Festival de Cacao and bean sprouts

On Monday, I followed the ASA team and bopped down to San Miguel area to meet with the field techs and hear their plans for the next year. I zoned out a lot when they began talking about expenses and budgets, but managed to understand a few key things about what’s going on in the field:

  1. Sometimes the people in charge (ASA) don’t really know what’s going on. So sometimes it’s good to listen to the field techs.
  2. Sometimes the field techs don’t know what’s going on, so sometimes it’s a good idea to prepare recommendations before coming to the table, instead of disagreeing and compromising at the meeting.
  3. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the farmers kind-of like the experimental plot, and don’t want to keep their traditional/conventional farming plots as the control. They see that better management practices actually lead to healthier plants, and so they’ll do away with their traditional plot and adopt those sustainable practices for the entire parcel of land. Awesome for the farmer, kind of a loss for the whole experiment/science part of it, but I guess you can’t really complain too much about this kind of change.

There is a purity in the brute-force experimentation that the team here is encouraging; pared plots or before-and-after plots and making decisions on the fly. The goal is purely to encourage better practices, but they’re already seeing results in yield and plant health. TBD for soil health and fertility (that’s where I’m helping out!).

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This Saturday was the fourth annual Festival de Cacao in Caluco. We drove to this small town in Sonsonate, where cacao producers and processors had gathered to celebrate their product. We went on a tour to see the the cacao plant go from bean to chocolate, with grafting cacao trees to fermenting the beans to roasting and then creating a delicious nugget of chocolate. Cacao has recently seen a revival in El Salvador. What used to be an important cultural food, and even an economic crop (beans were used as currency at one point), dwindled out of the mainstream. It’s incredible to see the farmers sharing information and learning from each other at these events. Cacao is once again empowering them economically and creating a more sustainable agro-forestry landscape.

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In addition to a beautiful drive home, the day culminated in a lot more sugar than I have been used to eating, but I had to try all of the chocolate products! And I stumbled through the door of my house buzzing with sugar and a bag full of everything from cacao soap to a chocolate bar of 100% cacao.

And my little garden I planted in the back of my house has little beans growing! And little radish sprouts! The herbs in the back look healthy. I added a layer of organic worm castings to the soil so that the new baby plants could take advantage of some additional nutrients. I took a huge back of rice casings from the cacao festival to use as fertilizer in the garden, soon to be added– the scraps maintain humidity in the soil while also acting as a fertilizer, and prevent erosion of that important topsoil.

I’ll take the Festival de Cacao as my Halloween experience for the year, thankful that chocolate is in my life, but doesn’t need a repeat for Monday’s holiday.

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A baby squirrel, baby gecko, and some avocados

I’ve started “running into people” in El Salvador. That small-town thing where you go out to eat and see someone you know, without even expecting it. On Wednesday, some American friends gathered at Cadejo brewery in the city to watch the show/debate, and our expected table of 5 turned into a table of 11, plus I knew two more people at another table. My feathers felt pretty fluffed.

As I continue to meet more people, I’ve continued to explore the country. The beautiful view you’re about to see below is looking out from The San Salvador Volcano Boquerón. A few friends and I went up for a snack and the sunset. Our view of San Salvador was immense, with dense green foliage leading to a sprawling city (I live close to that blue-ish skyscraper just after the trees end in the center of the first photo).

It was Beethoven’s Birthday (the classic Beethoven dog in the 4th photo) at the volcano, so we passed by to wish him a happy cumple as well!

And as one does here, I’ve experienced, we hopped from the volcano to the beach the next day. Back to El Zonte to a high tide and crashing waves and a rocky beach. Some friends had rescued a baby squirrel so we played with the little furball for a bit, and then tried to surf but the tide and the waves weren’t right. Slurped coconut juice next to its respective tree.

In addition to taking in coconut whenever possible, it’s a necessity to take in as much fresh avocado as we can get, with fresh tortillas (which are smaller and thicker here, in contrast to the thin tortillas you would think of from the States), and some sunny eggs. I could be forever happy with avocado and eggs and tortillas. Except sometimes I might need a pesto supplement. And bananas… ok so maybe the list is growing…

As the house I’m living in feels more and more like a home, we have had friends visit and stay over. We’ve even found some little permanent guests! Introducing our little gecko friend and bug-eater in one! What a great lil squeaker, pictured in the last photo in our the hands of our friend Red.

