Friday, June 23, 2017

Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Volunteer Spotlight: Dr. John Rushing

                                                               F2F Volunteer Dr. John Rushing

Dr. John Rushing is an emeritus professor at North Carolina State University’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. During his decades’ long career in NCSU’s Food Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences, Dr. Rushing has advised and directed numerous food technology and food safety programs at various regulatory agencies and private companies in North Carolina, and throughout the world. Currently, Dr. Rushing is an independent foot technology consultant who remains committed to training the next generation of Food Scientists.  By way of the annual “John and Kelli Rushing Food Science Freshman Scholarship”, Dr. Rushing and his wife support Food Science students at NCSU with the financial assistance they need to continue pursuing their potential.

In addition to being leader in the area of Food Technology, Dr. John Rushing has also been a committee Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer. During the last decade, he has led numerous F2F volunteer assignments in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Nicaragua. In March 2017, Dr. Rushing returned to the Dominican Republic to work with local host, ISA University.  Located just outside Santiago de Los Caballeros, ISA trains students in a wide array of academic fields ranging from agro-forestry and environmental management to food technology. During this F2F assignment, Dr. Rushing assisted technicians from ISA’s food microbiology lab in improving their methods and techniques for analyzing food-based pathogens, including E. coli, coliforms, aerobic mesophiles, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria, molds, yeasts, among others. He also provided technical advice on equipment acquisitions, made recommendations on plant layouts and evaluated operations to meet international food safety standards and improve food technologies. As part of these trainings, Dr. Rushing also worked alongside ISA Faculty to lead various lectures related to dairy processing plants. These modules included topics such as milk pasteurization, hygiene management, as well as post-processing contamination.

John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program
This trip was sponsored by Partners of the Americas as part of the John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program. Partners’ F2F program sends US agriculturalist on volunteer assignments to improve economic opportunities in rural areas of Latin America and the Caribbean by increasing food production and distribution, promoting better farm and marketing operations, and conserving natural resources. The program is supported by Congress and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Partners of the Americas
Founded in 1964, Partners is a private, nonprofit, non-partisan organization with international offices in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to connect people and organizations across borders to serve and to change lives through meaningful partnerships. Over the last 25 years, Partners has implemented the F2F Program in 30 countries across Latin America, the Caribbean

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cultivating Peace and Rural Development in Post-Conflict Colombia

By: Andres Varona, Agriculture & Food Security Program Officer at Partners of the Americas

For more than 50 years, large segments of Colombia’s countryside have been the battlefront of guerrilla rebels, paramilitaries, and drug cartels. The violent clash between these factions and Colombia’s armed forces has not only displaced millions of campesinos to the country’s sprawling cities, it has also contributed to the further degradation and neglect of Colombia’s rich agricultural and food-producing regions. With the signing of the peace deal with the FARC, the largest guerrilla group, the government of Colombia faces a unique opportunity to not only forge greater peace and security, but also a chance to restore the environmental vitality of its countryside and the socio-economic well-being of millions of people that been displaced from their lands. As the FARC put down their weapons and other armed groups (e.g. ELN) begin negotiations to do so, the government should move quickly to regain control of the areas previous controlled by these armed factions. This will have to be done swiftly but with tactical precision as to prevent the proliferation of other armed groups and criminal activities (e.g. illicit mining, deforestation, coca production) into these fragile and impoverished conflict hotspots.

The aim of this revamped rural development strategy, however, should not only be to win the hearts and minds of local people. Likewise, it should also incorporate mechanisms that empower a real and tangible improvement in the quality of life of rural communities that, for decades, have been systematically neglected. Such a strategy will require various levels of government (e.g. national, departmental, municipal, indigenous) to work in concert with a wide array of private enterprises (e.g. agribusiness, ICT, tourism providers), civil society organizations (e.g. NGOs, foundations, academia) and the international and bilateral donor community (e.g. United Nations, IDB, USAID, European Union) to develop and rollout a comprehensive rural development plan in Colombia’s conflict-prone areas. These initiatives should also integrate and promote the conservation Colombia’s natural protected areas, especially given that many of these ecological areas also straddle areas of high and medium conflict.

To be effective, inclusive, sustainable and participatory, this rural development strategy should prioritize the following three areas:

1) Investing in social services: Many rural communities in Colombia lack basic and quality social services such as schools, hospitals, law enforcement and emergency response. Without these in place, many rural dwellers will continue to face growing levels of poverty, undernourishment, illness, and insecurity. The government out to direct more of the national budget towards investment in these geographic and thematic areas. For example, the government could expand the network and reach of public schools and agricultural universities, thus providing rural children and youth with increased educational opportunities. With more access to a quality education in their communities, many of this young people could break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, avoid moving to the already crowded cities, as well as deter them from turning to criminal activities and/or armed groups.

2) Generating quality and formal employment: While education is important, Colombians in conflict prone areas also need access to a more diverse base of quality and formal jobs. The absence of technical skills and formal employment opportunities leads many campesinos to either move to the cities in search of economic opportunities or fall victim to criminal or illicit activities that can provide them sustenance. In this way, there is much that the government, along with the private sector and academia, can do more to strengthen the technical skills of rural dwellers as well as generate good paying jobs in the most remote and conflict-prone communities. For example, the government could work with leading universities to expand its current network of National Learning Service (SENA) centers to more remote and conflict-prone areas. In partnership with leading public and private univerisities, these SENA center could get access to more resources (e.g. funds, books, technology) as well as a more robust course curriculm that empowers campesinos with the set of skills they need to work and generate value in the context of their communties. For example, these centers could also partner with private enterpirses (e.g. agribusinesses, hotel chains, energy providers) in order to train and hire people from conflict areas in various local and sustianble value chains, such as environmental management, permaculture, ecoturism, small enterprise development, renewable energies, among others.

