about the work of USAID's Feed the Future Strategy, please visit:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Farmer-to-Farmer Supports Entrepreneurs in Colombia

Entrepreneur, José, experiments with diversified crops  and
environmentally friendly management practices on his dairy farm
In Boyacá, Colombia, Servicio National de Aprendizaje (SENA) supports an entrepreneur program that matches business advisors with young entrepreneurs interested in developing their own small business. The advisor assists the entrepreneurs in creating a business plan, trains them in basic accounting, and provides follow-up and support over a course of three years. To complement this program, SENA requested a Partners of the Americas Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer to provide additional technical assistance to the entrepreneurs and their advisors.

From June 21 to July 5, 2014, Margaret Morse, traveled to Boyacá as a Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer to assess the current agribusiness-specific strategies of the entrepreneurs and provide recommendations on ways to strengthen their businesses and take advantage of potential niche market opportunities. The agribusinesses ranged from the production of blueberries, strawberries, and other fruits to livestock and cheese production. Margaret describes the work of one of these entrepreneurs' projects:

Blueberries in Piapa (from Margaret's trip report)

A new project raising blueberries in Piapa (a new crop for the area) involving a woman named Mrs. Baez and her mentor, instructor, and advisor, Romula Carmango, was in its second year. Romula has done extensive research on the variety Biloxi, a southern highbush blueberry, and its cultivation in that area. Working with Romula, we discussed the general requirements to manage a blueberry farm, specifically for Biloxi. After discussing the techniques used for raising blueberries, we also discussed the cultural aspects of planting in partial shade, fertilization, pruning, pest management, and disease control. 

Reflections on her assignment:

Margaret states: “What a joy there is teaching in the tropics where fruit is abundant, the weather is warm but not oppressive, and the people are filled with enthusiasm and curiosity.  It was a pleasure to work with SENA in the Boyacá region of Colombia.

Workshop on raising southern highbush blueberries
The program with which I was participating was designed to educate young entrepreneurs in rural communities on business development opportunities within a variety of agricultural sectors. As a result of this assignment, a new generation of farmers will hopefully be able to develop businesses within their rural communities instead of fleeing to the big cities in pursuit of better jobs and income.

The classes were filled with instructors [advisors] with marvelous ideas about agri-tourism and value-added products for potential enterprises.  Their questions aimed at turning information into material relevant to their students in the areas of production, marketing, record keeping, etc.  Any teacher would have been delighted to work in this environment charged with sharp questions and enthusiasm. The combination of ongoing technical assistance and business management is a very good approach to sustaining the entrepreneurs and their new businesses.”

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Haiti Nutrition Security Program: An Update on Small Gardens

Mother leader moving materials
The Haiti Nutrition Security Program (NSP) is working with local organization Makouti Agro Entrerprise to identify the best options for small scale livelihood enhancement activities. These activities will vary based on local demand and feasibility but could include gardens and animal production, small business training, post-harvest processing and other value-added operations. 

Partnerships with local Haitian counterparts increase the sustainability of interventions and are also essential in ensuring that NSP activities and strategies most appropriately and effectively meet the specific needs of malnourished populations, since each region of the country is culturally and economically distinct.

Working with NSP field staff, mother leaders, and women’s clubs, Makouti has begun developing home gardens in target program areas. Each garden is under the management of one mother leader or women’s club and serves as a demonstration garden for all of the group members. Women are participating in a structured training program on topics that include the basics of home gardening, composting and soil preparation, transplanting seedlings, and integrated pests and disease management. 

Equipped with this knowledge and training, along with seeds and gardening kits, members of the mother groups will then be able to develop their own home gardens. Small-scale home gardens provide convenient and inexpensive access to fresh fruits and vegetables, encouraging diversified diets while taking minimal time from women’s many other household responsibilities. Gardens are also a great way to involve all household members in the provision of nutritious foods to the family. They offer an opportunity to improve dietary diversity within the family. 
Preparing a garden plot for planting

Last week, in the northern region of Haiti, 35 new gardens were installed for the mother leaders. There are now a total of 74 gardens in the areas of Milot, Acul-du-Nord, and Plaine-du-Nord. Fruits and vegetables planted include tomatoes, green beans, spinach, kale, carrots, okra, and more. 

These small gardens are just the first phase of livelihoods activities planned under the NSP. Community-level livelihoods activities are also being organized. These could include entrepreneurship and business training programs, expanding regional nurseries, seed banks, or small animal production units, and will be determined by community needs, interest, and support.

