Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How to Make a Square-Foot Garden

Adapted from training materials from F2F volunteer, Arlen Albrecht

In poor urban communities near Guatemala City, families live in small houses on very limited plots of land. In more rural areas such as Chiquimulilla (southern Guatemala), families face high rates of malnutrition. Square-foot gardens are a useful way for families with limited space to grow fresh vegetables. Square-foot gardens can also be built using local materials and resources, and fresh vegetables can contribute to improving household nutrition and food security. In December 2015, F2F volunteer Arlen Albrecht traveled to Guatemala to train urban and rural community members in building square-foot gardens. Below are his notes on how to make a square-foot garden.

Square-foot garden
7 Easy Steps to Build a Square-Foot Garden

  1. Location – Build the square-foot garden in close proximity to the house for easy access and maintenance. Choose a spot that gets at least 6-8 hours of sun each day and has good drainage.
  2. Size – start with a 1 meter x 1 meter garden. Create a border using wood, bricks, rocks, or other local materials. The size of the garden can be expanded in the future.
  3. Compost – Fill the square-foot garden with compost. In Guatemala, the following organic compost recipe was used:
    • Dry (brown) material (i.e., corn stalks, dry grass, leaves, straw, dried legumes, dried potatoes and tomatoes, etc.)
    • Green material (i.e., banana peels, rotten fruit, vegetable peelings)
    • 1, 4, 9. 16 grid
    • Cow Manure (i.e., fresh or partially composted)
  4. Grid – Use branches, sticks, or wood to create a grid. The grid helps to:
    • Align plants
    • Group plants by type
    • Maintain order
    • Improve general maintenance for growing
  5. Fencing – Build a fence around the garden to protect it from chickens, rabbits, pigs, or other animals. Use local materials such as branches, large coffee sacks, or bamboo.
  6. Planting and Spacing – Plant seeds using the 1, 4, 9, 16 method. (See more information on this method here).
  7. Water, Maintain, and Harvest!

F2F volunteer, Arlen Albrecht, conducting a training on building a square-foot garden

Friday, January 22, 2016

Panamanian Women Embrace Microcredit for Improved Livelihoods

Ian Robinson recently returned from a F2F assignment in Panama working with another Partners’ project called EducaFuturo. Below he shares his experience: 

“Located in eastern Panama along the country’s border with Colombia, the Darien region is known for being a difficult-to-access swath of jungle. The northern stretch of the Pan-American highway ends in the town of Yaviza, and reaching most of the surrounding indigenous communities requires a pick-up ride along dirt roads to nearest port and navigating the rivers in boats with an outboard motor. The challenges are the same if residents need to leave their community.

Women participating in the workshop
There are no formal banks in the indigenous communities, and the common strategies for residents if they need a quick influx of cash are to get a loan with usurious interest from a loan shark or to sell off some of their chickens. Furthermore, most community members would not be able to qualify for loans in traditional banks in the cities because they do not have the necessary paperwork or enough assets to apply for them.

In December 2015 and January 2016, Farmer-to-Farmer partnered with EducaFuturo, to empower women in the community of Lajas Blancas to start and maintain their own community bank. EducaFuturo works with communities throughout the region to eradicate child labor through after-school programs. Parents will often take their children out of school in order to have them work in agricultural fields, depriving them of the opportunity to receive an education. EducaFuturo’s work in Darien strives to keep children in school while training their parents with skills to improve their livelihoods.

The community bank that the women started is structurally similar to a village savings and loans association where members make weekly deposits to a common pool of money. After a few weeks, they begin to loan money to each other using that pot of money with a one-month payback at a lower level of interest than they would find in their community. At the end of the year, all of the money in the bank gets divided among the members, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of savings, in addition to credit.

F2F volunteer Ian Robinson and workshop participants
with their new savings box
In Lajas Blancas, the women were starting from scratch. So over the course of the two-week workshop, each member of the women’s group had learned how microcredit works, followed all of the necessary steps in starting a community bank, and made their first $1 deposit into the organization. By the end of January, they will begin to take out loans. In addition to the bank workshops, the Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer also trained the women on how to perform a feasibility analysis and what key questions to consider when starting a small business.

In addition to being an opportunity for savings and credit, the bank represents a chance for women to assume leadership roles. As a self-managing organization, each participant plays an integral role in ensuring that the bank functions as they intend. Furthermore, six women have leadership positions with greater responsibilities to allow the bank to achieve its goals. In a society where women rarely hold formal positions of power, the community bank represents a new opportunity for empowerment.

