Friday, October 20, 2017

Agricultural Extension with F2F Host Mission ILAC

By F2F Volunteer Robert Crook

In September 2017, I traveled to the Dominican Republic to work on a USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Climate Change Adaptation program. For this F2F assignment, I was asked to work with Mission ILAC, a faith-based organization located in Santiago de Los Caballeros, the DR’s second largest city. For over 60 years, Mission ILAC has a long and well-respected history of implementing medical programs that provide vital medical care and surgeries for underserved rural populations. In the last decade, the organization has been actively working on improving the economic livelihoods of local farmers around Santiago. Much of this technical assistance is focused on ways to empower agricultural producers and prevent rural populations from migrating to the crowded urban areas of the country. During my time in Santiago, I was fortunate enough to work alongside Mission ILAC staff in order to develop a more strategic and climate-smart vision for their agricultural extension programs.

In addition, also had the chance to learn more about one of Mision ILAC’s most recent agricultural extension project. This new project involves the construction and management of household gardens or “Huertas caseras”. While these small gardens are typically used to grow vegetables for household consumption, the organization is working in partnership with local farmers into order to adapt these gardens as platforms for income-generation. Currently, many local farmers associated with Mission ILAC are seeing the potential of expanding their household vegetable production for the domestic market.

My F2F assignment in Santiago de los Caballeros not only provided with the ability to share my knowledge and skillset, it also gave me the chance to learn more about the Dominican Republic and its people. After all, the Dominican Republic is a country unlike others in the Caribbean. It is part of the island of Hispaniola that was first settled by the native Taino people. In many ways, the legacy of the Taino people stills influence the culture the language of the country. The DR boasts a very diverse topography. While the coastal areas have a very warm and humid climate, the provinces around the Cordillera Central experience much cooler temperatures. It is in these mountain ranges where coffee is grown in agroforestry systems under the shade of banana and plantain plants and fruit trees and Pinus occidentalis. They really are beautiful, fields of layered greenery topped by the soft crowns of these Hispaniolan Pines. While the diseases of roya and broca have severely diminished the acreage of coffee plantings over the past 20 years, there are still very beautiful and healthy fields of coffee being grown to supply some really tasty and unique coffee varieties.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Enhancing Meat Processing through University-led Microbial Analyses: Reflections from the Dominican Republic

By: Dr. Aliyar Fouladkhah, F2F/USAID Volunteer, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Tennessee State University

The two hour drive from Santo Domingo to Santiago gave a snapshot of the vibrant agricultural industries in the Dominican Republic. The road to Santiago is lined by farming fields with many road-side vendors selling fruits and vegetables. In addition to being the second largest city in DR and the fourth largest city in the Caribbean, Santiago is also home to several distinguished universities, including ISA University (Universidad ISA)—the host institution for this Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) assignment.

Upon arrival at ISA University, I had to opportunity to meet with department head of the food science program. The program currently is home to 8 lecturers/research advisers and approximately 275 students, around 10% of the population of the ISA University students. The timing of this F2F assignment was commendable since it was scheduled during the last two weeks prior to start of the semester. During this time, most faculty and research technicians were present on campus, allowing for many of them to attend the F2F training sessions. During my assignment, I also had the chance to visit the university’s 1) meat processing plant, 2) poultry primary processing facility, 3) fruit and vegetable processing area, and 4) the dairy processing plant. These visits afforded me the opportunity to engage and lead several trainings with faculty/technician working in each respective facility. After a few days on campus, I was requested by faculty to organize additional workshops on meat-borne pathogens and meat decontamination interventions as well as best practices and food safety management systems for meat processing.

During these workshops, a series of inoculation studies were discussed for the attendees, particularly for choosing surrogate, attenuated, or indicator non-pathogenic inoculum and for conduct of microbiological validation studies in the university. After the training sessions, there were additional discussions on the importance of validating existing antimicrobial interventions in the DR’s meat industry. There were also discussion of an existing thesis research project where the institution was trying to reduce the nitrate levels of fermented sausages by replacing some portion of the curing salts with natural and local ingredients such celery seed powder.

