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2013 December Delegation Trip - Start with the Soil!

"The soil was dark, moist, and smelled…rich. If the dirt before us could be likened to a gourmet meal, it would be a hearty beef and vegetable stew." December 2013 marked the 4th trip to Nicaragua for several members of the Young Grower Alliance (YGA), a coalition of specialty crop growers.

by Alana Anderson, Penn State Extension

The soil was dark, moist, and smelled…rich. If the dirt before us could be likened to a gourmet meal, it would be a hearty beef and vegetable stew. Stews are super soups: incredibly tasty; they nourish the body and feed the soul during the darkest months. The soil we held in our hands that day was the equivalent of beef stew for the seedlings cradled in the repurposed tire beds; this super soil was laboriously and lovingly prepared by our host, Frank Tondeur, who believes that feeding the world starts with gourmet soil. 

December 2013 marked the 4th trip to Nicaragua for several members of the Young Grower Alliance (YGA), a coalition of specialty crop growers that has quickly spread beyond Adams County, and even PA. Ben Wenk, Carla Snyder, and Mike Colleges had previously traveled to Nicaragua in January of 2013, and were so inspired that they eagerly returned the following December. They joined Dr. Tara A. Baugher and Alana Anderson, who had visited in 2012, and Amy Baugher, who had yet been to Nicaragua.

The annual trips only appear simple in scope: to visit Javier Espinoza and review his progress at school and in his home village of Talolinga, as well as support our newest extensionist, Marvin, as he begins his for veterinary studies in January 2014. While we maintain contact with Javier and Marvin through the internet and the Project Gettysburg-Leon (PGL) Coordinator in Nicaragua, witnessing the developments in person is more meaningful to YGA members and the Talolingans. 

The YGA partnered with PGL to establish an agricultural initiative to provide a native Nicaraguan with education and trainings to become an extension agent for his village and neighboring communities. Since the initiative’s inception two years ago, the YGA has been so impressed with Javier’s progress in Talolinga that we celebrated the addition of Marvin, Javier’s neighbor, when he expressed the desire to pursue veterinary schooling. We believe in a future team of extensionists, a team who can split duties according to their skill sets, and address a wider range of clients geographically.

The YGA is adamant in sustaining our support of Javier, whether it is through communicating information via Skype or email, mailing material on pests and organic sprays, or hosting him on YGA-affiliated farms during his first U.S. trip in October 2013. This year, however, the YGA delegates asked more of themselves and the proposed itinerary; we wanted to leave Nicaragua with a better understanding of Javier’s country: agriculturally, culturally, and topographically. The result was a whirlwind week of travel, to sites familiar and unfamiliar, although the majority of experiences were fresh and so thrilling that we will be hard pressed to forget them. 

Meaningful relationships were built on farms and buses, in front and backyards, and even a cow patch. Yet, the highlight of the trip was traveling and attending a workshop with 7 Talolingans; an event that had never previously occurred, but was so roundly endorsed that it shall be a staple for all future delegations. The bus left Santa Rosa, a small village situated below Talolinga, and drove straight to Esteli, located two hours north-east toward the Honduran border. In terms of Nicaragua’s agricultural landscape, we were leaving the 150,000 plus hectares of sugarcane country and entering coffee country.

Esteli is a crossroads of commerce and education in northwest Nicaragua, and both Javier and Marvin attend universities there. Their commute is laborious: roughly two hours walking to catch a two hour bus ride, and as they must farm to feed their families, they chose a 5 year university program with self-guided learning and a weekend review session with professors at the university. They pointed out their schools to us as we continued past Esteli to our destination: the biointensive (B.I.) farm of Franck Tondeur, a Belgian who studied sustainable agriculture in Europe before relocating to Nicaragua.  Franck and his wife bought six acres, and, upon assessing the soil quality of his farm, decided to amend their soil using B.I. practices. In order to be certified in B.I. agriculture, one must uphold eight essential tenets: Double-Dug, Raised Beds; Composting; Intensive Planting; Companion Planting; Carbon Farming; Calorie Farming; The Use of Open-Pollinated Seeds; and A Whole-System Farming Method. During our six hour tour of Frank’s farm, we were shown how he incorporates all of these tenets into his daily routine, and how important they are to the survival of his plantings, thus feeding his family without relying on outside food sources. 

The emphasis on self-reliance is the genius of B.I. agriculture, especially for small farms in developing nations as the B.I. method asks that you conscientiously and efficiently plant on a small plot of land, while returning as many nutrients to the soil as you are harvesting from it. Most Talolingans inherit small family plots often stripped of nutrients from repetitive plantings of corn. Not only does the B.I. method teach how to companion crop and intensively plant, it stresses a varied diet, thus increasing access to more vitamins and minerals. 

Franck has divided his farm into several plots: seedling beds, herbs, composting, an “Edible Forest,” and multiple bean beds. At every plot, he stressed the importance of his carefully crafted soil. Without his “gourmet” soil, the plants would die, the moisture would dwindle, and his family would starve. Franck, by way of the B.I. system, teaches that healthy gardens and people start at the ground level. 

Franck’s story of perseverance, his enthusiasm, and his success using the B.I. method was exciting, but it was the Talolingan’s reactions that exhilarated us. Franck’s double-dug beds, ten varieties of beans, three types of compost piles, and seedling treatment captivated them because the plants were thriving, and the idea that they could achieve similar success was tantalizing. The Talolingans asked detailed questions and listened attentively for all six hours. Even on the bus ride after the tour, the entire group continued to talk about what we had seen and heard.

The B.I. method satisfied many of the YGA’s concerns for Javier’s project: it follows Javier’s choice of an organic method; it capitalizes on the use of small plots; it encourages a more diverse diet with more vitamins and minerals; and most importantly, it emphasizes self-reliant farming techniques. Techniques that reduce your need for sprays and off-farm fertilizers; techniques that yield enough produce to feed a family without supplementing from a store; and techniques that teach families how to grow enough food to then sell for a profit. Javier is exposing his community to cost-saving methods that simultaneously nourish families, and his demonstration plot in his backyard serves as evidence of its efficacy. He is fulfilling his personal goals, and challenging himself to exceed those goals. In 2013, he improved his leadership skills through attending and giving workshops, as well as planting an organic garden at the village school. Javier and Marvin can mentor and support each other as they do the same for their community. In 2014, the YGA plans to coordinate with them to expand their support beyond Talolinga; and as we learned, we’ll start with the soil.