Friday, August 31, 2012

Inside Dairy Plants- Food Technology and Safety Assignment in Nicaragua

Visiting Cheese Cooperative in Nicaragua
This past July, Dr. John Rushing volunteered with the Farmer to Farmer program in Nicaragua to work with dairy cooperatives. He provided techincal advice on equipment acquisitions, made recommendations on plant layouts and evaluated operations to meet international food safety standards and improve food technologies.  This was his second trip to Nicaragua as a Farmer to Farmer Volunteer and he was able to visit some of the same hosts organizations providing technical follow up and feedback.  

One of the first projects during his time in Nicaragua, focused on reviewing the ventilation system for one of the major cheese cooperatives in the program.  Dairy plants are by nature of the work,  hot and humid.  Employees are expected to wear considerable amounts of sanitary gear, which makes the work hotter. However, it is not simple to ventilate the facility because the effects of aerosols produced by water sprays can be a source of post processing contamination and ventilation engineers must be made aware of it.  Dr. Rushing reviewed better ways to manage both the high temperatures, food safety and existing facility design to help make it a high performing but comfortable environment for the workers.  
FTF Volunteer at Dairy Plant Facility
With a different host organization, Dr. Rushing was asked to evaluate the installation of an aseptic processing and packaging operation.  The enterprise is focused on the equipment and permits phase of their operations plan. The obejective of the project is to provide milk that can transported and stored without refigeration given that it this would help the shelf life of the product and its acessibility to the rural areas of the country where transportation is a challenge. 

After he had a chance to evaluate their equipment acquisition and construction plans, he encouraged them to take a more holistic review of their market, customers, distribution, personnel training, and management of the operation. 
A third project was an operational review of a processing facility with recommendations on how to comply with certain international standards on equipment construction, pressures and testing.  The final company visited also requested an operational review and recommendations were made on implementation of CIP cleaning procedures and personnel safety and protection.

 Dr. Rushing teachs at North Carolina State University and is also a consultant food technologist.  He has advised and directed food technology and food safety programs for over 30 years, working with both regulatory agencies and private companies in North Carolina and through out the world.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Florida Volunteer Continues Effort to Strengthen Science Education in the DR

Patricia Thomas poses with Farmer to Farmer Staff
and ISA's Academic Dean at a teacher training  at ISA
Patricia Thomas, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Science Specialist with the Florida Department of Education, kicked off her second "Flex" volunteer assignment with Partners' Farmer to Farmer Program just over 1 week ago. Patricia arrived in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on August 18th and will remain in-country until September 1st to provide training to primary and secondary-level natural science teachers in best practices for natural sciences instruction. These hands-on workshops are being carried out to support the Natural Science and Engineering Training Program at el Instituto Superior de Agricultura (ISA University) in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

Training with science and math teachers in Azua Province

During her first Flex assignment with ISA in May 2011, Patricia's training focused largely on physics education. She conducted workshops with over 50 teachers on why and how to use labs in a high school physics classroom, introduced a handful of simple, low-cost projects that can be completed in the classroom and which demonstrate various physics concepts, and provided a list of lab equipment necessary for a physics classroom.

Science teachers in San Juan de la Maguana Province pose
with their project
Patricia continues her support of ISA's Natural Science and Engineering Training Program through her current assignment, which so far has taken her to Santo Domingo Teacher's College in the capital city, Azua Province, and San Juan de la Maguana Province. Tropical Storm Isaac caused an unexpected delay in her agenda late last week, but she was able to get back on schedule with her first training of week 2 yesterday in the North Central Region of the country.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Farmer to Farmer Haiti Video Ready for Viewing!

Partners of the Americas' Farmer to Farmer Team is pleased to share with you a new video featuring the activities and impact of our Program in Haiti. The history and activities of Haiti's own Makouti Agro Enterprise is also highlighted, and three farmer beneficiaries share their stories.