The members understand that this institution will not be a vehicle to get them out of poverty. But they understand that it can be a valuable tool to support their family’s livelihoods.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Conservation Agriculture: 3 Keys to Reducing Soil Degradation

Soil degradation, often caused by a combination of physical, chemical, and biological factors, is a serious issue that the majority of farmers throughout the world face. Although degradation occurs globally, it is of particular concern in tropical regions due to numerous factors including topography, climate, and highly weathered soils. Furthermore, climate change is exacerbating the problem, with heavy rainfalls and extreme weather events such as storms and floods causing increased soil erosion. Many of Partners’ F2F volunteers work with smallholder farmers and farmer associations throughout LAC to minimize soil degradation in their cropping systems, frequently through the use of conservation agriculture.

F2F volunteer Dr. Andrew Egan investigates soil erosion and its impact on the Dominican Republic's Yaque del Norte watershed in March 2015.
Conservation agriculture is a set of three soil management principles that greatly reduces deterioration of a soil’s structure, composition, and biodiversity:

1) Maintain soil cover at all times. Maintaining soil cover throughout the growing season may include the use of intercropping, mulching, and reducing plant spacing to decrease soil exposure. During the offseason, farmers can maintain soil cover by mulching their field using crop residues and other organic matter and/or growing a cover crop. Maintaining soil cover in this manner can help increase the soil organic matter, available nutrient levels, and soil water holding capacity. It will also help protect the soil from erosion caused by wind and rain.

2) Minimize tillage. Tillage should only be performed enough to sow the seed. Excess tillage, especially in the tropics, leads to rapid decomposition of organic matter and major soil losses in heavy rainfalls. Depending on the climate, vegetation, topography, biota, and parent material, it can take at least 100 years to form an inch of top soil. As tropical soils are frequently low in organic matter and fertility, it is critical to protect the little that exists.

3) Practice regular crop rotations. Rotating crops will help reduce pest and disease pressure in the soil. Additionally, since different plants have different nutrient requirements, this can allow soils to replenish their nutrient bank – especially when rotating with nitrogen-fixing crops.

Using these principles and other soil conservation practices, Partners' F2F volunteers continue working with hosts throughout LAC to reduce soil degradation and help farmers develop more sustainable cropping systems. For more global research and resources on conservation agriculture, please visit:

Friday, January 15, 2016

Managing Fruit Trees in Guatemala

This post has been adapted from a trip report written by F2F volunteer Tim Dahle, who worked with ANAPDE in Guatemala. 

I spent the first two weeks of December in Guatemala on a Farmer-to-Farmer assignment for Partners of the Americas. The focus of this assignment is to improve nutrition practices for peach and apple production through ANAPDE (National Association of Producers of Deciduous Fruit), the host organization.

We began the assignment by meeting with the directors and staff of ANAPDE at headquarters. We discussed the purposes of ANAPDE and some of the challenges growers face. The staff and growers were energetic, able and invested in improving the industry. 
We set out next to visit as many growers as possible in the time allotted. I found growers to be already well versed in orchard sanitation, weed control and generally following nutrition guidelines that have been published by Clemson University. We set out to improve on the areas of the nutrition programs that were not efficient.

Most of the assignment was spent visiting farms, holding one-on-one discussions on issues specific to each farm. Zinc and soil deficiencies in the soil are best corrected with foliar (plant) application rather than soil applications. Pruning demonstrations were given at almost every stop. Currently, sulfur is supplied as ammonium sulfate to the soil, which acidifies it. Growers may be better served by incorporating more sulfur in the nutrient spray program, applied directly to the plants. 

I made several interesting observations during my time in Guatemala. One must be careful in trying to apply U.S. solutions to issues here. The climate, market, infrastructure, availability of materials, chemicals, equipment and plant material are very different here. That being said, the growers are generally progressive and hard-working, and are clearly implementing several practices that have been published in periodicals by U.S. universities.

I made recommendations to increase pruning practices, monitor soil health, and eliminate pests. Pruning helps more moderately strong shoots grow, which in turn will improve fruit quality. With the adoption of creating at least two entrances for air movement to each tree, we can expect better efficiency in thinning and picking. There will be improved control of bacterial and fungus diseases. The use of more chicken manure and other manures should help slow or stop the loss of organic matter in the soil. It will benefit soil biology and the overall ability of the soil to provide nutrients. The healthiest old orchard, that we visited, received regular applications of manure.

As far as future steps go, another assignment is scheduled for this area to help improve frost control. It was helpful of ANAPDE to investigate the practicality of heaters. This helps the next volunteer be better prepared with useful strategies. The acquisition of later blooming varieties may be significant in helping to deal with frost. Experts from the nursery industry and Clemson recommend looking to Mexico and Brazil for such varieties.

Overall, it was a very productive trip. The special graciousness that the field staff and local growers have been afforded me is humbling. This has been a lesson to be more warm and uplifting towards others.

Monday, January 11, 2016

International Year of Pulses

Pulses are eaten all over the world
Since 1960, the United Nations has each year celebrated a different topic that deserves awareness or appreciation. 2015 was the International Year of Soils, and this year, the United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses!

