Thursday, February 26, 2015

Local Solutions to Herd Management in Nicaragua

When working in countries with limited resources, creative and local solutions are key. In January 2015, Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer Wayne Burleson traveled to Nicaragua for a two week assignment to train local farmers in intensive rotational grazing and the installation of electric fences for herd management. During his assignment, Wayne identified two notable challenges for cattle farmers. First, electrical fencing supplies and other materials are difficult and uncommon to find locally. Second, the security of fencing equipment is an important concern for local farmers, as fencing equipment is very valuable and could be stolen.

To address these challenges, Wayne worked with farmers to identify local, inexpensive materials they could use for their fences that would be less likely to be stolen and more readily accessible. He then trained farmers on the installation and maintenance of these practical electric fencing systems. Wayne offers the advice, "When you find yourself in a difficult position, just look around for substitute materials. [You might be able to] recycle waste material into something very useful". Below Wayne describes the viable solutions he and the farmers developed:
I was working with a dairy farm that already had several permanent pastures fenced with barbed wire. I brought a fence charger with me from the USA and the electric fence wire was already provided. We just needed to invent some homemade insulators, gate handles, switches, lightweight electric fence posts and wire tighteners.

Electric fence outrigger constructed by Wayne and local farmers.
The dairy farm wanted to strip graze each permanent pasture with temporary electric cross fencing for a 12-hour pasture rotations system. This would give them greater pasture rotation flexibility, more uniform controlled grazing, and longer plant re-growth and recovery time. In the long term it would allow them to grow more forage with improved soil fertility.

The fence building ideas from this electric fencing project were cost effective and were phenomenally simple. Homemade fence insulators were designed, constructed and tested. They were made from high density old plastic pipes that were just lying around the dairy farm. I had suggested a solar fence charger, but they informed me that it would be stolen.

We came up with a rough design of an electric fence outrigger to accommodate running a hot wire up steep hills next to an existing barbed wire fence. We took our idea to a local blacksmith who used a hammer and anvil to make a beautiful shaped wire rod outrigger. Once the design passed our testing on a live tree, it worked great, and we were successful at developing a uniquely made electric fence outrigger (see photo). This invention can be added to an electric fence wire after the wire has already been strung out. The curled end accommodates easy installation, and the cost was about one dollar compared to 3-dollar commercially made models.

Wire tightener created from inexpensive, local materials.
We made several other tree and wood post insulators that are so simple that I kick myself for not coming up with these uncomplicated ideas sooner after years of buying expensive insulators. All you do is cut off sections—approximately 5 inches long—of PVC pipe or HD black plastic pipe, drill two holes in each end, and drive a nail through the pipe and attach it to a wood post or tree. Next you drill a hole in the side of the plastic that is bigger than the diameter of the wire and cut a slot in the plastic pipe with a hacksaw to slide the fence wire into this hole. We also constructed a wire tightener with an S curved chunk of rebar with an extended handle. To use, you just slide the loop over the fence wire, turn the whole S curved rebar to the desired tension, and lock the loop with the rebar handle.

Since completing his assignment, Wayne received news from Leonardo Castro, one of the farmers who installed the new electric fence, that it has been successful at keeping his cattle confined. Leonardo also noted that he has already seen a difference in the quality of the land and regrowth of the grass after allowing the pastures to rest. With support from volunteers like Wayne, farmers in Nicaragua (and elsewhere) can be resourceful in identifying local materials and techniques to improve efficiency in production and natural resource management.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Partners' Farmer-to-Farmer Program Gaining Traction in Guatemala

Partners' Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer, Paul Przybylowicz, and field officer Andrea Fión make national tv in Guatemala during Dr. Przybylowicz's assignment with a small specialty mushroom agribusiness, ONGOS, S.A. Dr. Przybylowicz arrived to Guatemala on February 15, 2015 to train producers at ONGOS, S.A. in the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms on logs, a process that is much cheaper than their current cultivation processes on sawdust. Dr. Przybylowicz holds a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology and is a professor and Academic Dean of Curriculum of Environmental Studies at Evergreen State College. He also is the author of the Shiitake Growers Handbook: The Art and Science of Mushroom Cultivation. It is an honor to have him participate in our program.

Watch the video on his work and the Farmer-to-Farmer program in Guatemala here:

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oyster Tacos

Update from the Field by the Orners

Today the Orner Family, with Farmer-to-Farmer Coordinator Jose Cano's assistance, visited the farming community of Los Angeles, Guatemala. Here we shared our appreciation for their beautiful culture, farming techniques and family unity. After a brief introduction of why we farm, we asked the farmers if they harvest and eat wild mushrooms. They responded enthusiastically saying the best time to harvest champignon is November and December during the Guatemalan rainy season. When presented with the idea of cultivating mushrooms on their own farms, they showed much interest.