There were also discussion about a student-led project that was trying to compare the efficacy of chlorine dioxide and sodium hypochlorite. The research advisor expressed concern that so far they were not able to achieve the exact same concertation of the both chemicals, thus unable to compare the efficacy of the two. Rather than trying to achieve the exact same concertation for both chemicals, I recommended using each antimicrobial intervention at the highest level authorized by the regulatory agency and manufacturer, which would give an overview of maximum decontamination efficacy that, could be achieved for each antimicrobial. We concluded that further studies could be designed to test the antimicrobial effectiveness at lower concertation e.g. 75%, 50%, or 25% of the maximum concentration proposed by the manufacturer(s).

After these workshops and observation of their current practices, I developed the following recommendations to strengthen ISA University’s inoculation capabilities:

(1) Many of the practices in the regional meat industries are solely adopted from the United States, those are validated based on the regulatory requirements and processing conditions in the U.S. To assure such interventions are efficacious in DR, they would require microbiological validation studies using locally-available isolated organisms. Higher temperature, different altitude, and different processing practices could affect the efficacy of the antimicrobials that could be assessed and adjusted based on the knowledge gained during the workshops. In this way, practices such as adjusting the exposure time, method of application, and concentration of lactic acid for decontamination of meat carcasses from Shiga Toxin-producing Escherichia coli were discussed and recommended for the ISA University stakeholders.

(2) For the ongoing above-referenced research project, for reducing nitrate of fermented sausages, microbiological safety evaluation of the re-formulated product is a critical stage before adoption of the practice by the private industry, particularly multiplication and survival of spore-forming organisms such as Clostridium botulinum and Clostridium perfringens. Since handing such pathogens and preparation of spore-suspension for the needed inoculation study is currently unavailable in the university, it was recommended to conduct a microbiological study using Aerobic Plate Count as an indicator of microbial proliferation during the shelf-life and disseminating the results with caution as an exploratory experiment that requires further validation studies for control of the above-mentioned spore-forming organisms. Regulatory information on the reductions could also be useful for the stakeholders, knowing that 33%, and 50% reduction of nitrate could qualify a producer for claims of reduced-nitrate, and low-nitrate, respectively, that could assist a producers in better marketing the product in the island. 

(3) One major barrier for conducting inoculation studies is limited availability of functional autoclaves that could pose a bio-hazard risk in case of growing and purifying microbial inoculum. To assure validity of the work conducted in the food safety and food microbiology programs, it is also vital to develop a plan for conducting and documenting the calibration of pipettes and balances to assure accuracy of the measurements during handling of solid and liquid materials.

In summary, I am pleased by the progress and capacity building endeavors achieved during the two week assignment, and commend the enthusiasm, willingness to absorb new curricula, and professionalism of the faculty and staff in ISA University and Partners of the Americas’ Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) staff in Santo Domingo. I am particularly thankful of the technical translation, photos, and great conversations with Mr. Jose Almodovar and Mr. Rafael Marte (the two F2F field officers), and the orientation with Ms. Rosa Iris Almonte (F2F Country Director for the Dominican Republic). It is unequivocal for me that future of food security and public health in DR is even brighter with inspiring and career-oriented people like Rosa, Jose, and Rafael.

Thanks to the progress made by the previous volunteers, enthusiasm of the faculty, and progress made during current assignment, I believe the ISA University now has enhanced capability to conduct microbiological analyses directly to assist stakeholders meeting regional and international standards as well as to conduct culture-dependent inoculation studies. Certain improvements in existing practices and operations could also assure enhanced success of ISA faculty to continue their critical mission, in assisting stakeholders, training future food microbiologists, and assuring safety of the country by reducing public health burden associated with consumption of raw agricultural commodities.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Life-Changing Power of a Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Assignment: Experiences from Nicaragua

By F2F Volunteer Bettina Barillas

Before arriving, I didn’t know what to expect—I had received a lengthy preparation packet and briefly spoken to the Field Officer, but these documents could not have prepared me for the warmth with which I was received. After 24 hours of travel, I arrived absolutely exhausted, but nervous and excited for my two weeks in country. I was filled with anxiety about whether my Spanish was good enough, whether I would be of service, and how my relationship would be with my host organization. I quickly learned, however, that all of my worrying was pointless—I had arrived to an organization that not only cared greatly about my experience, but also was excited to have me and share their own country with me.

