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.