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.


Costa Rica: Week 2

Photos From the Field

Hammocks at the SFS House

Hammocks at the SFS House

Pool in Atenas

The 25m pool in Atenas, about a 5 mile walk from the SFS house. Worth it, although the swim was mainly avoiding the multitude of people playing and jumping in from the sides. A few collisions, but I think mostly people were wondering why the heck I was actually swimming laps.

Volcán Poás

Volcán Poás. The clouds lifted just enough so we could see the crater and its lake! Beautiful aquamarine with not-so-tender sulfur fumes. We used this park as a study for our econ class, where we surveyed park goers about their experience. The results will be analyzed in class on Monday, and we will report our findings to the park.


ANDISOL! Soil formed in volcanic ash, and rich for the area. On the way to the volcano, we passed strawberry vendors and coffee farms.

Playa Azul

Playa Azul– everything but a tourist destination at the Central Pacific Coast. We used this as a case study for our Natural Resource Management and Tropical Ecology classes. All of the trash from the Tarcoles watershed (containing 55% of Costa Ricans on only 4% of the land) is deposited here. San José and Atenas are in this watershed where urbanization and agriculture abound. This otherwise beautiful beach is marred with plastics and ironies. One of many items was a perfume bottle called “Sea Sparkle” or something similar. It was a tease to be at the Pacific and unable to enjoy it; the water was too toxic.

Playa Azul- Trash

Trash at Playa Azul. This picture is only a glimpse of the expanse of the trash on the beach. Costa Rica does a fantastic job in a lot of its environmental practices, but it lacks infrastructure for treating water. Water water everywhere…

Carrara National Park

Just around the corner from Playa Azul, this expanse of river with mangroves, macaws, and crocodiles.

 Needless to say, I’m learning so much! Costa Rican independence day is tomorrow, and another week of a full schedule approaches.