And the work, yep the work! This week there is a meeting with all of the field techs that work directly with the farmers to implement the sustainable agricultural techniques. They also work to establish experimental plots in the field with different spacings, levels of fertilizer, intercropping, etc. It was great to see some of the field techs I had met in campo again in the city, and to listen to them all come together to relay experiences before I head to the field again next week!

Día Mundial de la Alimentación (happy food day!)

October 16th is the official World Food Day, with the theme “The climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too“. This day commemorates the foundation of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), which works to increase food security (end hunger) and agriculture resiliency in the face of an increasing global population with climate variability.

And, I mean, could it be more perfect that I get to be here, working with Salvadorian farmers, and their soil, rightaboutnow? This stuff under our feet we dare call “dirt” is a wonderful mix of bio-geo-chem into which roots dig down so our food stuffs can grow up. Healthy soil=healthy water, and both point to soil fertility and food security. And a lot of that connection to our soils has been lost, but good news! Events like this one in Ahuachapan (see map below) are encouraging the spread and reappropriation of that knowledge.

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So, this event was a celebration of World Food Day for the farmers in this area. There was a forum for some producers to share their experiences after adoption more sustainable farming practices, and to ask questions of the field technicians. img_0393img_0391

On display were various squashes, loroco (lil green flower buds that are pretty tasty!), and all kinds of corn made into drinks (porridgy, called atole).img_0390img_0389img_0388

It was exciting to hear the famers talk about the differences they’ve seen in yield, coupled with less expense from spending less on fertilizer. One woman in particular, Martha, began her farm from nothing. She was connected with the organization ASA (part of CRS), and was able to begin her own plot, where she now grows everything she needs to feed her family and more to sell. She spoke passionately about the changes in health she has seen in her family, how eating the food that they grow means that they never have to go to the clinic. Women at this forum were a main focus, with a lot of the discourse recognizing the importance of women in food. This was a powerful message, to see the women in this community recognized and respected as leaders.

Happy World Food Day! Celebrate with a delicious meal (I will!!!), and thank the dirt you’re standing  on (and the farmers who dug into it) for your happy tummy.

((Currently cooking white beans I got on the way back from the field in San Miguel. Soaked for 2-3 days, now boiling for hours in water with some garlic and onion. Once done, will cook with sweet potato and spinach? Other thoughts welcome!))

El Campo and a 10k

On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of last week, I was a lucky camper and headed to el campo (the field) to observe coffee and beans and maíz, oh my!

The organization I’m working for promotes sustainable agricultural practices. This means promoting practices like the 4Rs, interpreting soil analyses and fertilizing accordingly, and intercropping. I saw coffee intercropped with beans, which promote nitrogen fixation, a vital resource for the coffee plants. Some beans, like the gandul (pigeon pea) grow into tall tree-like plants, while the canavalia variety are more vine-like than shrub-like. In addition to their nitrogen services, they provide shade (especially the gandul) and ground cover which maintain soil moisture, a necessity in the tropics with intense sun exposure.

I got to follow my teammates who know if there’s a phosphorous deficiency by looking at the plant, and who can recommend to switch from an 18-20-0 fertilizer to an 18-46-0 fertilizer without blinking. Many of the farmers that we met had changed their practices to include many of these best-management methods and in a few years have seen results. Their plants are healthier, and they’re spending less on fertilizers. They have less soil erosion from maintaining ground cover and planting perpendicular to the hill-slope.

Also we saw a lot of baby animals (see baby pigs and calves below), and the vistas from the farms were astounding. Yesterday, we went to parcels in Ahuachapan, one of the highest areas in El Salvador, and from the farmer’s plot, we could see all the way to the ocean.

Earlier this week, I visited a soils lab at national university CENTA. The lab was excited at the possibility of having another collaborator, and someone to help with the mountain of soil samples they process.

I’ve been busy, and learning a lot so that I can be even more analytical in my interpretations of soil data.

…but not too busy for a mid-week surf, with an incredible sunset, and my first trail-run 10k in Comasagua.