3) Improving transportation infrastructure and market linkages: In addition to more schools and hospitals as well as increased technical capacities, rural communities in Colombia are also in desperate need of transport infrastructure. This means better quality roads that wither through intense tropical weather patterns. It also means revamping the country’s outdated rail network and fluvial ports so that local campesinos have transportation multiple transportation option to take the crops they produced to markets. In addition to infrastructure, these communities will also need better access to markets. This could be done by establishing procurement policies so the government as well private contractors have cost incentives to procure more of their materials and services (e.g. coffee, snacks, building materials, and call centers) from small and medium enterprises situated in these areas.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Scaling the Sale of Educational Artisan Products in Guatemala

Written by F2F Volunteer  Jo Anne Cohn 

 F2F volunteer Jo Anne Cohn
   visiting a shop in Antigua which carries DIDART kits

This month I had my first opportunity to work with Farmer-to-Farmer and Partners of the Americas. My assignment was to assist DIDART, a small business which makes educational kits for children in Guatemala. My task was to help staff members develop a sales strategy in order to enter new markets for their craft products.

First, let me tell you a little about the product. Each kit comes with raw materials gathered by indigenous communities in Guatemala to make a craft. In addition, each kit contains a “passport” with an App to download. Once the App is downloaded, you can visit Guatemala electronically and learn more about the country's diverse indigenous populations and how the raw materials are used to make artisan crafts. Out of my kit which contained pine needles, I made a bracelet! Other kits include manguey for making key chains, clay for making figures and seeds for making masks.

 DIDART employee Anna Lucia Quevado modeling a DIDART display in a store where DIDART kits are sold

Most of the DIDART kits sold in Guatemala are sold to schools. I did have the opportunity to accompany the DIDART team on a sales call to the Liceo Javier, in Guatemala City. In addition, we went to Antigua to visit local shops where kits are being sold. DIDART is also teaming up with the private sector in the area of social responsibility. The idea is for corporations to buy kits to be used in underserved communities.

 DIDART employee Marielos Pichillá making a sales presentation to a school in Guatemala City

What I like about DIDART kits is that not only is it a great learning tool for children, it helps out the local economy as well by buying raw materials from more than 250 local artisans. There’s also an environmental component to DIDART. They have teamed up with CBC (Central America Bottling Corporation) to develop an application called “Ecounidos” where you can determine the location of the recycling centers nearest to you.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Banana Production and Fertilization in the Dominican Republic

Dr. Pablo Jordan Soto traveled to the Dominican Republic from March 26 – April 9, 2017 to assess the organic banana production practices of the Banelino Association and the Project La Cruz de Manzanillo and provide them with recommendations on environmentally-friendly technologies and best practices to increase the quality and production of their banana crops.

Banelino is an association of banana producers that encompasses over 300 farmer households. Aside from its focus on banana production, the association also manages a number of social, educational, and medical programs for its members, including a youth training program in banana production. The Project La Cruz de Manzanillo is a national project that supports job creation for residents of Bateyes, a community in the Provice of Montecristi. The project has 250 hectares of land dedicated to banana production and employs over 2,000 low-income families.

During his trip, Dr. Soto visited 12 farms in Valverde and Montecristi to meet with the growers, production managers, and technical staff of both organizations. In these site visits he was able to assess and compare the production methods being implemented at each farm, including their fertilization, pruning, and pest control practices. One of Dr. Soto’s key observations was that these production practices varied across all farms and, for the most part, did not follow recommended standards. This inconsistency can affect the growth and development of the banana crops, as well as increase their vulnerability to pest infestations. In order to bolster production and quality, Dr. Soto made several recommendations, including altering fertilization methods to include increasing the cycles of organic fertilizer by 8-10 per year. Additionally, he recommended the application of 10 to 12 cycles of potassium sulfate per year, implementing training sessions on proper pruning and leaf removal techniques, standardizing production strategies to avoid inconsistencies, and using soap formulations to control pests.

Dr. Soto, originally from Guatemala, has over 30 years of experience in banana production, with a focus in entomology, and has volunteered for the Farmer-to-Farmer program since 2003 in several countries including Nepal, Bangladesh, and Guatemala. He received his PhD in Entomology-Zoology from the North Carolina State University in 1970. This two-week project was part of Partners of the Americas’ overall Farmer-to-Farmer objective in the Dominican Republic to increase the resilience of vulnerable populations to the impacts of climate change. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Two weeks in Guatemala with Vision Maya ‘s Oyster Mushroom Growers

Written by F2F Volunteer Kathleen Preis

Vision Maya is a grower co-op of approximately 25 members with 12 active members growing Oyster Mushrooms from their homes in Municipality of San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala. TEach week, the Oyster Mushroom harvest is collected and sold collectively throughout the community of San Andrés. The organization is primarily led by the President of the association, Carmela, and the Vice President, Juan. The group benefits greatly from initial Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers helping to improve their various production operations. The Vision Maya growers have managed to take what they have learned and continue to produce high quality Oyster Mushrooms under variable conditions.

