Monday, September 28, 2015

Empowering Women in Coffee

By Christa Michaud, Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer, Haiti

Christa Michaud conducting gender training
 for coffee farmers in Northern Haiti in March. 
Women in Haiti play a valuable and important role in the country’s coffee sector. They are actively involved in the production, export and selling of coffee, but having minimal access to land, credit, training, and leaderships positions due to gender-based inequities limits their economic opportunities.

In an effort to help build a more gender-inclusive value chain in Haiti’s coffee sector, I traveled to the country as a Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer to assist in the development of a local chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). Founded in 2003, IWCA is a nonprofit that advocates for women in coffee, and provides a critical forum for them to build and foster relationships, gain essential leadership and technical skills, and access markets. There are currently 19 IWCA chapters around the world, representing more than 16,000 women. 

Gracilia Odeus, a coffee farmer from Thiotte, 
notes strategic priorities for IWCA-Haiti.
Since 2014, Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers have been helping to lay the groundwork to establish an IWCA chapter in Haiti. In fact, this was my second volunteer assignment towards the effort, the first having taken place earlier this year with gender training workshops and meetings to understand women’s needs. During this assignment, I partnered with women coffee farmers from five different regions throughout Haiti. The goal: Guide them in building the structure and governing documents to develop an IWCA chapter.

In July and August, I led two capacity building workshops with women who formed the organizing committee. The interactive workshops focused on basic concepts essential to managing an organization, including governance, financial management, communications and strategic planning. Through these workshops – and numerous calls and text messages in between – the women created a mission, bylaws and initial strategic plan for IWCA-Haiti.

In addition to workshops, I conducted three field visits to coffee communities in the North (Cap Haitien and Plaisance), Northeast (Mont Òganize), and Central (Baptiste) regions to encourage local support and ownership of the chapter, as well as gain input into its development. But more importantly, the field visits allowed me to interact with women coffee farmers, and hear first hand their needs and challenges.
Idamene Delva listens to women in her community 
providing input into the development of IWCA-Haiti.
Many of the women I met were eager to access technical training to help them boost coffee production and improve quality. For the second year in a row, coffee leaf rust and a drought will cause all farmers to see a significant reduction in the income generated from coffee. As many women depend on coffee to pay their children’s school fees, most worried how they would manage to pay this year, and still meet their daily needs. As a result, women are also interested in learning new skills that will allow them to diversify their income so they do not rely solely on coffee. One of those women is Idamene Delva.

Idamene, born and raised in the Central Plateau, comes from a multigenerational coffee farming family. At 10 years old, she started helping her mother and father cultivate coffee, and at age 20, she began producing it to earn a living for herself. Now a wife and mother of three, Idamene holds a position on the Administrative Council of UCOCAB, a network of eight cooperatives representing 1,200 farmers in the region, about 30 percent of which are women. The only woman on the council, Idamene advocates for increased participation and engagement of women not just in the coffee sector, but all aspects of society. 

Six  members of IWCA-Haiti’s newly 
elected Executive Committee.

Through IWCA, Idamene and other women coffee farmers like her will have access to training and other capacity building opportunities that will empower them to improve their income and more fully contribute to rebuilding Haiti’s ailing coffee sector. Already, their hard work and determination has lead to significant progress in establishing IWCA-Haiti. I’m really excited to see the chapter grow, and watch these women grow into strong leaders bringing about positive change in their lives, families and coffee-growing communities across Haiti.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Beefing up Cattle Production in Nicaragua

Written by F2F volunteer Tim Cobb

It is with gratitude that I am able to report on a portion of my recent trip to Nicaragua in support of the local Beef and livestock industries. This trip was the second opportunity I have had and so the additional excitement at the opportunity led me to seek understanding of the overall industry structure. I looked for which agriculture organizations and groups are working to better the financial opportunities of small producers, what specific things could be accomplished in future assignments as well as what I could personally give to improve the well-being of another.

Throughout the trip it became apparent that each producer or organization equally shared the desire to create and grow economic stability as well as the quality of products that are derived from operations small and large. This desire serves as the beginning point to allowing specialists from other nations to come and affect real improvement based and built upon existing structures. I was grateful for the chance to speak at the culminating sessions of the both the National and Central American Cattleman's Congress meeting.

The first few days in country was spent conversing and discussing current beef production topics with individuals from other Central American countries (Panama, Guatemala, Belize) who had come to get an overview of the industry in Nicaragua. Our first stop on the tour was Nuevo CARNIC which is a medium to large sized slaughter and beef processing plant in Managua. The purpose of this stop was to meet with industry leaders and to discuss supply of high quality cattle used in beef production. We met first in the offices of the plant and listened as over the past few months the leadership has seen reduced numbers of cattle overall coming to market, which has caused them concern on many levels as they try to fulfill the general demand. 

Traveling east out of Managua we headed to Tipitapa for a medium sized public auction market specific to cattle. Subasta El Ganadero sells hundreds of cattle two different times during the week. These cattle arrive from the countryside on large and small trucks, they are marked, weighed, and sorted based on body condition score. We were introduced to the auctioneer as well as the foreman who explained to us that the cattle volume for this time of year was down however the quality seemed to be consistent with season’s past.