Rusty drew the life cycle of the oyster mushroom and invited the group to feel and smell the mushroom spawn. By looking, many mistook the bag as synthetic fertilizer, urea, since the grains of sorghum displayed a milky white substance due to the rapid growth of oyster mycelium. After a deep whiff, all participants were in agreement on the sweet, rich fungal aroma.

Helpful organizations in the past have introduced oyster mushroom growing to the Ixil Region, although the need to regenerate the mushroom spawn on a sustainable basis was requested by the farmers. When looking for a waste carbon source, Rusty introduced corrugated cardboard, spent coffee grounds, and torn burlap bags during his demonstration.

All farmers went home with two to three oyster mushroom tacos, not to be eaten for dinner that evening, but hopefully to regenerate the spawn to be used in follow-up lessons on growing oysters on local hardwood trees, specifically Quercus virginiana. The taco method involves soaking a sheet of cardboard, 30 by 30 centimeters, in water. Separating the corrugated layer and laying it flat on the table. Next taking a handful of spawn and sprinkling it on the corrugation. Then each farmer slowly rolled it up until reaching the last 3 centimeters. Here the cardboard sides are folded over a centimeter to keep the spawn from rolling out. The oyster taco is placed in an opaque plastic bag and kept cool at 20 degrees Celsius or cooler. Directions were given to mist the taco daily to keep it damp, but not ringing wet. The class learned that this oyster taco will quickly colonize in about one to two weeks.

When the cardboard is completely white, simply roll it out, ripping the cardboard into small pieces (3 by 3 centimeter squares). Half of these squares can be placed in a new taco for sustained regen-eration. The other half placed in gashes on fresh cut oak logs which will cultivate oyster mushrooms. The farmer’s excitement, with their new-found knowledge, was very rewarding. When we ran out of cardboard and plastic bags, they willingly ran to their nearby homes and brought back supplies to make more tacos. What fun (lo divertido) to consider – oyster spawn banks on every Los Angeles farm! We shared Tradd Cotter’s organic mushroom book with photos on all steps; it proved worthy in bringing on the airplane flight from Pennsylvania. Our plan is to leave the resource book at the Agros office for Diego and technicians to use for their sustainable mushroom growing.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Guatemala's Healthy "Underground"

Update from the Field by the Orners

This week the Orner Family (Rusty, Claire, Walker and Ashton) dove full force into sharing their sustainable farming passion with new friends from Guatemala.  The first audience included Agros school students.

By creating hands-on activities for forty-eight students total (21 ninth and 27 eighth/seventh graders on two different days), soil health became the core of the excitement. The Orner Family handed out placards for each student who acted out their scientific roles.  These theatrical roles included the following:  plant, sun, soil, water, sugar, extra sugar, beneficial bacteria and fungi, non-beneficial bacteria/fungi, potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, trace minerals, compost, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer.  The interactive activity engaged students to be and to see how their role was influenced by conventional and sustainable farming methods.  For example, in a sustainable farming scenario, the extra sugar created during the plant’s photosynthesis was fed to the beneficial bacteria and fungi which in turn opened up a conduit for the plant’s root hair to receive their nutrients and water.  In comparison, during conventional practices, the plant depended on the “fast food” of synthetic fertilizer to receive its nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and trace minerals.

José Cano, the Farmer-to-Farmer Country Director in Guatemala (pictured above), has been very helpful translating the soil food web lessons from English to Spanish.  Walker Orner is responsible for this amazing photography.


Note from Partners: Claire and Rusty Orner (accompanied by their two children, Walker and Ashton) arrived to Guatemala on February 9 to begin their 2.5-week assignment to work with host organization, Agros Ixil. Rusty's assignment focuses on reducing farmers' reliance on conventional agricultural by training producers in organic farming techniques and methods while Claire's assignment focuses on assisting producers identify and strengthen opportunities to gain greater access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate foods. Check back for more updates!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Challenges in the Cocoa Value Chain

There are approximately five to six million cocoa farmers worldwide and more than 20 million people whose livelihood directly depends on cocoa. Unlike industrialized crops, 80-90% of cocoa comes from small, family-run farms with under 5 hectares of land. According to the World Cocoa Foundation, people around the world enjoy cocoa products in many ways, consuming more than 3 million tons of cocoa beans annually.  

The process of producing cocoa by-products is a complex one. It involves several stages that entail growing, harvesting, fermenting, grinding, pressing, chocolate making, and marketing. Although cocoa sales have increased significantly over recent years, the value chain still faces a number of challenges in growing and selling cocoa.