The team at my host organization not only briefed me on their project, but they shared their own personal stories and motivations that drove them to work towards a better Nicaragua. They shared their traditions. They shared their food. They shared their hearts. And, I shared mine in a meager exchange of our worlds and life experiences. Because of their open hearts, I was able to better help them set a foundation to accomplish their project goals. Together, we worked towards our shared aim of strengthening their intervention to better serve their beneficiaries.

While I came into the project knowing what I would contribute, I could not have guessed that I would have gained so much myself. Thanks to this assignment, I have a clearer idea of the kind of work I would like to do in the future—supporting small social enterprises and their branding and communications goals. This trip gave me the opportunity to actually use some of the materials I had developed after four years working in the field. And, as a result, I learned what worked and what was useful.

After my return home, I have already looked for ways to share these learning moments with other organizations undertaking similar projects and, in addition to sharing the materials I developed during my volunteer consultancy trip, hope to share with them some of the best practices I observed during my time with Partners of the Americas and Farmer to Farmer, Nicaragua.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Expanding the Sale of Farmer Products through Strategic Branding & E-Commerce

By Andrés Varona, Agriculture & Food Security Program Officer at Partners of the Americas 

For two weeks in September 2017, Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer Bettina Barrillas traveled to Managua to assist our host, Fabretto Foundation. During her assignment, Ms. Barrillas worked alongside Fabretto’s e-commerce team in order to develop a creative, strategic and innovative branding plan for its agricultural value added products (e.g. Honey, Chia, Coffee, Fruits). As part of these efforts, she provided hands-on knowledge transfers about design strategies and accessible software that can be used to develop and improve packaging/labeling for existing products. The volunteer also supported the host in generating marketing campaigns tailored to the local and domestic market for natural food products.

This F2F assistance came at a strategic time for Fabretto, especially since they are currently seeking to leverage their connections in the United States to sell their farmers’ agricultural products which include coffee, beans, cacao, honey, artisanal baskets, and recycled jewelry. Informally, Fabretto’s guests and have purchased the farmers’ products during site visits and fundraising events. Fabretto Farms, the name of this new business project, seeks to formalize this process to provide its farmers with a more stable income source. Currently, Fabretto Farms is a social enterprise with Fabretto Foundation staff providing the bulk of logistics and operations for the sale and marketing of the products with farmers responsible for the cultivating and packaging of the products. The Foundation staff has regular customers (e.g. NGO’s, faith-based organizations) in the United States but is also working to secure other contracts.

As part of this Farmer-to-Farmer assistance, Ms. Barrillas 1) reviewed existing strategic plans and provided suggestions for improvement, 2) revised and selected website format best suited for e-commerce with IT officer, as well as 2) assess, sorted, and ranked for quality over 15,000 photos. She also wrote nine templates of product listing descriptions and developed a basic graphic design training that all Fabretto staff could use and put into practice. At the end of her assignment, Ms. Barillas provided a series of practical recommendations that Fabretto can use to improve branding and communication efforts.

These include:
- Strategies for enhancing the e-commerce website (e.g. guidelines for using photos, broken links, keywords, benchmarking websites).
- Way to define product listings by focusing on only a handful of value chains such as coffee and honey production as well as the making of baskets and jewelry.

“The team at my host organization not only briefed me on their project, but they shared their own personal stories and motivations that drove them to work towards a better Nicaragua. They shared their traditions. They shared their food. They shared their hearts. And, I shared mine in a meager exchange of our worlds and life experiences. Because of their open hearts, I was able to better help them set a foundation to accomplish their project goals. Together, we worked towards our shared aim of strengthening their intervention to better serve their beneficiaries.”