We learned that prices overall are steady however, due to last year’s drought there occurred selloff of cattle that had driven the price point down for some time. It was a well-run auction that handled the marketing of a variety of breeds, ages, and sizes.

On Wednesday we started by visiting a privately held feed lot to the east of Managua. I come from the cattle feeding industry and this opportunity to see a confined feedlot that is focused on weight gain and finishing of cattle was of high interest to me.
Over all the facility and the staff were very professional and I was impressed to see that kind of organization in the production of cattle in the single use of beef as heretofore most of the producers I had worked with in Nicaragua were smaller and less industrialized.

Following our visit we had a very informative presentation by members of Conagan who spoke to us about their efforts with livestock traceability.  I was encouraged that the effort was even being attempted as even developed nations like the United States still don’t have a unified system for tracking animals from birth to harvest.

Thursday was the first of two days of conference and presentation set up to bring together cattle producers from across Nicaragua as well as all other Central American countries. It was a very well organized and attended event. There was multiple speakers on all topics from animal nutrition to sustainable and value added products, to market demand and trending topics. I found it to be very worthwhile and informative.

As a summary of my first presentation, 
“Management of Beef cattle in drought conditions”, I gave an over view of recommendations to mitigate the effects of drought on pasture cattle. I attempted to help all the producers remember that you have to be thinking and planning at a minimum of 6 months in advance for what may or may not happen, as droughts can be longer than anticipated. Proper cattle age management is key in times of drought as older, less efficient animals may need to be sold to preserve feed and nutrients for younger higher producing animals.  I was grateful for the chance to speak about this topic and received good commentary and questions during the feedback time. 

On Friday I took opportunity to speak and teach regarding how the intensive beef cattle industry works in the United States as well as the aspects to improve the quality of beef production animals.  I did my best to illustrate the more than 75 year process the United States beef industry has gone through to get to where it is today providing a very consistent and predictable product to our domestic and global consumer.

I enjoyed very much the opportunity to speak and teach in this type of setting and really could see a section of the overall cattle industry that is in its infancy. Understanding this is a developing nation means that it will take time to develop and that with the right amount of simple consistent steps that the people will attain success and overall increased economic power over time.

This trip to Nicaragua and the work we completed with the Farmer-to-Farmer Program of Partners of the Americas has truly created an impact in my life as well as the hosts that we worked with and served. Overall, there is much that can be done to aid the producers of Nicaragua and the current approach is both practical and realistic to achieve great improvements and economic stability. I would recommend the projects and staff at any level as they continue to create betterment in each zone of agricultural production. I look forward to another opportunity to serve with Farmer-to-Farmer in the Future. Thank you!

Tim Cobb

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Going Bananas in the DR

Earlier this spring, Dr. Terry Podmore traveled down to the Dominican Republic to visit local banana plantations. Bananas are a steady source of income in the area, but production is limited by the amount of water that the farmers can access - some can only water their crops one or two days per week. The current methods of surface irrigation, referred to locally as “flood irrigation," are probably inefficient in their use of water, since these methods typically have low application efficiency unless carefully managed.  Dr. Podmore is an experienced irrigation professional with expertise in irrigation technologies and training of growers to improve water use in order to counteract the effects of global warming and the need for increased water supplies. While in-country, Dr. Podmore put his knowledge to good use visiting several farms and conducting farmer trainings.

Check out these photos from Dr. Podmore's time in the field! 

Inspecting water pump capabilities

The farmers interviewed almost universally stated that 
shortage of water was their primary concern in the dry season

Water availability for agriculture in the DR is 
limited by poor irrigation techniques

Dr. Podmore inspecting banana plants

Dr. Podmore working with banana producers

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Welcome Back to School!

With the arrival of September, the smell of chalkboards and classrooms is in the air. This past Monday was Labor Day, and most elementary and high schools in the US start the week before or after the long weekend. In honor of all the kids heading back to school this week, AFS takes a look back over the last year to see what students learned through Farmer-to-Farmer and NSP.
Artwork from Robin's Bay Bee Club member

Learning started early in Jamaica. In September 2014, Tom Hebert spent some time with the Robin’s Bay Bee Club. He gave a presentation about beekeeping around the world. Tom wanted the children to see how beekeeping can differ greatly from one country to the next and how it can also share some commonalities. Halfway through the presentation, the children wanted to do some hands-on activities so they went outside to help Tom assemble materials for making a top bar hive from banana leaves. This built upon a another F2F assignment with Melanie Kirby the previous winter. She taught the kids some basics of beekeeping like how pollination works, how to recognize bee castes, how to put on a veil, how to light a smoker, and how to approach and open a top-bar hive. On her last day in Jamaica, Melanie had the opportunity to attend the bee club’s end of year party. This event was held to celebrate the second year of the beekeeping club and to recognize the children who were graduating and ready to receive their own hives!
Katherine with a group of students