Finished garden

Monday, July 28, 2014

Working with Plan Yaque, Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic

For a change of scenery (from Africa) and a change of industry (from farming), I accepted a Farmer-to-Farmer assignment offered by Partners of the Americas. My assignment was from June 22 to July 11, 2014 and took place in the very pleasant town of Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic. This town sits in the central highlands, almost equidistant between the north and south coasts. My task was to work with an environmental organization, Plan Yaque, to guide the development of a strategic plan. This organization seeks to preserve and also repair the Yaque del Norte watershed, the largest in the Caribbean.

Field officer, Mabel Barinas, visiting the Yaque del Norte watershed
There are so many threats to the watershed that I am not sure where to begin. In the upper reaches, deforestation is taking a toll. Fewer trees result in increased erosion, dumping sediment into the rivers.  The sediment eventually overwhelms the dams further downstream and leads to flooding - - a big problem for farmers who have fields near the rivers.

Settlements for the most part have no wastewater plants, so untreated sewage enters the rivers. Jarabacoa, a town of 30,000, also has no wastewater treatment program. Therefore, waste flows onward to Santiago, the DR’s second largest city with over one million inhabitants, where only 60% of the houses are connected to a sewer. The other 40% empty directly into the Yaque del Norte river.

Fortunately, the Farmer-to-Farmer program and the host organization Plan Yaque are very dedicated, environmentally savvy, and well-educated. There are many more problems than Plan Yaque can address in a lifetime. So, in the strategic plan, we selected a few linchpin problems that, if corrected, will create a positive domino effect. First, we will focus our efforts on the upper part of the watershed, as this will provide benefits all the way downstream. Second, we will focus on programs such as reforestation and solid waste management. Planting trees and other plants along stream banks can help to naturally filter wastewater and field run-off. Also, specific anti-litter efforts are easier to take hold in the upper watershed because there are fewer people. And third, we will focus on data collection and monitoring. 

Presenting the strategic plan to the Play Yaque Board on July 4, 2014
On a side note, it is always enjoyable to add a bit of play to a very stimulating work schedule. In Jarabacoa, the Parque Central is the nightlife nexus. Sunday evenings are as throbbing as anyplace I have ever seen. The open air bars spill their patrons, music, light shows, and drinks into the streets. The boom box bearing cars cruise around the park offering deafening techno beats into the night. Hundreds of motorcyclists show off for the crowds by weaving recklessly among the (mostly heedless) pedestrians. Every few minutes, a motorcyclist will lay a block-long wheelie. It would be my pleasure to return to the DR and work with this fine organization again.

- Bill Nichols, Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer in the Dominican Republic

Monday, July 21, 2014

Paving the way to natural and economical beekeeping in Jamaica

By Tom Hebert, Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer

A Jamaican couple’s dream of a more sustainable, natural and economical beekeeping using top bar hives has begun to fruit its benefits for themselves and many other beekeepers on their Caribbean island because of Farmer-to-Farmer.

Kwao and Agape Adams had a vision of a more simple and natural way to keep bees in Jamaica upon their return to the island after living in Vermont for five years. Kwao had kept some beehives in the United States in the more common manner of movable-frame Langstroth hives, but they wanted something different for their farm--Yerba Buena Farm located near Robins Bay, St. Mary, on the island’s north coast.

Agape and Kwao Adams, with their oldest son Emmanuel, inspecting a top bar hive on their north coast Jamaican farm.

Their reading and research showed them top bar hives offered the alternative they were looking for—an alternative that could also benefit the other beekeepers in this tropical country.

The Jamaican beekeeping industry has not been sustainable for smaller scale beekeepers, Agape Adams explained. It is a system using a type of hive where most beekeepers cannot afford the equipment to expand, cannot get the wax necessary for foundation sheets, and are unable to buy the other equipment designed for the Langstroth system. They also do not have solutions for dealing with the pest and disease problems that are occurring in these hives because of increasing resistance to the commonly used chemical treatments.

The Adam’s problem was the lack of knowledge and experience with how the top bar hive beekeeping system worked and with ways to keep bees in a more natural and healthier manner. This is where Farmer-to-Farmer’s flex program came into play, sending the first volunteer for this project in July 2012.

Beekeeper Tom Hebert, originally from Wisconsin and a former Peace Corps Volunteer who has been living in Honduras for more than 20 years, gave them their first introduction to top bar hives. Hebert is now back in Jamaica for his third mission during this month, having also spent the month of July 2013 helping to expand and continue the project.

