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.