In December, Katherine Wingert traveled to Nicaragua to support the new dairy consumption campaign geared towards adolescents and mothers with young children in order to promote the health benefits of consuming dairy. While Nicaragua produces more dairy than any other country in Central America, Nicaraguan dairy consumption levels are very low. In most schools in Nicaragua, there is little to no education related to basic nutrition and healthy eating. By holding focus groups with teens in the capital city of Managua, Katherine was able to gather more information that would help continue to promote policy to potentially shift the balance in favor of dairy and promote healthier eating habits among school age kids and teens.
Students engage in hands-on activities

Soon into the New Year, Rusty, Claire, and the rest of the Orner family took two weeks in February to teach 7th-9th graders about soil health and how they could influence sustainable farming methods. Rusty's specific assignment focused on reducing farmers' reliance on conventional agricultural methods by training producers in organic farming techniques and methods while Claire's assignment focused on assisting producers in identifying and strengthening opportunities to gain greater access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate foods. By starting with students of the Agros School, the Orners helped get a jumpstart on educating future farmers on the importance of these issues.

Also in February, Rick Hall and Maria Moreno traveled to Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic and partnered with the Environmental School to conduct an activity at a local elementary school to plan schoolyard habitat projects and a rain garden. Seeing the positive impact and "aha!" moments helped the kids to cultivate an interest in sustainability and its impact on everyday life.

NSP has been busy with youth engagement and education as well. Highlighted in this recent post, in Haiti students throughout the year have been attending Vendredi Vert (Green Fridays), weekly sessions on environment, sanitation and hygiene. Activities and programs have been designed to foster young leaders and promote civic engagement and responsibility among the youth.

To read more about these education efforts, click the links above, and stay tuned to see what will go on the agenda this year!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Assisting Small Farmers One Hectare At A Time in Guatemala

Young dragon fruit plants (on poles)
surrounded by sweet potato
This post was drawn from a volunteer trip report written by Paul Wojtkowski.

The overall objective of this assignment was to strengthen horticulture value chains in order to stimulate productivity of small- and medium-scale farmers. Volunteer Paul Wojtkowski went to assist the host organization, Rincón Grande, in improving their agronomic management of organic fresh fruits like dragon fruit and vegetables like spinach, kale, rainbow carrots, and sweet potato. Its facilities are located in the municipality of San Andrés Itzapa, Department of Chimaltenango. Rincón Grande has about five hectares of land where vegetables are grown and is currently developing a dragon fruit plantation, as well as a plant that is equipped for receiving, processing, packaging, refrigeration, and shipping fresh and processed produce. The company places special emphasis on the development of healthy foods (i.e., organic and natural ingredients and inputs) that are easy to prepare and reduce waste by using packaging that prolongs the shelf life and nutritional value of the product. Rincón Grande also promotes the fair treatment of suppliers, employees, and partners; thereby meeting international standards of quality and safety.

Currently, the host organization is working towards the propagation of golden dragon fruit and also has over 10,000 pylons of red dragon fruit, for which the grafting process began in January 2015. Rincón Grande is interested in securing its own sources of nitrogen and other micronutrients by producing compost and employing vermiculture. The organization is in need of developing and systematizing the processes to achieve organic certification.

Over the first week of his assignment, Mr. Wojtkowski focused on one five-hectare farm, located in the highlands near the town of Antigua. This farm was singular in that other farms in the area raised mostly maize with beans, while this farm was in the early stages of converting to dragon fruit production. The farmer employed a classic taungya approach and was growing sweet potato between the young dragon fruit plants. There were about 50 fruit plants on the farm. 

Landscape of farming area
Given the young age of the dragon fruits, this is not technically challenging. Issues arise when the dragon fruit plants are older and the plant/plant interactions with a second species become more profound. The dragon fruits were initially raised in a nursery in bags of soil.  These were then transplanted to the field. One volunteer suggestion was to spread out the root ball immediately before transplanting. This should speed plant growth. A second suggestion was to plant vetiver in contour rows in the steeper section of the farm. This would be a cheaper erosion counter than the contour ditches currently being employed.

Later in the first week, the volunteers visited a second farm whose main crop was peaches. This farm was located higher in the mountains, about one hour's drive from the first farm.  Upon inspection, the volunteers noted that the chief threat to production was peach dieback. Although present on only three or four trees, peach dieback can kill infected trees. This could be serious if it became more widespread. The cause is below ground, involving insects and/or a virus. Local farmers do not have a solution. One solution could involve soaking the ground around newly infected trees with a soap solution.

During Farmer-to-Farmer assignments, most of the impact comes through direct, face-to-face, on-the-farm interactions.  The next week, Mr. Wojtkowski visited several farms that are raising vegetables such as broccoli and snow peas for export to the US.  The final day of his assignment consisted of a visit to the University of Guatemala and a discussion with the Dean of the Agricultural School and those involved in agroecology. The expected outcomes of this assignment will be to generate demand for value-added products and to strengthen producers’ national, regional, and international market competitiveness. In turn, this will improve income and standards of living for farmers, their families, and their communities in Guatemala.