- Bettina Barillas, F2F Volunteer in Nicaragua

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Review of the Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) FLEX Program in Colombia

By Andrés Varona, Agriculture & Food Security Program Officer at Partners of the Americas 

F2F Volunteer  Femke Olham led a series of technical workshops with Raizal communities in Providencia Island. These trainings were centered on ways to safely capture rainwater and channel it to local orchards.

In the last six years, Partners of the Americas (Partners) has been supporting agriculture, food security, and natural resource management in Colombia through the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program.  Since 2011, Partners has assisted over 1,500 people and formally trained 1,131 individuals (681 men and 450 women) in a variety of technical assistance areas such as entrepreneurship, small business development and administration, international marketing, tropical post-harvest processing, livestock management, citrus nursery management, climate change, and soil and water conservation in Colombia.

F2F Nicholas DiLorenzo (right) visits banana fields with Universidad de La Salle agronomy students in Yopal

In this current cycle (2013 - 2018) of the F2F program, Partners has sent a 12 U.S agriculturalists and enterprise development specialists to Colombia. Our key partners in Colombia include small agribusinesses, environmental non-profit organizations, government agencies, and universities. In conjunction with our local partners and host organizations, many of these field assignments have taken place in numerous rural communities across the country’s diverse micro-climates. These F2F volunteers assignments have included a wide variety of technical fields within agriculture and food security, including water conservation, integrated pest management, value-added processing for citrus, as well as digital marketing and branding. Here are some examples of past Farmer-to-Farmer assignments in Colombia:
  •      A LEED-certified architectural designer worked with CORPONARIÑO on the design for a “green” sub-regional headquarters in Túquerres.
  •       An herb and fruit specialist provided training to the staff of Parque Ecológico Mundo Amazónico in dehydration techniques for tropical climates for the purpose of making teas.
  •       An agroforestry specialist trained local farmers in Urrao in basic agroforestry, vermiculture, and allelopathy.
  •       A team of volunteers worked in Old Providence and San Andres Islands on a food and water security project.
  •      A cosmetic chemist tested manufacturing processes and re-developed formulas for all-natural organic cosmetics to meet international standards.
  •      An international marketing specialist assisted a company in developing an international marketing strategy and improving their brand and labeling to increase product appeal to U.S. consumers.
  •      A soil fertility expert conducted trainings on fruit tree production and soil management to over 376 educators, students, producers, and agricultural technicians in Buga, Colombia.
  •      An animal science expert assisted LaSalle University in developing a standardized livestock handling and management plan that was incorporated into academic curriculum.
In the coming months, Partners of the Americas’s Farmer-to-Farmer program will continue to support agricultural value chains in Colombia.  As part of these efforts, we will send a series of F2F volunteer to provide assistance to Zen Naturals, a small Cali-based natural skincare company. This assistance will include organic chemists to research and develop new quinoa-based natural products as well as business and marketing experts to support the roll out of Zen Natural’s Zue Beauty product line in the North America market. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Transforming Goat Milk into Valued-Added Soaps & Lotions

Team Presentations at the CEPROCAL Center in Nebaj

The first concrete evidence of soap-like substance is dated around 2800 BC., the first soap makers were Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, as well as the ancient Greeks and Romans. While volunteer Robert Spencer does not have that many years of experience he does have sixteen years of experience in making cold-process goat milk soap, shampoo, and lotion.  And has done multiple trainings in Myanmar, Haiti, and Guatemala. 

The overall goal of this project was to provide economic opportunities for women in small-scale production of value-added agriculture products (oils, animal byproducts, herbs, vegetables, and fruits), along with goat milk in making skin care products including soap, shampoo, and lotion in rural areas of Guatemala. This project host was CEPROCAL who collaborated with Save the Children Foundation, and the first week of training was conducted in Nebaj (El Quiche Department) at the local CEPROCAL office.  Students for this class were Save the Children field officers and technicians who would later be responsible for going out into their respective communities and train clientele.