The growers are primarily female heads of household from the neighborhood of La Barranca . They are a close group of friends and enjoy growing mushrooms to contribute to their family’s income. They primarily grow mushrooms out of their homes. Many of their children help their mothers with the harvesting and delivering of mushrooms. Most of the farms are within walking distance of each other and the Vision Maya headquarters adding to bond between the growers.

I arrived in Guatemala with the purpose of helping the Vision Maya group increase their sales through marketing efforts. We began our time together by reviewing the basics of marketing and detailed information on the nutrition and culinary attributes of Oyster mushrooms. We followed each presentation with activities and workshops to encourage confidence in the group when talking about and selling their premium product to customers.

As the sessions continued the group focused more on the development of their brand, packaging and digital presence by drafting logos, slogans and marketing messages to duplicate in sales materials. The group was extremely knowledgeable that the Oyster Mushrooms they were producing were healthy but a review of the factual nutritional benefits gave the group the confidence they needed to more actively share content with customers.

The final day of workshops was spent developing a sales plan and developing tactics to meet sales goals. The group now have the tools needed to facilitate growth and the confidence to pursue additional markets to sell their Oyster Mushrooms to increase sales and profit for their organization and community.

The Vision Maya group is an incredible entrepreneurial organization that I have no doubt will continue to succeed and grow in their business.  The women in Vision Maya are proud to provide food and funds for their family and are determined to increase sales of their Oyster Mushrooms. I look forward to learning more of their success in the future. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Hydroponic and Organic Vegetable Production in Guyana.

In March 2017, Dr. Rex Ukaejiofo and Dr. Muamba Jerry Kabeya traveled to Guyana for a two week-long Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer assignment. The purpose of this assignment was to monitor and evaluate the potential that hydroponic and organic vegetable farming can have for underserved rural communities in Guyana. As part of this trip, the pair met with a wide range of stakeholders in the country’s agri-food value chain. Rex and Muamba led multiple key informant interviews with country representatives of leading institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB); Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA); the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); the National Agriculture Research and Extension Institute (NAREI); as well as the Management Committee of the St. Stanislaus College Farm. They also had the opportunity to meet with a diverse array of educational institutions for Guyanan youth, including the Georgetown International Academy, Sophia Special Needs School, St. Barnabas Special Needs School and Joshua House for Orphans. The team of volunteers also held numerous group discussion with producer groups in the coastal and riverine communities of Guyana’s Region 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10. These engagement provided them with a holistic view of the complex challenges and promises that organic and hydroponic vegetable farm has in Guyana.

Given the high levels of poverty and food insecurity that affect many rural Guyanan communities, Rex and Muamba were tasked with researching how two distinct vegetable production methods, organic and hydroponic farming, can improve the quality of yields and strengthen food security in these impoverished localities. These two types of farming methods were prioritized since they have been proven to avoid the use and application of harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can runoff and degrade surrounding tropical ecosystems. In the case of organic vegetable farming, the method consists of controlling pests naturally and without toxic pesticides. To be considered organic, plants or vegetables cannot be nourished with mineral salts or any other refined substances except for manure or other natural fertilizers. Meanwhile, hydroponic farming involves the growing of crops in nutrient solutions, usually indoors and under lights.

This objective of this F2F assignment was divided in three distinct phases. The first component focused on the vegetable production, which involved the development of hydroponic shade-houses, natural/organic farms and home-based gardens supported by regional Demonstration, Support and Learning Centers (DSLC). This component was relevant to the target communities to meet both the food security and nutritional profile of the households.

The second phase of the project focused on improving the economic welfare of the producers (disadvantaged and vulnerable groups). This phase was intended to promote and market hydroponic and natural/organic vegetables and culinary herbs for local consumption as well as external markets.

Lastly, the third phase was focused on the development of a national association of hydroponic and natural/organic vegetable producers. The rationale for this phase was to empower target groups by helping create business planning initiatives and build management skills on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Additionally, the goal was to form cooperatives to increase the incomes of both households and communities.

As part of these efforts, the team of F2F volunteers carried out a comprehensive final effectiveness, efficiency, relevance and the sustainability of the hydroponic and organic vegetable production project.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Increasing Poultry Productivity and Competitiveness in Haiti

In March of 2017, Dr. Jacqueline Jacobs, a poultry extension project manager at the University of Kentucky, traveled to Haiti to conduct a USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer assignment with local host SAKALA under Partners of the Americas' Rural Enterprise Development project. SAKALA is an organization that provides technical assistance to groups throughout Haiti and runs a community center in the heart of Haiti's largest underdeveloped area, where youth come together to grow, learn, and play. The purpose of the assignment was to train older students on how to raise poultry and  develop a poultry flock at the community center that can be used as a training tool for the school. As SAKALA supports other communities around the country, the second part of the assignment was to give outreach and technical assistance to these groups.

