Water, maize, and pretty trees

When I go into the field, I’m faced with the reality of the importance of the work I do with the NGO. Conservation agriculture is a broad term, that before I tossed around without first-hand experience. I now understand it as the practices in agriculture that conserve soil and water.  While now we might go into the field to see maize planted in rows parallel to the slope, with little soil cover, our work flips this 90°. So soil stays blanketed by cover crops or organic matter and corn is instead planted along topo lines. These small changes in practices can be a world of difference to a farmer, who may struggle during times of drought. In these small alterations, they find a bit of refuge, a bank of water stored in the soil, and more soil conserved for planting the next year.

This farmer in Guatemala planted corn on slopes ranging from 30-70°. If you’ve ever walked on a 30° slope, you’ll know that even that angle feels like a scramble. The soil was rocky and calcareous, and very little soil remained; only 10cm of soil overlaid the bedrock in patches. Note in the photo below on the right, where my hand on the left is pointing to dry, bare soil, and my friend and fellow field tech Daniel is pointing to still humid soil that had been covered with leaves/sticks/branches/weeds. The difference is notable!

This farmer had his soil analyzed in a soils lab. The results matched what we might expect from the mineralogy of the rocks– high calcium and a pretty high pH. Yet, many maize plants had purple leaves– a sign of a phosphorous deficiency. The moral here is that the farmer can save money in fertilizer if they focus on the deficient nutrient in question. Instead of applying a fertilizer with an excess of nitrogen and potassium (part of the NPK package) in order to arrive at the correct amount of phosphorous, the farmer can invest in a fertilizer with a higher concentration of phosphorous compared to N and K, and apply less.

While looking at the farm in transition toward conservation agriculture, we dug some soil pits to visually assess soil quality in terms of aggregates and texture. It was great to involve the farmer in this process so they could see the difference in soil between more and less covered areas, and what a difference this makes for soil moisture.

And, it’s the rainy season, so everything is green and growing. In the park this morning, this beautiful tree-bark peppered our walk. And on the drive to the airport to pick up a friend, this view of raindrops dotting the window from the car window made traffic more bearable. Rainbow trees like this and raindrop-spattered-windows keep beauty in this country in sight and in perspective in the present while conservation agriculture allows us to imagine a more beautiful future.

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Drop by drop: processing events at home and soil samples

The world feels a little bit flipped upside-down. Another month has passed, but I no longer feel sure or assured of anything happening back in the USA.

As I was titrating samples to measure organic matter content in the soils lab at the agricultural university these past few weeks, I wondered if I was proud to tell people I was from the USA. I wondered if being in El Salvador prevents me from being the most involved I can be to protect my friends and family that might see some changes with the coming administration. Or does it limit me in standing up for the social and environmental injustices at Standing Rock? And then a few donations and some calls to congresspeople later, it still feels like a drop in the ocean when reading article after article about atrocities at DAPL or a climate-change denier as a proposed appointee. So right now, I don’t know if I’m proud, but I will continue to do anything and everything from a few countries south of the border.

But I haven’t been sulking the days away– for the past month I have been working in the lab in the National School of Agriculture to learn their methods of quantifying nutrients like calcium and potassium, as well as how much organic matter is in soils. The team that works in the lab has degrees in pharmacology or agricultural sciences. They process at least 40 samples a day, which, when you work with limited automated equipment, is impressive. Still, the lack of experience is not the problem in this lab, it’s the negligence to protocol and to question processes they don’t understand.