During these four days of training agriculture products used included: goat milk, vegetable oils, lard avocado, tomato, coffee grounds, aloe vera, and flower petals. One of the objectives of this project was to utilize as many readily available agriculture products as possible while using the cold-process for making soaps. The only heat involved was a small propane stove to melt the lard and solid oils (cocoa oil), and the chemical process between the sodium hydroxide, oils, and liquids.

Photos in this blog will verify the strategy worked. Spencer said it was inspiring to watch the trainees learn and implement the process, then take it further to packaging, labeling, and presenting in team competitions

The second week of training was conducted in Cunen (El Quiche Department). Our goals and objectives, and training agenda were very similar to the first week. Trainees in Cunen were also associated with Save the Children along with a few of the local population. The ingredients used were the same with additional botanical products specifically beneficial to skin and hair.  Trainees in Cunen also readily adapted to the training and did outstanding jobs of the packaging, labeling, and presenting in competitive teams.

Quantitative outcomes for combined trainings were as follows:
o   31 men & women trained at these two locations, all were adult, 18 were females, 13 males
o    80% increase in knowledge regarding production of soap, shampoo, and lotion
o   65 % plan to implement production & marketing of soap, shampoo, and lotion
o   100% will train others on all aspects associated with production and marketing of soap, shampoo, and lotion

Soap Mold (Left) and Packaging (Right)

This was the first time for Spencer to experience using unrefined animal lard and it worked out just fine. The training also utilized lard so the people could compare, and it too worked out just fine. Every time Spencer does this in rudimentary conditions he is always impressed with how well everything works out, and really enjoys working with people in various countries.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Strengthening agroforestry systems in smallholder Dominican farms

Altair Rodriguez’s demonstration farm in La Vega Province, Dominican Republic

In August 2017, Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer Tom Gaman traveled to the Dominican Republic to support the agroforestry efforts of Altair Rodriguez’s demonstration farm.

Located in La Vega Province, Finca Tierra Negra is a 66 hectare farm that is made up by partially-shaded cacao trees grown primarily under a broken canopy of nitrogen-fixing native (e.g.Erythrina) and non-native trees (e.g. African Tulip). Much of farm sits on land that was previously used to produce conventional plantain (Musa paradisiaca) and cassava (Manihot esculenta). 

The land is also susceptible to excess concentrations of pesticides and inorganic fertilizer runoff emanating from nearby farms. There are also a series of non-organic crops in the farm that have been neglected for years, and are hampering the ability of the Rodriguez family from obtaining organic production. Altair and her family are currently trying to integrate more organic agro-forestry systems at Finca Tierra Negra. With these systems in place, they hope to restore and improve soil quality, increase production, and generate a higher and more diversified income base for the family and the surrounding community that benefits from the demonstration plots.

With these challenges in mind, the purpose of Tom Gaman’s assignment was to help the farm complement the farm’s existing base of cocoa trees, permaculture systems, and nursery with more robust agroforestry systems. As part of these efforts, Tom carried out an extensive forest inventory of the demonstration farm, which included using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in order to inform the long-term agroforestry implementation and monitoring plan for the property. Based on his field observations, Tom and Altair discussed ways to put in place a diverse set of financially-viable climate-smart crops, such as breadfruit and locally-appropriate spices (e.g. turmeric). Prior to ending his assignment, Tom also generated a series of practical recommendations that Altair and her family can use to incorporate new agroforestry systems into their farm. 

These recommendations included:
  1.  The use the GIS tools and agroforest inventory plots established during the assignment to inform on-site management decisions (e.g. planting locations & species combinations) 
  2. Based on GIS maps and inventory, continue to develop a business plan and financial spreadsheet that includes projections for the next 5 years.
  3. Maintain cacao cultivation and production with nitrogen-fixing trees.
  4.  Prior to harvest, survey or monitor the most productive cacao trees. This will facilitate monitoring and assessment of changes in productivity and to eliminate/replace unproductive trees.
  5. Experiment with different products such as pepper, turmeric, breadfruit and spices, using windbreaks and symbiotic out plantings.