This video was created by three talented FTF volunteers: Clay Mason, Sid McGregor (of PostMay Films) and Brian Mehrens. They have captured on film what many of our volunteers have experienced - a Program that is making a difference in Haiti's agricultural industry and the lives of farmers. Thank you to all who have contributed to the Program's success since 1996! We hope this video will reveal the bigger picture, and bring back good memories to many of you. Please share it, and if you catch the Haiti volunteering bug again, we would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lessons Learned by an FTF Intern

Below, Claire Clugston reflects on her internship with Partners of the Americas' Farmer to Farmer Program:

During my first year as a Master’s Degree Student in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis, I decided to focus my studies and thesis on agricultural development in Latin America. Interning at Partners of the Americas was an excellent opportunity to build on my experience working with coffee farmers as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic and to gain experience at a programmatic level. Now, as I enter my final week here at Partners, I can say that interning with Farmer to Farmer has been a fantastic experience. I have deepened my knowledge of agricultural development in Latin America and gained some surprising insights as well. Below are what I believe to be the three most important lessons I learned this summer:

1. The Power of Connections

FtF Intern Claire Clugston in the Dominican Republic
In literature about agriculture, an often repeated lesson is that agricultural projects tend to spread more quickly than other development activities. While working with Farmer to Farmer, I learned just how smoothly agricultural knowledge can be disseminated once the right connections are made. Rather than focusing merely on quantity, Farmer to Farmer seeks agricultural experts who can provide targeted recommendations for issues that have been identified by the farmers themselves. One example is the Farmer to Farmer volunteers who have helped farmers to identify pests and mites. This information may only take minutes to convey, but can significantly improve yields for farmers who have been losing crops. Although experts can change farmers’ lives in hours or even sometimes minutes, it often takes a long time to make the right connections. My most frustrating moments as an intern were the ones in which it seemed as though there was no one in all of the US who could fill a specific assignment.

2. Honey is a Miraculous Substance

Jarring Honey
Working as a Farmer to Farmer intern allowed me to learn about specific crops and agricultural projects that have been successful in Latin America. Early on in my internship, one of my tasks involved reading a report written by a volunteer who was working with honey producers in Haiti. Through this report, I learned that honey not only can be sold as an income generating activity, but has great nutritional benefits and can be used to sanitize and cleanse as well. I had never really thought of promoting honey projects before interning with FTF, but now I believe that this activity holds great potential for small scale farmers in Latin America. I also gained hands-on honey processing experience in what was perhaps my funniest moment as an FTF intern. This was an afternoon which we spent straining bees’ legs out of honey to be sold as a fundraiser. Although I have gotten my hands dirty in the field before, I never expected to be standing in an office in Washington, DC with my arms dripping in honey.

3. Agriculture Includes So Much More than Growing Crops

After interning at Farmer to Farmer and seeing the wide range of experts who volunteer with the program, I have realized that my understanding of what falls under the umbrella of farming has been extremely narrow. Many Farmer to Farmer volunteers are not specialists in agriculture, but rather in marketing, labeling, website design, video production, etc. These skills can be as useful to those involved in the agricultural production chain as knowledge about irrigation or pesticide use. Before this summer, I’m sure I would have deemed workshops directly related to farming more important for agriculture than graphic design classes. Now I see that both have a great deal of value. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

From the Country Director's Desk; Nicaragua National Cattleman's Congress

Dr. Lawton Stewart dando su presentacion
El 23 y 24 de julio en un hotel capitalino de Nicaragua se llevó a cabo el III Congreso Nacional Ganadero del país, en el cual participaron unas 400 personas entre ganaderos, técnicos nacionales e internacionales, representantes de casas comerciales y representantes de las instituciones del gobierno. Los expertos internacionales que participaron en el Congreso son oriundos de Centroamérica, Estados Unidos, Holanda, Uruguay y Brasil. Los voluntarios del Programa Farmer to Farmer,  Gerald Nolte y Anthony Jilek de la Universidad de River Falls Wisconsin y Lawton Stewart de Virginia Polytechnic Institute, tuvieron una activa participación en la divulgación de tecnología y experiencias en la producción de la carne bovina y en el ramo de mejoramiento genético para la promoción del desarrollo tecnológico de la ganadería Nicaragüense y su competitividad.

La realización de este III Congreso Ganadero representa para el sector agricola una gran partida al sueño que anhelamos los ganaderos nicaragüenses, sueño que es compartido por la voluntad expresa del gobierno, por las organizaciones nacionales, las organizaciones internacionales y programas como Farmer to Farmer de Compañeros de las Américas que hoy nos acompañan con los cuales sumamos esfuerzos planificados y coherentes que permitirán a través de un programa bien estructurado lograr la reconversión ganadera, garantizándole de esta manera el porvenir de Nicaragua, el de nuestras futuras generaciones y, sobre todo, la conservación de nuestro medio ambiente manifestó René Blandón, presidente de CONAGAN.

Los planteamientos de los voluntarios del Programa Farmer to Farmer sobre la necesidad de lograr una buena nutrición del ganado y el registro del desempeño productivo del ganado son necesarios para la mejora de la producción de carne, leche y la genética del hato nicaragüense respectivamente.