Dr. Jacobs provided SAKALA with several recommendations to assist them in developing their poultry operations. These recommendations consisted of a 6-tier development framework that included the use of free-range Haitian chickens for the production of eggs for sale. Additionally, Dr. Jacobs suggested that the organization and students work to develop business plans prior to implementing their poultry systems. Dr. Jacobs is an extension project manager from the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky. She earned her PhD from the University of British Columbia and has extensive experience in poultry management and production.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Host Highlight: Universidad ISA (Dominican Republic)

Source: ISA

As part of the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program in the Caribbean basin, the Agriculture & Food Security (AFS) team at Partners of the Americas has been leading a project to increase climate change resilience across several vulnerable communities in the Dominican Republic. In order to carry out these efforts, Partners works with a wide array of host organizations ranging from agricultural cooperatives, nonprofits, as well as local universities. Among the multiple Dominican institutions of higher learning with which we work is worth highlighting one: Universidad ISA. In 1962, this institution was founded as the Instituto Superior de Agricultura or ISA. ISA was established by a partnership between USAID, the Asociación para el Desarrollo, Inc. (APEDI) and the national government of the Dominican Republic. The university is located in a large rural campus just outside of Santiago de Caballeros, the country’s second largest metropolitan area. Universidad ISA is nationally-recognized vocation school that specializes in agriculture and natural resource management. Currently, ISA University has more than 2,000 students spread over eight programs in two distinct schools: 1) Food & Environmental Sciences, and 2) Social & Administrative Sciences. The university also boasts a series of graduate certificate and Master’s programs, ranging from agronomy and food technology to plant protection and microbiology.

In the last three years, the Farmer-to-Farmer program has sent numerous volunteers to Universidad ISA, in order to assist the school and their commitment to mitigate the complex risks brought forward by climate change.  For example, in November 2014, Dr. Usha Rani Palaniswamy—a Plant Science specialist from the University of Connecticut—traveled to Santiago in order to help ISA faculty and university administrators develop and integrate a more comprehensive environmentally-focused curriculum for the school. In December 2015, F2F volunteer Rhonda L. Sherman—an extension agent and waste management specialist from North Carolina State University—traveled to ISA where she worked alongside students and faculty to assess the solid waste management system of the municipality of Jarabacoa.  In October 2016, Dr. Keith Moore—a rural sociologist from Virginia Tech University—led numerous workshops to ISA students. Many of these technical trainings were focused on alternating and adapting human behaviors in order to improve forest management and preventing soil erosion in the central highlands of the country.

F2F Volunteer Keith Moore leads a forest management workshop with ISA students 

The previously mentioned agricultural and environmental specialists are just some of the long list of F2F volunteers that have assisted Universidad ISA in its efforts to mitigate the impacts of impending climate change.  In the coming months, the F2F program at Partners of the Americas plans to send several other volunteers to strengthen the university’s technical capacity in this strategic field.  Among these are a diverse array of agro-foresters, landscapers, and waste management specialist. In the coming months and years, we hope to continue this ongoing partnership with Universidad ISA in order to advance the climate adaptation of vulnerable communities across the central highlands of the country and the Dominican Republic at-large. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Two Burleson’s in Nicaragua

Wayne Burleson with local farmers
From March 12-26, 2017, Wayne and Connie Burleson travelled to Nicaragua to complete two separate and very distinct assignments. Wayne, a retired range scientist and land management consultant, provided training in rotational grazing, through the use of electric fencing, to technicians and producers of the National Cattleman’s Commission of Nicaragua (CONAGAN) and the Nicaragua Chamber of Beef Industry Exports (CONICARNE), both based in the capital city of Managua. Meanwhile, his wife, Connie conducted workshops on composting, gardening, and sustainable crop management to children and students in the communities of Nueva Guinea and Camoapa. While the pair worked separately throughout most of their trip, their work overlapped in the city of Camoapa, a region known for its large cattle production and home to the Hogar Luceros del Amanecer, a semi-residential program ran by the Sunrise Foundation to provide educational and social services to youth in the community.

Hands-on workshop on electric fencing
During his assignment, Wayne provided a formal presentation on the importance of rotational grazing using electric fencing to bolster livestock production at the Foro Lechero Nacional, a national dairy forum which had over 100 cattle producers in attendance. Similarly, he shared this information with the students and producers at the CONAGAN training center, Rancho Rojo in Camoapa, and the Universidad Nacional Agraria in Managua, where he also provided a demonstration of a bull pasture using electric fencing to students. Through his work, Wayne left the producers and students in these regions with a better understanding of the importance of electric fencing and rotational grazing to not only create more grazing flexibility and better animal health, but also to improve livestock and forage production that will in turn result in larger profits. 

Workshop on creating square foot home gardens in Nueva Guinea
Aside from Wayne’s key introduction to rotational grazing, Connie’s trainings, workshops, and demonstrations provided the children of Hogar Luceros del Amanecer with valuable lessons in composting and gardening to increase the availability of healthy vegetables in the community. Her fun and interactive demonstrations on composting and creating planting pots out of newspaper were well received, and her passion for teaching about the value of organic and healthy food options was apparent. Connie was also able to increase the awareness of co-op members at the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers of Nicaragua (UNAG) on the importance of composting and teach them how to build compost piles.

Overall, in just two weeks, the pair was able to leave a lasting impact on the students, members, producers, and technicians they interacted with. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Consolidating Colombia’s Peace through Sustainable and Inclusive Crop Substitution

Image result for Santos Whitaker Sustitución de cultivos
Source: RCN

This week in the Department of Meta, one of a dozen conflict hotspots across Colombia, President Juan Manual Santos inaugurated a revamped effort by the national government to curb the growing of coca leafs—the main ingredient in cocaine production. Historically, previous government-led initiatives have focused primarily in the eradication of coca yields through the spraying of glyphosate, an herbicide proven to cause various forms of cancer and ecological degradation. While these spraying initiatives have barely decreased the total production of coca leaf, they have caused significant harm to farmers, the licit crops they grow for food and sustenance, as well as the surrounding environment in which these rural households live and work. Faced with this impending economic, health and environmental situation, many farmers have had to leave their lands altogether or have even returned to growing coca, a crop that is oftentimes more profitable than cultivating legal crops.