By designating this year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) aims to heighten public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition.
Pulses provide protein, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals. Like other plant-based foods, pulses contain no cholesterol and little fat or sodium.

Pulses are annual leguminous crops yielding grains or seeds within a pod, such as lentils, beans, peas, and chickpeas. A vital source of plant-based proteins, they play an important role in nutrition for people around the world who do not have enough access to meat. In addition, pulses have nitrogen-fixing properties which can contribute to increasing soil fertility and have a positive impact on the environment.
Lima beans for Mother Leader gardens

Pulses are particularly important in Latin America, Africa and Asia where they make up a significant part of traditional diets and often grown by small farmers. Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are the main ingredient in hummus, and consumed in a variety of dishes all over the world. Red kidney beans and black beans are used in a wide range of South American and African dishes, and snow peas have become one of Guatemala's most important exports, nearly all of which are destined for the U.S.

To find ways to incorporate pulses into your cooking, visit

The Haiti Nutrition Security Program knows how important pulses are for healthy diets through their experiences with lima beans in Artibonite, Haiti. Read about the positive effect of pulses here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nicaragua- The Eternal Spring

Typical dairy cow and calf in Matagalpa
Written by Volunteer Daniel Flaherty

I had the opportunity in December of 2015 to volunteer on an assignment in Matagalpa, Nicaragua with Partners of The Americas. This was my first time to Latin America and the weather couldn’t have been better. The area, Matagalpa where I was assigned, was located in the mountains approximately a two hour drive north of the capital Managua. It was the beginning of the dry season with gorgeous sunny weather in the 70’s during the day and pleasant sleeping weather at night with no need for air conditioning.

The agriculture in the Matagalpa region is predominantly coffee plantations and small and medium size dairy and beef farms producing grass-fed beef, milk and cheese. Most of the farms I visited grazed hillside pastures for their cattle during the rainy season and grew forages, maize and sorghum on steep terrain to be made into silage and fed during the dry season when the pasture ran short. 

Farmer, CONAGAN technician and
myself in typical pasture
The purpose of my assignment was to evaluate the Progressa Program and provide technical assistance to the staff of The National Cattle Rancher Commission of Nicaragua (CONAGAN) to recognize best agricultural practices on cattle farms that are participating in the Program. The Progressa Program receives its funding from USDA which partners with Catholic Relief Services to implement the program. The Program cost shares best agricultural practices such as, forage choppers, corrals, covered milking centers, silos, latrines, wash basins, biogas and seeds for pasture improvement. The CONAGAN staff provides education and training to farmers to successfully implement and manage these best agricultural practices.

Every day was filled with several farm visits with a CONAGAN staff technician and my translator Pablo. The farms were small ranging from 10-50 Mezannos in size, raising between 6-40 cows, and milking between 1-6 cows. The cows were milked by hand once per day with the calf getting the milk the remainder of the day. The milk was either sold as fluid milk or made into cheese. The milk is taken by horseback to a collection point and taken to the creamery. Income from these farms is predominantly from milk and cheese sales and some crops.

Farmers, CONAGAN technician, my
translator and myself 
I visited farms that had practices implemented and farms where no implementation was started as a comparison. Every farmer with implementation that was interviewed was very pleased with the infrastructure constructed on their farm. The agricultural practices benefitted the farms in some of the following ways: 1. Forage choppers and silos allowed the farmers to harvest higher quality forage during the rainy season to be fed during the dry season when forage is in short supply. 2. Before covered milking centers were constructed, farmers struggled to milk in hygienic conditions especially during the rainy season where mud and manure could contaminate the milk. Several farmers stated that after the covered milking area was implemented that milk quality increased and one farmer mentioned that now he can sell to a co-operative that has high milk quality standards. All the farmers stated that they could milk more cows in these improved hygienic conditions. 3. Another practice that is implemented is biogas which not only has economic benefits but human health benefits. One farmer that was interviewed stated that before the biogas project was constructed his children were sick with pneumonia from the open fire for cooking. The manure from his few cows is now collected from the concrete pad under the covered milking center and placed in an underground bio-digester which produces methane gas and is piped to the house for the cooking range. The manure coming out of the digester is then used as fertilizer on the crop and pasture fields. The impact on this farm has been his children are healthier, his wife no longer has to gather firewood many kilometers away and it is sustainable.

Farmer displaying cheese product 
with CONAGAN technician
The farmers I interviewed were very forthcoming and I appreciated them opening up their farms for evaluation. I appreciate their patience with my lack of Spanish and giving thei time for the farm tours and interviews. I also want to recognize the CONAGAN technicians that organized the farm visits. They do an excellent job advising farmers and have a great working relationship with them. In addition, the Partners of the Americas staff and my translator were always there when you needed them. 

Finally, the Nicaraguan people were warm and very hospitable. They made my stay very pleasant. It is the people you meet on these assignments which makes it so rewarding.