Tom Hebert inspects a comb from a top bar hive during one of the training sessions.

The activities taught to these Caribbean beekeepers through the Farmer-to-Farmer program have included among other things the construction of top bar hives and their management, improving bee hives through selective queen breeding and requeening, and natural methods of keeping bee colonies healthy. Other activities have been the construction of simple pollen traps adapted to these hives, candle making, and building inexpensive cement molds for making wax foundation. Eight volunteers have come on 11 training missions. 1,440 people have attended the trainings.

Kwao and Agape Adams, who coordinate the project, now have a 60-hive apiary because of Farmer-to-Farmer’s technical help. In addition to benefiting their family it is also a model apiary for training. They frequently have other beekeepers and groups visit their farm, wanting to know how this system functions or to be formally trained with the hives. 

Two small starter hives are the beginning of a new apiary for Kwao Adams on a property he owns in the hills above the ocean on the north coast of Jamaica. They will eventually be moved into a permanent four- or five-foot hives for honey production, taking advantage of the lush vegetation located on much of the island.

In the two years since this ideal of an alternative beekeeping was set in motion, both the Adams and Hebert agree that it is beginning to show benefits and will be successful. The project has now grown to encompass all the bee farming associations located in the island’s 14 parishes.
The technology and information transfer through the Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers is giving hope to these Jamaican beekeepers through practical and suitable alternatives, Agape Adams said. There is now a way for new beekeepers to viably begin and have continued success with honey production.

“Like the implementation of any new type of agricultural technology, you won´t see a change overnight,” Hebert noted. “It takes time. You need to reach the beekeepers and show them the benefits of top bar hives and teach them how to use them. You need to have patience.”

Just in the St. Thomas Bee Farmers Association in southeast Jamaica, where Hebert recently held a training workshop, several of the beekeepers said they have now implemented these hives in their bee operations.

“I see a lot of interested bee farmers every single place we go,” said Kwao Adams. “A lot of farmers are interested in top bar hives and would love to have more training and exposure. All of them talk about wanting to get their own top bar hives started.” 

Kwao added that he has also been hearing from those beekeepers who already have implemented top bar hives that they “want to go deeper into them; they want to increase those numbers.”

A healthy hive of bees housed in a simple top bar hive made from wood and burlap bags. Bees are left to build combs in the way they deem necessary, which helps keeps the bees more healthy.

Both Hebert and the Adams agree that the advantages of the hive are the low cost to build and operate them and the ability to manage the bees in a much more natural and healthier manner.

“Top bar hives allow the beekeeper to do a much more natural-type of management,” Hebert commented. “Bees have been around for millions of years, surviving without the help of man. They know what to do.”

“In Langstroth hives the beekeeper is actually forcing the bees to do something that is unnatural to them, forcing them to behave in a way that is convenient for the beekeeper but not for themselves.”

A top bar hive is a movable comb system that consists of one large horizontal box covered with a series of approximately 30 to 35 bars. The bees build and organize their nests naturally, building one comb from each of the bars. The combs can be removed for inspections or harvests.

By comparison, the Langstroth hive is a movable frame system where the hive can be expanded vertically by adding more boxes. Each box usually contains 10 frames which are equipped with a sheet of wax foundation, a cell embossed guide the bees use to draw out their comb in the frame. The system is also designed to use an extractor, a centrifuge which is used to spin the honey from the combs.

A top bar hive incorporated with Langstroth hives in the apiary of a beekeeper from the parish of St. Mary, Jamaica. Through the Farmer to Farmer trainings, more and more Jamaican beekeepers are seeing these hives as a viable alternative or addition to their beekeeping.

Jamaican beekeepers face a certain set of unique problems, Agape Adams pointed out.  In order to protect the island’s bees from the Colony Collapse Disorder that is affecting bees around the world, the Jamaican government has banned imports of all bee products, including honey, wax and queens. 

Although beekeepers appreciate the protection, according to Agape, the ban has made it difficult to access inexpensive and abundant beeswax for making foundation for the frames in the nation’s Langstroth hives.  Top bar hives do not require these sheets.

“In a poor country, beekeeping offers a way for people to add an income stream that can help to support their families,” she said.  “It is difficult, however, when the only option is the Langstroth method, which can be expensive.  When a pound of beeswax costs the daily earnings of someone working a minimum wage, it is not practical.

“(Langstroth hives) are not always practical here because they are net consumers of beeswax while top bar hives are net producers of beeswax,” Agape added.