The initiative launched this week by President Santos in company of U.S Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, emphasizes the need to substitute 50,000 hectares of coca with licit, income-generating crops. In order to achieve this ambitious objective, the government has established a partnership in which 83,790 farming families voluntarily agree to halt coca production and manually eradicate coca plants without the need of herbicides. In return, the farmers will receive a monthly income of COP 1,000,000 pesos (a rate higher than the monthly minimum wage in Colombia) during the first year of the program. In addition, participating farmers will also be granted a sum of COP$1,800,000 to start and implement food security projects for their households and communities. By instituting an economic incentive, farmers no longer need to turn to illicit coca production in order to secure their livelihoods.

Interestingly, this government-led initiative in some ways parallels and complements USAID’s own crop substitution programs in Colombia. One of these programs is Chocolate Colombia, a locally run, USAID-supported chocolate collective that draws on the potential for cocoa production in many of Colombia’s war-torn municipalities. The collective constitutes a holistic support system by which rural dwellers—that once grew coca and other illicit crops—can viably transition to cultivating legitimate, income-generating cocoa. The program achieves this through an integrated approach of technical expertise and small business development. On the technical side, local farmers are collectively instructed on agro-forestry demonstration plots, where they receive training on low-impact planting techniques, plant care, and fertilizer application. The cocoa plants grown in this plot are then moved to a mid-size (15 hectares) nursery—located on communally-owned land—where farmers receive further training. On the business side, campesinos take part in entrepreneurial seminars where they learn about the economic potential of the cocoa plant as well as grasp skills necessary to run a small, cocoa bean production unit from their own private plots.

F2F Volunteer, Dean Wheeler, training cacao producers in Campoalegre, Huila

Similar to the Chocolate Colombia collective, the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program has also made important strides to helping Colombian farmers transition into licit crop production. Managed by Partners of the Americas’ Agriculture & Food Security team, the Farmer-to-Farmer program has send numerous volunteers to help advance rural value chains in some of Colombia’s former conflict areas. In 2015, Margaret Morse—a biologist from the University of Minnesota—traveled to Boyacá where she trained dozens of smallholder strawberry and blueberry producers on various aspects of pest management and produce diversification. Later that year, Dean Wheeler—an agribusiness expert from UC-Davis—visited the community of Campoalegre, in the Huila Department, where led numerous trainings on value-added products derived from coffee and cacao. Most recently, Farmer-to-Farmer program has provided technical assistance to Zen Naturals, a small Cali-based cosmetics and skincare company which sources its ingredients (e.g. quinoa) directly from the indigenous community of Jambalo, Cauca—one of the areas most inflicted by Colombia’s armed conflict. During the last two years, a series of F2F volunteers have assisted this small enterprise with 1) branding and marketing, 2) graphic design and digital media, 3) public affairs, and even with research and development of new quinoa-based cosmetic and skincare products. In turn, Zen Naturals has been able to buy bulks of quinoa directly from producers in Jambalo, providing with an economic alternative to growing coca leaf.  In addition to purchasing quinoa, ZenNaturals has also been active in training producer communities on multiple techniques related to sustainable quinoa production and extraction. Thanks to this assistance, Zen Naturals has been able to successful market and sale their new fair-trade cosmetics and skincare product line, Zue, to international markets. Zue products are now being sold across dozens of Whole Foods supermarkets in the eastern United States.

F2F Volunteer, John Talbott, assist Zen Naturals at the 2016 Health & Beauty Business Expo in Bogota, Colombia

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Chayote (Tayota) Production in the Dominican Republic

From January 24 to February 5, Dr. William Terry Kelley was in the Dominican Republic as part of a Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) assignment. During his trip, Dr. Kelly  traveled to La Vega Province where he assisted smallholder chayote (tayota) producers in adapting sustainable soil management and fertilization techniques. 

Farmers in the Jarabacoa region of the province are currently producing Tayota (primarily Sechium edule) on slopes approaching 40% with a raised trellis system. While this crop is profitable for these growers and is therefore economically viable, the production system that they employ is not sustainable for the soil nor the surrounding environment.  Since the growers do not use any type of ground cover under the canopy of the crop, most chayote field suffered from high levels of soil erosion. 

While most growers have adequate chemical options for traditional insect and disease control, many of them utilize highly toxic compounds that they apply with hand sprayers and little to no personal protective equipment This situation presents an avoidable danger to the producers, since many of those insects and pest could be controlled with milder compounds that would not pose such a danger to the growers. In general, the growers’ fertilization practices are sound, although they could possibly reduce nitrogen applications, particularly during dry parts of the season. 