English Version
Dr. Anthony Jilek

On July 23-24, the Third National Livestock Congress was held at a capital hotel in Nicaragua.  Over 400 individuals were in attendance, including farmers, Nicaraguan and foreign technicians, representatives of business houses and representatives of government institutions .

The international experts who participated in the Congress traveled from several Central American countries, the United States, Netherlands, Uruguay and Brazil. Farmer to Farmer volunteers Gerald Nolte & Anthony Jilek, both from University of Wisconsin River Falls, and Dr. Lawton Stewart from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, actively participated in the congress.  To promote technical development and improved competitiveness of Nicaraguan livestock, the volunteers participated in discussions about beef production technology and genetic improvement.

"The III National Livestock Congress was due in large part to the shared efforts of the different government entities, national and international organizations and programs such as Partners of the Americas' Farmer to Farmer Program. Today we joined forces with all of these different stakeholders to plan a coherent, structured program to achieve the conversion of livestock, thus guaranteeing the future of Nicaragua and especially conservation of our environment", said Rene Blandon, president of CONAGAN.

Farmer to Farmer volunteers emphasized the importance of good livestock nutrition, performance, and recording of livestock production to improve meat and milk production and herd genetics in Nicaragua.

Dr. Ronald Blandon is the Country Director for the Farmer to Farmer Program in Nicaragua.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Top-Bar Beekeeping 101: post assignment thoughts

Excitement as the bees march into the top bar hive
My month of beekeeping in Jamaica is over and I have been back home in Honduras for about a week now. My entire Farmer to Farmer assignment keeps running through my head, however. My thoughts keep going back to the month I spent helping to set up a top bar hive beekeeping project and promoting this simple and economic system with bee farmer associations on the island.

The main interest among most Jamaican beekeepers for top bar hives (tbh) is the increased wax production. Bees wax cannot be imported into Jamaica. The government wants no further bee diseases to enter the country, especially something like colony collapse disorder. Obtaining the necessary wax is difficult for the new beekeepers and those who want to expand their operations. 

The top bar beekeeping system requires very little wax to get the bees started in their boxes but yields much more, since harvesting is done by cutting off the comb, crushing it and straining out the honey. More wax is generated this way than the normal movable frame system, where comb is not destroyed so that it can be returned to the bee hive.

The bigger reason for top bar hives in Jamaica, in my opinion, is probably the low cost of starting this system. There are severe economic problems in Jamaica, just like there are in Honduras where I've lived and kept bees for more than 20 years now. Many people, especially young adults, need some sort of project/job to generate income for themselves and their families. Beekeeping has this potential. Two or three bottles of honey are the equivalent of a day's wage. The small amount of time needed to manage the bees also allows them to have another job at the same time.

Honey for sale in the streets of Jamaica
But the problem is having the money to start beekeeping, especially when everyone really only knows the movable frame system. When you add in the costs of the boxes, frames and wax foundation, the costs are quite elevated and daunting. Add in the price of a honey extractor and things get much worse. Borrowing an extractor is not so easy in Jamaica anymore because so many beekeepers are worried about transferring diseases into their operations. People always have the option of a loan, but interest rates often run 20 percent or more—it makes you think twice about getting one.

The economic problems in Jamaica and the difficulties beekeepers and people in general face are the same that I see in Honduras. It is something I live and deal with every day. Simply buying everything is not an option. You must always consider different ways to do something—using alternative materials and making equipment oneself.

I was helping to set up the top bar hives at Yerba Buena Farm in St. Mary as part of a model apiary that will eventually be used to train beekeepers in the top bar hive system. As part of this, I wanted to incorporate as many options and as much appropriate technology equipment so beekeepers can see that there are different ways to get started in beekeeping. You don't have to spend lots of money and buy everything—much of the equipment can easily be made.

We incorporated four types of hives into the apiary at this organic farm. There is the standard movable-frame Langstroth hive which most beekeepers use. But there are also three types of top bar hives made with different materials: solid wood, a type of hardboard and bamboo. Each one is progressively less expensive.

The bamboo hive, dubbed the "Rasta Hive", is probably my favorite because of its cost, which is very low. Bamboo was something that I always wanted to experiment with but it's not readily available in my part of Honduras. This was my chance. Bamboo is located all over the island and has become too invasive. Projects are actually underway to eliminate bamboo forests and replant with hardwood trees.

Tying the brood comb to a top bar
Although the hive is a bit of work to make, the materials are basically free—the bamboo and either the stems of banana leaves or coconut fronds. Even the cover can be made from bamboo. The technique is not complicated.