First, low productivity is a direct result of low adoption rates of modern farming techniques or farm management skills. Poor access to financial resources for purchasing input supplies and high-quality planting materials, as well as high soil degradation can also negatively impact crop productivity. Second, cocoa farmers face marketing challenges due to inadequate access to market information. Farmers also may lack deep knowledge and understanding of cocoa quality requirements, as well as marketing strategies such as leveraging the power of group buying rather than purchasing inputs on an individual basis. Finally, pests and disease are a major concern, and can result in crop losses between 30-40% (
To sustain cocoa growth in the long-term, these issues must be addressed. In an effort to mitigate these challenges, Partners of the Americas' Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers, Erin Andrews and Rebecca Roebbers, will be traveling to Changuinola, Panama in March 2015 to provide technical assistance to a group of 20 families in the processing and marketing of cocoa by-products. They will train the families in artisanal chocolate making through hands-on workshops and will support the families in improving the packaging and marketing of their products. For updates on their assignment, stay tuned!

For additional information on the cocoa value chain, check out the World Cocoa Foundation infographic here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Don't Forget to Follow us on Twitter!

Follow Partners' Agriculture and Food Security unit @PartnersAgFood for updates on our Farmer-to-Farmer Program, Haiti Nutrition Security Program, and other stories. Be the first to know when Partners programs are in the news or when there is a new story posted on this blog. The team also live-tweets agriculture, food security, and natural resource management events and news to keep you informed of what is happening in these sectors.

Follow us today! @PartnersAgFood

Friday, February 6, 2015

Soil Conservation Methods for Vegetable Farmers in the Dominican Republic

Steep deforested hillsides demonstrate the need for soil protection
According to the UN General Assembly, 2015 has been declared the International Year of the Soils (IYS). The purpose of IYS is to raise awareness on the importance of soil for food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, sustainable development, and overall human life. The Dominican Republic, like many tropical islands, suffers from years of deforestation and improper land use that results in damage to the environment, excess pollution in streams and rivers, and extended dry periods that make land unsuitable for agricultural production. In the Jarabacoa region, home to the Yaque del Norte watershed, much of the deforestation occurs on slopes in excess of 30-70%, which exacerbates the problem of soil erosion. However, farmers depend on this land to provide food for their families and many of the farmers rely on yearly harvests as their sole source of income.

In December 2014, Partners of the Americas sponsored Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer, Jeff Knowles, a 30-year retired veteran of the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service/Natural Resources Conservation Service, to travel to the Dominican Republic to evaluate the extent of land degradation and soil erosion within the priority watersheds. Jeff assessed the soil and environmental management of hillside farms in the Jarabacoa region and identified appropriate, economically feasible, and environmentally friendly methods and technologies for improved soil protection in the upper watershed.

Below are some of his locally adaptable recommendations to help reduce soil erosion:

  1. Prioritize the purchase of soil testing kits and promote community education on proper nutrient management: Nearly all farmers apply fertilizers at least once per crop cycle with little to no soil testing occurring. While soil testing laboratories exist in the DR, the average farmer is not using this practice as a management tool and are unaware of the potential savings they may have from simply testing the soil and applying fertilizer based on needs of the soil and plant. In many cases the soil test will reveal less fertilizer is needed than what is typically applied.
  2. Use contour and ridge farming methods: Over 60% of the cropland in Jimenoa is over 30% slope and it is common to see crops planted on slopes in excess of 45%. The extent of deforestation and degradation in the Baiguate sub-watershed appears to be the most severe, with slopes up to 70% being extensively farmed. In some regions, farmers use horses and oxen to plow the land on the contour that create ridges and furrows. These ridges and furrows placed on the contour help curb erosion and slow runoff. According to the USDA’s Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) ridges and furrows planted on the contour can reduce soil erosion by 75% over planting a crop up and down the hill. Farmers who have not adopted this practice should be assisted to do so.
  3. Use local grasses or legumes for ground cover: Some local options are vetiver, perennial peanut, carpet grass, and other low growing grasses for tajota fields.

    Newly planted tajota approximately 4'' above the ground with limited ground cover below
  4. Use filter strips or vegetative barriers: For vegetable or tajota crop production, the cropland should have 30-40 meters of crops followed by 3-5 meters of grass, and so on down the hill. Only 5-10% of the cropland needs to be devoted to the filter strips or vegetative barriers, and plant species capable of filtering and catching sediments should be used. In order to be effective, this practice needs to be in conjunction with contour and ridge farming methods.
Example of 10-inch grass filter strip on 12% slope
It has been nine months since Partners' first Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer arrived to the DR under our new strategy to increase resilience to climate change. Jeff's above recommendations, along with the recommendations left by previous volunteers and those that will be left by volunteers to come, will be essential to ensuring effective and sustainable soil management and protection. Through the Farmer-to-Farmer program and Partners' Mission to Connect, Serve, and Change Lives, we look forward to assisting farmers maintain their food systems and protect their natural ecosystem.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Staff Share Experiences in Guatemala

Partners Farmer-to-Farmer Program staff from around the region met last week in Guatemala to receive training, share experiences, and meet with some local hosts. The week was a great time for old friends to get together and also to make new acquaintances. The training focused on skills to help us improve program implementation and monitoring and evaluation but some of the best learning was during coffee breaks and informal gatherings - sharing experiences across countries and with staff with all levels and years of experience. Below are some photos of the event. Enjoy!