Dr. Kelley's Recommendations

In light of these issues, Dr. Kelley provided a series of recommendation that local chayota farmers can use to prevent soil erosion and improve soil fertility. To generate the following recommendations, Dr. Kelley first had to carry numerous visits to chayota fields and identify the soil and fertilization practices being employed. Next, he had to assess the problems they were facing and determine the best way to employ changes in their practices. Also, having found out that there was some resistance from growers to using cover crops because of their concern over the cover crop competing with the Tayota crop, Dr. Kelley felt it best to make a plan to prioritize three key areas: 
  • Reducing Soil Erosion: Growers are faced with a dramatic soil erosion problem where Tayota is produced on steep slopes. The most feasible way for the growers to alleviate this problem is to use a cover crop in conjunction with the Tayota crop. Not being totally familiar with the flora that will thrive in the tropical climate, Dr. Kelley made recommendations that several different types of covers be trialed in order to determine the best cover to use. This cover has to provide sufficient coverage to virtually eliminate soil erosion, must not compete economically with the crop and must be capable of thriving under the crop canopy and in the tropical climate. Growers would like to use a cover that provides some nitrogen to the soil which means a legume would be preferable or a legume mixture. Some of the possible species to try would be:
    • White Clover
    • Lespedeza
    • Hairy Vetch
    • Ladino Clover
    • Perennial Peanut
    • Annual Ryegrass (or a non-competitive native grass species that can be mixed with the above legume species).
  • Ideally, these covers should be planted as the crop is initiated so that they can get established before the crop canopy is complete. Covers that are too aggressive could be killed down with paraquat and still leave enough residue to hold the soil in place. However, ideally a cover mixture that is low profile would be non-competitive to the crop and the legume would supply the needed nitrogen for the grass species and thus not compete with the crop for nutrients. The crop should not compete in sum with the crop for moisture as the cover will conserve much of the moisture present.

  • Using Appropriate Pesticides:The growers do have some weed, insect and disease problems. For weed problems the growers are using paraquat in general. This is an appropriate use and can be continued. Most of the diseases are controlled by Mancozeb which they currently use, however, this should be rotated with another class of fungicide such as a stobylurin class fungicide, if available. This will reduce the possibility of resistance by the fungi to a single class of fungicide. There are several strobylurins available, although its difficult to assess which are available in the DR. Growers have limited insect problems and do have the insecticides necessary to control the pests that they do encounter. It seems stem borers, worms and mites are their main problems. They use some materials referred to in the table above that are useful for control of these species. However, one of these materials should be discontinued if at all possible. Agromate is a very toxic insecticide. Although it provides excellent control, it is very dangerous to be applied with the handheld application devices used in the DR and should never be used without personal protective equipment. There are numerous insecticides which would provide control of the pest species that they have and would be much safer for the grower and the environment.
  • Fertilization:The growers use a number of different fertilizer materials. It was difficult to ascertain what total amounts of fertilizer are being applied to the crop. This was due to the various materials used and not being able to determine the exact amounts and timing of each material. Based on some of the information that I obtained, it appears that the fertilization is within the requirements of the crop for nitrogen. However, growers may be using more potassium than they require and could be using more phosphorous than needed as well. More information is required to fully determine a recommendation on this issue.

Friday, May 12, 2017

In Guatemala, It’s All About the Volcanic Soil!

Written By: Leah Tewksbury, F2F Volunteer

In Guatemala, it is volcanic soil we’re talking about, and basically nothing beats volcanic soil. Period. Volcanic materials break down and weather to form some of the most fertile soils on Earth. Volcanic soils produce, arguably, the finest coffee, tea, grapes for wine, fruit, and vegetables in the world. Lucky for Guatemala, it has countless volcanoes that have provided amazing soils for its people, in addition to showcasing some of the most beautiful natural scenery in Central America. I was fortunate to be assigned to work with vegetable growers near Antigua, Guatemala and got a firsthand look at how productive and fertile volcanic soils can be. Since my vegetable farm in Pennsylvania is situated on a mountain of shale, and fertility has always been an ongoing endeavor, it was impressive to see such high quality soils producing vast amounts of vegetables (primarily conventionally-grown carrots, snow peas, green beans, and zucchinis for an export market to the U.S. and Europe).

However, even the most productive soils can become exhausted if managed improperly, and one of the purposes of my assignment was to provide training on improving soil health. We (for this F2F assignment, I collaborated with Michael J. Snow, an organic vegetable grower from Virginia) also taught IPM practices, basic organic certification requirements, and recordkeeping practices to a large vegetable cooperative. This cooperative is composed of several hundred members, predominantly Mayan men and women farmers, who intensively manage small plots averaging 100 m by 100 m. Their farms have been managed conventionally for decades, with frequent tillage and intensive crop turnover (averaging four crops/year). All of the plots that we visited were hand-cultivated, using temporary raised beds for most crops. As a result of these intensive chemical and tillage practices, the farmers have seen increasing pressure from pests and diseases in their crops, and find they must use larger and more frequent amounts of chemical sprays and fertilizers. They have also seen the loss of much biodiversity, especially in the form of natural predators and beneficial soil-dwelling organisms (e.g., earthworms, predatory nematodes).

Much of our time was spent discussing the value of the soil as their number one resource. We held workshops on soil structure, biodiversity, erosion control, and the importance of feeding the soil. High on the list of recommendations was reducing or eliminating tillage, which destroys soil structure and soil-dwelling organisms, burns up valuable nutrients, loses moisture, and contributes to erosion problems. Soil needs to stay in place and be covered as much as possible, either through the use of dead or living mulches.

