Wednesday, March 2, 2016

From Peace Corps to Farmer-to-Farmer: F2F Volunteer Uses Skills Learned in Peace Corps with a Women's Group in the Amazon

Alex Matthews served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru from 2009-2011. In December 2015, he left for Ecuador to complete a vegetable production assignment for the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer program in the Amazon Basin. The following is an excerpt from Alex's field journal during his F2F assignment.

A cacao and banana farm located near Puyo
"Plants want to grow. That is a simple piece of wisdom that I learned my first summer working on a vegetable farm years ago. The proof of that statement is everywhere, from the small weed growing in a crack in the pavement, to the dense, lush growth of the rainforest surrounding Puyo, where I have been living for the last two months, volunteering with Partners of the Americas' USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer program. What I have learned in the last ten years, however, is that while plants may want to grow, crops don’t want to grow well or productively without some helping hands.

Nowhere have I found this to be more evident than in Esfuerzo, a small community I have been working with about an hour outside of Puyo. There is a very dedicated group of women in Esfuerzo who run a large scale compost project funded by the municipality, and they want to work on collectively growing vegetables as well. These women come from farming families--cattle, dairy and sugarcane are the financial backbone of the community--but vegetable production is little practiced, and with good reason. The rainforest, while incredibly ecologically diverse, is not a good place to grow vegetables. The pounding rain washes away topsoil and nutrients and acidifies the soil, and the high humidity makes it incredibly difficult to manage disease and fungus in the crops.  

Luckily, difficult is a long way from impossible, and this group of women certainly is up to the challenge. They are dedicated to their work and the group they have formed. They meet twice a week to accept hundreds of pounds of organic waste delivered from the Puyo fruit and vegetable market and turn it into compost. The process requires a lot of hard work that is both physically demanding and sometimes pretty gross (finding bags of rotting meat mixed in with the vegetable scraps is a common occurrence). In addition to the compost project, they have also spearheaded a community wide reforestation project with the help of a Peace Corps volunteer.  

Alex works with community members to prepare a bed
And thankfully, over the past two months, they have been open to learning a lot about good vegetable (and pineapple) production practices. We have covered a lot of ground in our weekly sessions, including the basics of soil health, good fertilization practices and the proper way to sow seeds for healthy and strong seedlings to transplant. Many of these lessons have been basic, such as adding lime to the soil to counter acidification, or how much space to leave between tomato plants to increase vigor and reduce disease, but the process needed to start somewhere and hopefully both the garden crops and their base of knowledge will grow steadily.

The work day I enjoyed most was two weeks ago when we started seeds for transplants. I have always loved working with seeds. The different shapes, sizes and even smells of the seeds are fascinating, and these little pellets hold a lot of promise for the coming season and all the delicious vegetables to come. If you ever get the chance to smell a handful of carrot seed or immerse your hand in a bag of broccoli seed, maybe you will know what I am talking about. Here around Puyo, unfortunately, seeds are few and far between. The ag supply stores around here are focused on animal and limited cash crop production. Whereas in the states I can choose from dozens of varieties of tomatoes to plant, when I went to the biggest ag supply store in town, they had several packets of seeds simply labeled tomato, without providing the name of the variety. Most of the available seeds are years old and packaged in clear packets, unprotected from air, moisture or light.

Sowing seeds with the women's group in Esfuerzo
So the lesson on sowing seeds differed a bit from the basics you might learn on a vegetable farm in New England. I emphasized looking for the seeds with the freshest dates on the label and favoring thicker, sealed plastic seed packets over clear plastic bags. We made our own “potting mix” using compost, sand and lime and discussed the advantages in fertility and drainage that will  lead to strong healthy seedlings for the garden. Lastly, we seeded five tray cells with a variety of vegetables, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, onions...and all at a slightly higher rate than normal, to compensate for the old and probably less viable seed available to us. The women enjoyed the process and laughed with each other as we informally competed to see who could drop the correct number of seeds in each cell, or who could do so fastest. The competition grew fiercest, and the most hilarious, when we tried to seed celery, with seeds smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. While I will likely witness the germination of these efforts, unfortunately I will not be here to see the literal fruit of this labor. I am confident that the women of Esfuerzo will work hard to help these crops grow, improving their families' health and the health of their land."

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