Another project we made during my month was a pollen trap that fits on a top bar hive. The problem here was finding the right size material for the entrance screen. You need to import it since beekeepers can't find it in Jamaica. As the bees enter the hive, they pass through a screen which scrapes the pollen balls off their legs. The solution was to use a simple piece of tin with the correct size holes punched or drilled into it, which would remove the pollen pellet.

Other equipment projects included simple veils, gloves, smokers, queen cages and a wax foundation mold.

Offering options also went for how to get bees for your hives. People can buy frame hives and transfer the bees and comb into a tbh but it could cost you as much as two weeks of wages. Package bees aren't available either.

So we hung trap hives and removed wild colonies—free bees. Eventhough it was not the prime swarming season, we did manage to capture one swarm. We suspect, however, that it may have been the colony that decided it didn't like being removed from its termite nest and getting transferred into a tbh. At least it demonstrated that they should work. About 80 percent of the colony transfers were successful, however.

The project has removed about 12 wild colonies so far to begin establishing the apiaries. There are probably at least that many more that can be removed. People were constantly coming forward to say where they have seen colonies. There seems to be a very healthy population of bees in the bush—an indication of the state of bees in general in Jamaica.

Removing a wild bee colony from a termite nest
In the end, the more alternatives you can present to people, the more accessible beekeeping will be to those who could really benefit from it. The project has a very promising beginning.

For a more detailed account of different aspects of this Farmer to Farmer assignment, click on my link at the bottom of this post. I've been posting about my experiences on the Beesource beekeeping forum. Also click on the link for the blogs of Dee and Erin, two university students from the States who have been interning at the farm during the summer and helping with the project.

Tom's Beesource posts: Beekeeping in Jamaica
Dee's blog: Dee Lee's Bees
Erin's Blog: Jamaican Bees!

Tom Hebert, originally from Wisconsin, has been living in Honduras for more than 20 years where he manages 75 top bar hives in addition to teaching English in a bilingual school. This was his first Farmer to Farmer assignment.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

From Montana to Managua

Wayne and Connie Burleson from Absarokee, Montana volunteered with Partners of the America's Farmer to Farmer program in Nicaragua, April 8-21, 2012. They worked on vegetable production and marketing  in school gardening projects, community learning centers and rural areas around Masaya and near Leon. The Burlesons manage their own farm in Montana and actively participate in their local area's farmers market.  They have volunteered in other Farmer to Farmer assignments in South Africa for Best Management Practices and in Malawi on Cooperative Vegetable Production. This was their first Farmer to Farmer assignment with Partners of the Americas and below is a video documenting their trip.

Both Wayne and Connie are certified square foot gardening instructors and actively seek ways to make gardening available to everyone. They describe "Gardening for Life" as a collection of methods for raising homegrown, super foods, that are great tasting, nutrient diverse that will bring health and healing to people in need on a year-round basis thus becoming FOOD FACTORY GARDENS capable of feeding families, to give away to others, or for sale or trade.  Easy to understand manuals, instructional videos and photos are available on their blog:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Volunteers Reach Farmers through Training Videos

In addition to hands-on workshops, training videos are an effective means by which to introduce farmers to specific skills and to spread the word about projects. In Guyana, there has been increasing demand for video production specialists to create short videos that can be disseminated across the country.

One example is a video on the Carambola Fruit Fly produced in collaboration with IICA-Guyana, by Farmer to Farmer volunteers Clay Mason and Alex Crowder. In Guyana, the Carambola (also known as star fruit) is an important source of income for many farmers. The spread of the Carambola Fruit Fly is therefore an issue of great concern to farmers and government agencies alike.  In this eight minute video, a representative from the National Plant Protection Organization in Guyana is able to cover topics ranging from how to identify Carambola Fruit Fly larvae to how to create traps for the pest. 

Another video produced by Farmer to Farmer volunteers Cheryl Diermyer and Pat Fellows combines an overview of a highly successful hydroponic shadehouse project in Guyana with a training video. In this video, women who are project beneficiaries offer their testimonials as well as their expertise on such topics as hydroponic bed preparation and how to mix and apply fertilizers. This video therefore serves to inspire potential shadehouse producers and to teach them technical skills. 

Stay tuned for future videos! These videos are just two examples of how volunteers and local partners continue building the capacity of farmers long after the completion of their assignments. Capturing knowledge on video ensures that lessons reach even more people than would have been able to attend in-person trainings.