We shared ideas on different types of cover crops (e.g., forage peas, oats, clover, etc.) that could be used to nourish their soils, as well as their crops. We also explained that dead mulches, such as straw or corn chop, could be used to cover bare soil and provide nourishment as the material decayed. Many of the problems these farmers face are a direct result of poor soil management, so incorporating any organic or sustainable management practices would help to rebuild their soils and strengthen crop resiliency. Planting permanent insectaries also was discussed, highlighting the value that many beneficial insects and birds contribute to controlling agricultural pest and disease issues.

Guatemala is truly a “Garden of Eden” – virtually anything can grow in this temperate, fertile region. However, knowing how to preserve and maintain this gift of rich volcanic soil is vital to ensuring that Guatemalans can enjoy a future filled with abundant food, flora and fauna. Almost all terrestrial life on Earth exists on the top 10 inches of its surface. Recognizing the incredible importance of this universal wealth and actively working towards conserving and enriching the Earth’s soils is likely the most valuable job that any farmer can do. Sharing my knowledge of permaculture and organic food systems with this hardworking Mayan community was a win-win for all parties. My hope is for them to adopt sustainable farming practices, thereby improving their livelihoods and securing an agricultural future that will produce for centuries to come.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

10 weeks in Puyo, Ecuador: Part II

One of the many agricultural lecture/workshops at Chuya Yaku. 
This was the farm of Abel Canelos and Yolanda Vargas
Written by: Rip Winkel, F2F Volunteer

This is the second report on my Partners of the Americas' USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer assignment to Puyo Ecuador. In the first report, I outlined my schedule, and explained a bit of what the purpose of the project was about. In this second article, I would like to detail a little more on the work done, the communities and some of the folks that I was fortunate enough to get to know. And as stated before, I feel privileged to have been able to work this project for Farmer-to-Farmer program.

Each week that I was in Ecuador, it seemed that there was less and less time to get things done.  In Chuya Yaku, where the majority of the work was conducted, 8 out of 10 farms in this Kichwa territory participated in the trainings and workshops. The size of the groups attending these sessions ranged anywhere from 5 to 28 people. There were 9 to 12 people that attended regularly, and then others from the community would attend for reasons of curiosity, or for wanting to know more about the subject that was being lectured and/or practiced that day. Each session had a topic that was discussed or reviewed before the group went out to the cacao field to prune.  These topics ranged from proper pruning methods, grafting techniques, making homemade (organic) pesticides, and ways to increase yield, to soil characteristics including erosion prevention, soil structure, soil pH and nutrient availability, to organic material, etc.).

Cristian Kaisar of Chuya Yaku trying out the new pole 
pruner on cacao at the farm of Doña Clara Santí.
One of the highlights for me was when I brought a pole pruner apparatus with me to one of the workshops. The point of bringing this tool (from the States) was to demonstrate an easier way to prune the height of cacao trees. Traditionally it has been done with machetes. Using the pole pruner allowed for better control of tree height, it makes it less strenuous physically to prune and lessens the damage to the trees. When I presented it, their eyes all lit up in wonder, as they gathered around pulling on the rope and spring, touching all the pulleys and levers, and asking me how much I wanted for it as if it were an auction.  One person in particular, Benito Vargas, wanted to take it apart so his son could see the different parts and build one just like it.  
By the end of the 10 weeks, the majority of the cacao trees on each one of these 8 farms were correctly pruned, and a schedule for spaying was set up to combat the ever-advancing Monilia disease.

Another community I was conducting lecture/workshops in was Esfuerzo II. This community is in a different situation altogether.  A few years back they started a project where they took the organic trash from the markets in Puyo twice a month. With this organic trash, they would clean it, chop up large pieces and mix in biol, rice hulls, etc. and let it compost. After 6 weeks, they had rich compost which they would put in bags and sell them at $6.00 each. It sold well. Over time, they were able to take their earnings and construct a greenhouse adjacent to their warehouse. The main point of the workshops here were growing crops in this green-house, as well as learning to graft, especially citrus trees.

The community of Esfurezo II turning the organic 
material and working the compost business.
This group of 9 people on the average, (5 women and 4 men) was well organized, and had no qualms about getting the work done. They were taking steps that afforded them bigger projects, with more financial potential. They were on the verge of marketing the produce from their greenhouse and  building onto their existing composting warehouse - doubling it in size. What I appreciated was that they took time to enjoy the work they did. Toward the end of the compost turning, and just before the workshop began in the greenhouse, or on practicing grafting techniques, one of the older gentleman would pull out a bottle of homemade, fermented sugar cane juice and serve everyone a little glass full just as an enjoyment. The beverage was sweet with a real kick to it.I am hoping that this community diversifies their compost product - customizing it for individual crops so as to increase the value of the compost.

Success in the greenhouse of Esfuerzo II.
Another community I was involved with, especially the elementary school, was a community called “10 de Agosto.” There was a class of 18 eight to ten year-old students who were learning to make biol in 3 liter coke bottles, plant vegetable seeds in seed trays, and work a covered garden (in the Puyo area, the rain comes so often, so hard, and in such large amounts, that it is advisable to cover your garden area to protect your plants). These kids were great, and incredibly receptive to new methods of planting vegetables and fruits as well as learning to weed, irrigate properly, and even endure my lectures on soil fertility! What I found to be the funniest thing was in one workshop, and out in the garden, the kids would all want to plant from the seed tray all at the same time, completely oblivious to the fact that they were stepping over and on top of the plants that had just been planted. They just wanted to have that opportunity to plant something themselves. Two varieties of seeds that were presented to them and that they were excited to see grow were patty pan squash and okra, neither of which they had ever seen before.