Kwao Adams mentioned that a beekeeper could probably get more honey with a Langstroth hive but these fall short with their overall production because of the disease or pest problems many of them usually have. A greater percentage of top bar hives produce an excess of honey when compared with the Langstroth.

“I like to keep a couple (Langstroth hives) as a comparison but I wouldn’t go back, it’s much cheaper and I’m satisfied with the honey production (of top bar hives),” he said. 

Kwao mentioned being able to build five top bar hives for what it would cost to buy the wooden ware for one complete Langstroth hive. The costs of Langstroth equipment is prohibitive for many Jamaicans, even those who already have bees and want to increase.

Top bar hives do not require advance carpentry skills to build. Members of the St. Mary Bee Farmers Association discovered this during a Farmer to Farmer workshop on top bar hive construction. Scrap pieces are used to make the floor.

“Top bar hives can easily be built by the beekeepers,” Hebert said. The boxes are simple and don’t require advanced carpentry skills. The variety of materials that can be used to even further reduce costs is incredible—bamboo, grass, banana leaf ribs, crocus/burlap bags, Celotex hardboard and even tin cans.”

Hebert has been using these hives for the past 20 years in Honduras. He said most of his are made using recycled materials because of the need to keep costs low. Frame hives, by comparison, require the use of good wood and precision carpentry since the measurements must be exact to ensure they function properly, according to Hebert.

“Jamaica and Honduras are the same in the sense that many, many people in both countries have serious economic problems but want to find a way to generate extra income,” Hebert said. “These simple hives offer that to them while not requiring the money that is needed to put food on the family’s table or notebooks in their children’s backpacks.”

Agape Adams added that the income generating projects in Jamaica that donate Langstroth hives to people simply are not sustainable. The cost of the equipment prohibits easily expanding the number of hives or managing them as they are designed.

Kwao Adams also mentioned that top bar hives are easier to inspect, the bees stay calmer, there is no heavy lifting, and you don’t have to deal with a lot of extra equipment.

“(Top bar hives) are a lot easier to manage than Langstroth hives but I think they take more attention,” he said. “They (the bees) are more friendly.”

Kwao Adams and two of his sons check on the progress of a recently caught swarm. The inexpensive nature of the top bar hive has allowed Adams to build many in order to take advantage of the abundance of swarms he sees. His apiaries now contain 60 hives.

The management, although simple, is one drawback. These hives need a bit more management and a different type of management than the more well-known movable frame bee hives, which means more training, Kwao said. At present this training is not meeting the demand.

With a steady supply of training resources the Adams believe there could be a shift in beekeeping on the island. Beekeepers could be running their operations a lot cheaper than what they are now and more effectively.

The result of the present Farmer to Farmer training, however, is evident in Rachel Neil, a mother of one and a grandmother of three who has benefited from this project. She has hopes of improving her life through the sales of honey.

Neil now has one top bar hive on her property in the north coast village of Robins Bay, St. Mary. She has been to many of the trainings around the island and is a member of Robins Bay Bee Club, hosted by the Adams farm and supported by Farmer to Farmer volunteers.  Because of the skills training that she has received, Rachel feels confident as she cares for her hive, and has plans to expand her apiary.

Rachel Neil participates in a top bar hive management training held by Hebert in 2013. A bee colony was simulated using photocopies of actual combs, allowing the beekeepers to calmly discuss and learn about different hive management practices.

“This Farmer-to-Farmer program is changing the entire beekeeping industry in Jamaica,” Agape Adams said, “by importing ideas and skills; to make the ideas work. So you have this expansion of people’s minds and expansion of people’s horizons by expanding what is possible.”

Things that were unworkable before with the one option Jamaican had for beekeeping are now workable with these options the Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers are presenting. Agape mentioned the only reason her family is managing bees and have hopes and dreams is because of the skills and expertise they are receiving through the Farmer-to-Farmer project.

“I honestly believe that the future of beekeeping in Jamaica will be with the top bar hive,” Kwao Adams said. “It won’t be the only type around but it’s what makes sense.”

Hebert showing the St. Mary Bee Farmers Association members how to build a simple pollen trap that can be used on their top bar hives. Although normally considered feasible only with Langstroth hives, pollen collection is as productive if not better with a top bar hive.

To learn more about top bar hives and economical/sustainable/natural beekeeping, check out Tom Hebert's blog at

To learn more about Yerba Buena Farm check out their website at:

Also check out James Imbrie’s blog. James, an intern this summer at Yerba Buena Farm, has been participating in the recent beekeeping trainings and their preparations.