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.

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.

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!

Aquí, no solamente hacemos pupusas (We don’t only make pupusas here)

These first two weeks have been a roller coaster of adjusting. With a brief trip back home to say goodbye to my Poppa, and to hug my family close, I’m back in San Salvador.

The house where I’m staying is enormous! I have my own room and bathroom. Two people, Beatrice and Marcos, are there all the time to keep up the house, which used to be the house of the father of the person I’m renting from. She was in no rush to sell, so I get to live here for 10 months, with a gorgeous garden!

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I met the people who I’m working with for the first time when they invited me to the beach to go surfing, which boded well for my first impressions of the team! Their house had a gorgeous view of the ocean at El Sunzal, the beach where we surfed. Despite a year without a board, I stood up twice, albeit for a very marginal amount of time.img_0016img_0012It was also their neighbor’s birthday, so we went to his house, which had a dreamy infinity pool overlooking the densely vegetated cliffside. img_0011

After a few days in the office, my friend Anne suggested baking for the office to help with awkward introductions and so I could show my face around. We made cookies with quick oats and Brookside dark chocolate pomegranate pieces. The office was certainly happy when I brought them in the next day, and everyone sauntered to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee to drink with their mid-morning snack.

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And because we’re on the subject of food, the fish is delicious here! I’ve had it every chance I get. An example below:img_0020-2

I was also lucky enough to peripherally befriend Anne’s roommates, who were going to this festival de los Farolitos in Ataco, about a 2 hour drive away. They invited me along, and after some insane traffic, we arrived and spent a long night wandering the town looking at lanterns and eating bread and humus and sun-dried tomatoes at a restaurant. 14225411_10153607708177757_4584987360039951348_n14237769_10153607708727757_3127101904154386700_nimg_0023-2

To avoid being a fish out of water, I recently joined a pool/gym at Centro Español literally two blocks from my house. I swim outside in a 25 meter pool with the view of a mountain. img_0030-2

I have yet to update on the technical aspect of my work here. I’m based in San Salvador at the CRS (catholic relief service) office, which is the umbrella for all the organizations that work here. Everyone is working on some aspect of watershed management and soil quality and fertility testing. As I test the waters of this new opportunity, I look forward to the moment when I can analyze data and feel productive. Until then, I’m writing and reading about coffee and soils and soil chemistry, and eager to eat more pupusas.