My first day in the lab, I saw someone heat up her lunch in the microwave next to the atomic adsorption spectrophometer (photo above), where lab techs measure sodium, potassium, and phosphorous. The woman than took her lunch into the lab, and ate her noodles at a lab bench. The AA machine, by the way, was also lit with a Bunsen burner flint, by hand, which is a testy business in itself. However, the lack of consistency in concentrations quantified by the machine among replicate samples was also worrisome. The samples were pipetted into 5mL segments via mouth-pipetting— a technique highly discouraged (both in labs I have worked in and other labs in El Salvador) because of the risk of inhaling chemicals or contaminating the sample, made necessary by the lack of a simple pipette bulb. While taking notes on methodology in lab, someone brought me a coconut, yes, a whole coconut, to drink in lab (photo above right). While I quickly ran out of the lab with my coconut (admittedly, delicious), my coconut-deliverer was standing in the middle of the lab, peeling and eating an orange. In the afternoon, a few women came by with panecitos y pan dulces in case anyone needed a treat for a coffee break. Another lab tech brushed her teeth in a lab sink. These observations continued throughout the week. The reaction to process organic matter is normally conducted in a fume hood, because there are toxic fumes, and yet for convenience I saw a lab tech begin to start the reactions out in the open before I pleaded with him to move the bulky burette stand inside the hood.

Also I found Asbestos! Just to put the cherry on top of illustrating the observations in lab.

Three months have flown by. I’m off to design some experiments involving liming and nutrient levels with coffee people at CENTA (national agricultural center and location of soils lab) soon. I’ve realized that the best way to reach people here is to physically show up and sit down to a meeting. Bit by bit, working through to figure out how to get things done and to put plans into action. Hopefully, drops make a splash.

Toes in the water

Sorry, I had to begin with another picture of the beach from a nearby cliff. The waves are supposed to be huge this weekend, meaning I’m too much a ‘fraidy-pants and inexperienced surfer to try that out. So while I’ll be toes-in-the-water only this weekend, surfing has been absolutely fun for me– a translation in water sports.

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So after surfing for 3 days last weekend, I spent Sunday with two of the loveliest people climbing the Volcano Santa Ana. It was a 4+ hour round trip experience, and we went with a group. Maybe 100+ people climbed the volcano, and we were accompanied by guides and policemen. At the top, someone had a marriage proposal waiting for their partner as we overlooked the crater lake below, bubbling and fuming sulfur. It was a beautiful walk up, with red and yellow vesicular rocks crunching under our feet after tromping through the densely forested hillside. The views of coffee farms and the neighboring volcano Izalco were astounding.

By the end, we were pretty zonked, and piggy-back rides were 100% necessary.

I have also done some work, contrary to what these blog posts might otherwise indicate. I did some writing for the Coffeelands blog that CRS runs. I’ve also been working with a team to formulate baseline indicators of soil health and fertility. My role has been to take the soil chemistry data (500+ samples from coffee, corn and bean, and some cacao farms! a dream!) and think about it in different ways. My academic Spanish language skills are growing as I attempt to translate analyses of soil chemistry data into easy to understand terminology. I’ve been helping with correlations between different nutrients and am hoping to bring in some socio-economic data soon. It’s exciting stuff to have free reign over the data!!!

Next week, I’ll be going to the field (el campo) to see some coffee farms and begin to understand management practices. I’m learning a lot about agriculture already, like the 4R System for administering nutrients. It’s been exciting to see that despite knowing some things about soil chemistry, my practical application is lacking, and I have a lot of room to grow here.

It’s fascinating how Fulbright allows me to live here in El Salvador in a way that is excessive to most Salvadorians. My sense of self-preservation, after being told numerous times to not take the buses or go out after dark, has grown drastically. I’m much less risky, but I’m allowed that ability to be stupidly safe– I taxi anywhere that’s not within a few blocks of my house (luckily, the pool and the office fit that bill!). I often look out the window of a comfy cab to see the old school busses that serve as public transit packed with people, hanging out the doors and window during rush hour. I’m afforded a different level of being.

Notable also, is the way I interact with news from the States here. Things seem more distant but also more acute, and I’m still figuring out how to best take in those injustices that right now are headlines in newspapers and links on Facebook.

Welp beach again tomorrow (oy! can you even believe it!) and another week zoomed along!

Last-second mash-up: Queenstown and Milford Sound, Castle Hill, Cute Cafe, random caves

Classes ended, and study week began, and an excuse to explore Christchurch and its cute cafes.
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My friend Eliana and I posted up in Lemon Tree Cafe, a spot filled with antique-tchotchkes and delicious mochas. We caffeinated and studied and my study guides came together in kindergarden-style with colored pencils and pictures.

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We took a study break to walk around the still transitioning city from the earthquake 4 years ago. Magnificent buildings give an apocalyptic tone as shipping crates hold up their façades.

A few days later, I was eager to go hiking locally, and read about these caves in the nearby port hills accessible via bus. I went exploring…

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The caves could be reached only via the closed-due-to-rockfall hiking path that I went on anyway (hey, I’m a geologist in training!). The hike was a treat with views of the ocean and New Brighton’s sandbar, and some sheep friends on the track. There was ample rockfall to scramble over and the trail was certainly non-existent in some spots, but worth the effort to see some caves.

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Later that week, Eliana and I took a day trip to Castle Hill to see some Narnia rocks– fantastic limestones exposed close to the Castle Hill mapping area of field camp ages ago. We played, did handstands and backbends and climbed about these outrageous structures.

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The winter weather meant that our surrounding mountains were snow-capped and massive. We hitchhiked back to Christchurch at the end of the day with a man driving a black jaguar and wearing cow-print fuzzy pants with a purple goatee!

The next day, I made my way down south to Queenstown and towards Fiordland National Park. The Remarkables were true to their name, and were stark and glorious outside our accommodation for the 4 days my friends and I were there. Four of us shared a two-queen bedroom at a reduced winter-rate at the Rydges, which was more economical for us, but also much more upscale than the hostels we have become familiar with.

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After a day of downhill skiing, and falling over in the snow, Kristie and I took a bus trip to see Milford Sounds, one of the most iconic sights on the South Island.

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We stopped at many beautiful sights along the way too enjoy the atypically wonderful weather and soak in jagged peaks and isolated river-bends.

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After 4-5 hours of driving and stopping for views, and after a trip though a long tunnel carved out of granite, we came to Milford Sounds, and drooled at the post-glacial landscape.

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The journey to the sound came with a 2 hour cruise about, and just our luck we began the boat ride only to be greeted by dolphins. Our captain told informed us that it had been a month since they had seen them in the Sound! 

Kristie and I bared the freezing wind to stare at the landscape and the clarity of the water. We encountered fur seals swimming and sunning, and waterfalls that misted up rainbows, and mountains jutting out of the water.

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We ended the day with a rest-stop at the Alpine center in Te Anau and hung out with some alpacas. Stars popped up in the sky as we returned to Queenstown, and enjoyed our last night in the chilly winter air, not-quite-so ready to return to Christchurch the next day to face finals and the ticking clock.

Hiking and Dumplings and Foraminifera

These past few weeks have been Christchurch-centric as university life and studies force us international students back to academic reality. In an effort to keep up our “joie de aventure” we peace out to go on quick hikes that take only an hour or so, but still give us delicious views like these from Taylor’s Mistake, a hike out by the beach:
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The weather has oscillated between the encroaching winter and reminders of the end of summer. We adjust layers accordingly. And in those winter days, sometimes you just have to make dumplings…

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Adapted from a recipe by Sachie Nomura, a chef in New Zealand:

  • gyoza wrappers (50)
  • 1/4 cabbage
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 eggs, scrambled
  • 1 bunch garlic chives, chopped
  • 4 dried, soaked (maybe 30min?), squeezed and chopped shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 Tbsp ginger, grated
  • 2 tsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp sesame oil

Dipping sauce

  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • Some garlic chive can sneak on in
  • chili oil if you want it!

Cut up cabbage and rub with salt. Let sit for 10ish minutes and then squeeze the cabbage to get some moisture out. Mix squeezed cabbage with eggs, chives, mushrooms, ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil. Put a pinch of salt in there too after tasting!

With DRY hands, take a wrapper, put a teaspoon of filling in the center, brush the outer edge of half the wrapper with water and then squeeze the edges together to form a semi-circle and seal the top. Squish a bunch together over cabbage leaves in a bamboo steamer and steam for 10ish minutes until they look cooked. Gather up some friends and eat while warm!

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Cooking adventures will continue, as will random hikes about after hours of looking at cute little foraminifera like this benthic guy up above! Eyeing the spring back home while crunching leaves under my feet as we move into winter weather here.