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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A new kind of humus

There was a photo going around the ~social media~ of an avocado that was perfectly cubed in its husk. Multiple amigos, separately, shared the photo with me, knowing my love of avocados. Since I am in El Salvador, and avocados are abundant this time of year, I retaliated with my own geometrically sliced avo:

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There is a seed (legume), new to me, that is “in season” right now. It’s called semilla de paterna (literally, paternal seed). The legume was introduced to me by a friend who has a company called Terra Mantra that makes all kinds of delicious natural jams and products. We did an exchange: I taught them how to make Beer Bread and I got to see how to make a humus using this seed (photo below from my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Pam).

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Semilla de Paterna is surrounded with a sweet, white coating that can be eaten as is. The bright green seed needs to be cooked– usually boiled or cooked in ashes for up to 40 minutes. Luckily, a bag of already cooked semilla de paterna can be bought for $0.50 in the market. I bought a bag of my own with lemon juice and salt. The seeds can be eaten whole, with lemon juice and salt and even chile, as a snack. OR, it can be made into a delicious humus…

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Like a typical garbanzo-bean humus, the semilla de paterna humus is simple: beans, olive oil (we used a mix of olive and coconut oil), garlic, salt, pepper, and an optional spoonful of tahini or nuts.

The resulting beer bread and paterna humus mix were a divine combination. Fresh and hearty and full of distinct flavors.

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I would say that the humus tastes most like regular humus, but with brighter notes than a humus with garbanzo beans. While garbanzo bean humus has a creamy, nutty, earthy taste, the semilla de paterna humus is still earthy, but with a suggestion of an unidentifiable herb, and again, brighter.

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I had to make the humus again, this time, side-by-side with garbanzo-bean humus and sprinkled with paprika.

It’s refreshing to be constantly reminded of the variety of foods I have yet to try. I will continue to relish in the new learning opportunities, especially when they end in a delicious snack.

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Seeking coconuts in 2017

Happy 2017! For the past few weeks, I have been exploring the country with my best friend and sister, and after they left, hanging out at the beach, attempting to surf as much as possible. I aim, for the remaining 6 months here, to have sand permanently adhered to my scalp from tumbles in the ocean. I am constantly seeking coconuts to sip their electrolyte-laden juices, way better than any bottled proclamation of “coconut water” back in the States.

The row of photos below is a sample of the past weeks, showing sunsets, wall murals in Ataco, our breakfast setting, sunrise, and 12 grapes.

Two of my friends have a tradition where they eat the number of grapes to the corresponding month (so, for December, it was 12). For each grape, we shared or thought of a New Year’s resolution. It was a great way to bring in the new year, with sand between our toes, sipping fresh lemonade, noshing on each grape with wishes to eat more avocados and to accomplish new goals. Here’s to a new year, and to many more days of sunshine and salt-water and dabbling in soil.

 

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.

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.

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!))