Students at 10 de Agosto watering in the seeds they had
just planted in their covered garden area.
The fourth and last community I worked with was Kilometer 6, also known as La Libertad. As I stated in the last report, this is where the current headquarters for Arajuno Road Project (ARP) is located. This community is closest to the city of Puyo, and tends to be the busiest of the four. Having just moved out to Km 6 within the last year, ARP is working towards constructing a learning center, which would be an advantage to all the communities up and down the Arajuno road. They have constructed a covered growing area on the back side of the property, irrigated by a rainwater drip system. They have added a composting area, biol processing area, and have been planting various cultivars for demonstration plots, e.g. coffee, cacao, pineapple, yucca, banana, etc. They also provide the region with a library, computer access and teach English. The community, in conjunction with ARP, sponsors soccer game on the weekend - making it a very popular place from Puyo to Arajuno. Staying here in this community as I did kept me either busy or entertained. It was great. Laura Hepting and Rodrigo Engracia of ARP have done an incredible job over the last year, and their goals have not yet been reached.

Part of the community of Kilometer 6 at a workshop.
This meeting included planting up vegetables in seed trays

Once again, I am grateful to Farmer to Farmer, Partners of the Americas, and USAID for the opportunity they have given me in this ‘adventure’ of a life time. I can only hope that the progress in agricultural development continues for these four communities.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Drones & Agricultura del Futuro

¿Cuál será el impacto de los drones y la agricultura de precisión para los productores de América Latina? Un equipo de ingenieros de Honduras quizás tenga la respuesta a esta pregunta.

Escrito por Mitchell Opatowsky

Como parte de nuestra serie de entrevistas con líderes innovadores en el sector agropecuario,  esta semana, Mitchell tuvo la oportunidad de conversar con representantes de la firma hondureña Green Technology. Esta empresa trabaja en la intersección de la agricultura con la tecnología de información y comunicación. La compañía está compuesta por un diverso grupo de ingenieros de informática y agrónomos. Gracias a su diverso capital humano, la empresa se ha fortalecido de una amplia gama de conocimiento sobre las deficiencias en las cadenas de valor agrícola y como, en particular, los drones y otras tecnologías pueden abordar esos desafíos.


Por medio de drones con cámaras, el equipo de Green Technology  identifica problemas en diferentes fases de la producción agrícola.  Por ejemplo, a muchos agricultores les brinda la oportunidad de tener, en tiempo real, un índice de vegetación de diferencia normalizada (NDVI). NDVI les permite medir la densidad de vegetación, el tipo de cultivos que están creciendo, como también detectar problemas como la aplicación excesiva de herbicidas y hasta síntomas de enfermedades en los cultivos. De acuerdo a Green Technology:

 “El principio básico del  índice de vegetación de diferencia normalizada se basa en el hecho de que las hojas reflejan mucha luz en el infrarrojo cercano, en marcado contraste con la mayoría de los objetos no vegetales. Cuando la planta se deshidrata o enferma las hojas reflejan menos luz imágenes infrarrojo (NIR), pero la misma cantidad en el rango visible. Así la combinación matemática de estas dos señales ayuda a diferenciar la planta de la no-planta y la planta sana de la planta enfermiza."

Además de NDVI, Green Technology tambien le brinda a los productores otra medidas de agricultura de precisión como son las imágenes RGB y los índices avanzados de vegetación (NRDE):



En cuento estos indicadores son medidos y la información es analizada, el equipo genera recomendaciones personalizadas a cada respectivo productor y cultivo.



Para Green Technology uno de los aspectos más importantes en la adopción de tecnologías como los drones y la agricultura de precisión está relacionado a los usuarios de estas herramientas. Muchos agricultores, especialmente en economías emergentes como Honduras, les preocupan que este tipo de tecnologías modernas reemplace el trabajo que ellos ejercen en el campo. Dados estos obstáculos, la empresa tienen que viajar constantemente a comunidades agrícolas para  llevar a cabo campañas de socialización y compartir los beneficios de estas tecnologías. 

Sin embargo, para Green Technology no hay nada de qué preocuparse, ya que estas plataformas tecnológicas están programadas para que servir como herramientas que—complementadas con conocimiento agrícola tradicional—hagan más eficiente la producción para los agricultores. Con la adaptación de estas herramientas, por ejemplo, los productores pueden saber cuándo, dónde y que cantidades de agua o fertilizante requieren sus cultivos—reduciendo los costos de insumos para el productor. De esta forma, estos servicios tecnológicos son accesibles para el agricultor común, ya que en el largo plazo los ahorros generados pueden pagar por el costo de contratar estos servicios.


Además de drones, también tuvimos la oportunidad de conversar sobre los desafíos que emprendedores hondureños—como los de Green Technology—tienen que superar para hacer negocios en su país. En particular, los representantes de la empresa hablaron sobre los altos costos y largos plazos que ellos tienen que incurrir para poder abrir un negocio tecnológico en Honduras. Para que se fomente la innovación en la agricultura como en otros sectores, ellos esperan que se reduzcan estos obstáculos.

Si quieres aprender más sobre los drones en la agricultura, visita los seguientes enlaces: