A group of young growers first visited the remote mountain village of Talolinga, Nicaragua in 2010. Struck by the many challenges the farmers there face, they decided to partner with Project Gettysburg-León (PGL) to initiate an Agricultural Extension Project.

The goals of the Nicaragua Agricultural Extension project are to support education, use of sustainable agriculture techniques and crop diversification in Talolinga and the surrounding communities.

Three young Talolingans, Javier Espinoza, Marvin Ramirez Aguirre, and Edward Andino have taken on the roles of the area's extensionists. Support for their education is provided by the Ag Extension Project through generous donations. The extensionists have used the knowledge gained so far to lead and coordinate demonstration gardens, workshops on sustainable farming techniques and a school garden.

Each winter a YGA delegation travels to Nicaragua to visit Talolinga and other rural farms and research sites. This allows YGA members to establish and maintain relationships with project participants, assist in furthering goals, offer support where needed and participate in a community work day. A project plan is updated annually.

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Nicaragua Partnership Update

People And Places, Gettysburg And Nicaragua 

by Greg Bowles, PGL In-Country Director

In Gettysburg’s sister city of Leon in the country of Nicaragua, poverty, lack of good nutrition and lack of clean drinking water are still a part of everyday life.  The country is by many measures the poorest country in the western hemisphere except for Haiti.  Behind the headlines and the scuffling which politics creates in all countries, there are people who dream of a better life.  In Gettysburg, there are people who help those dreams become some aspect of reality for Nicaraguans. 

For over thirty-five years, the sister city program Project Gettysburg Leon (PGL) has worked directly with communities in the city and the rural regions of Leon, Nicaragua.  Late last year PGL completed a potable water project in the rural mountainous community of Talolinga, bringing clean water to a community of over 700 people that never before had continuous access to something so taken for granted in the U.S.  With education programs for at-risk youth and school gardens programs managed by college agricultural students in Leon, PGL helps Nicaraguans achieve better health and education.  With support for an arts program, PGL in July finished a large-scale mural in one of the most historic plazas within the city.  None of these projects are gifts.  The people of Talolinga had to work hard with PGL to build their water system.  Students of all ages have to put in the effort to make the education programs a success.  The artists creating the mural worked twelve-hour days for two months under a blazing sun, six days a week. 

All of this takes place within the context of Covid, which has devastated Nicaragua the same as the rest of the world.  Only about 10% of Nicaraguans are vaccinated, largely because so little vaccine is available in the country.  So many people have died due to the pandemic, often uncounted or untreated because there are so few resources in the country.  Day to day life seems at times hopeless for many Nicaraguans, just like for so many in Gettysburg and elsewhere during the time of Covid, but we all need to get through each day with some version of hope.  Project Gettysburg Leon’s role is to offer some small part of such hope.  PGL holds events like its annual auction and Salsa On The Square to shine a light in what are sometimes very dark times in its sister city of Leon.  Some of these events have been cancelled and might be cancelled once more due to the ongoing pandemic here in the U.S., but they will happen again, because the connection between these two places is far stronger than these terrible times.  All the years together have been years between people, exchanges of hope, culture and knowledge between two sister cities to be sure, but all cities and communities are made of people.  The people of Leon and of Gettysburg are intertwined across decades now, and all the hardships for both places matter, but don’t matter as much as the hopes such a relationship has built for tomorrow as well as today. 

"A cry for hope: La Gritería"

by Greg Bowles, PGL In-Country Director

Boy ringing bell in Nicaraguan church
In early December 2020 in Gettysburg's Nicaraguan sister city of León, the holiday season begins with elaborate but homemade shrines to the Virgin Mary on a night called La Gritería. Families walk the streets of Leon from one shrine to another, crying out “Who causes such joy?" with the answer coming back “The birth of Mary." Candy is handed out to children, just like Halloween in the U.S. This year, it is hard to see the crowds on the streets without masks and the children in bunches at the doorways of their neighbors. There is fear of what might come of this celebration. The pandemic does not recognize joy and gives birth only to suffering.

A celebration as joyous but now uncertain as La Griteria drifts in after a month of crisis and tragedy in Nicaragua. The coronavirus toll is vague and definite all at once in the country. Everyone knows someone who has been sick, yet official figures are low and given travel restrictions there truly might be less Covid-19 cases than other parts of the world. The uncertainty lives deep inside of Nicaraguans, bordering on outright fear. The pandemic was diminished as a source of fear only by things even worse.

Two hurricanes hit Nicaragua in November, less than two weeks apart, killing 21 people and leaving an estimated 80,000 homeless. A week after the storms subsided, a bus accident in rural Nicaragua killed 20 people, including seven children. At the beginning of December, a mining accident buried 15 men alive, with only two bodies recovered so far.

In a small country like Nicaragua, these are not small numbers and are not felt from a distance. Those who died are family even if unknown. The succession of such horror has not led to numbness in Nicaragua, but a need for release, a need to believe that the holidays give meaning and give hope. The cry of La Gritería is not only for joy in the moment, but a way to welcome Christmas and the New Year as a rebirth, as a resurrection in life. The cry is for what faith offers as a future, as a promise of better times even if invoking such tradition can in these times be a terrible opening for the pandemic.

The hurricane damage to Nicaragua is both immediate and long-term. In some regions, more than half of crops were lost, both cash crops and those that people rely on for food. Hunger is very possible for many rural Nicaraguans, and it will be worse in the months long after the names of Hurricanes Iota and Eta are forgotten elsewhere in the world.

Project Gettysburg León as a sister city partner with León and Nicaragua is raising funds for food relief and replanting of lost crops for the communities that we work with. We will be a small part of the answer to the cry of hope from people in Nicaragua, who have seen so much hope stripped away at the end of this seemingly unending year.

Greg Bowles is the current director for Project Gettysburg León, the sister city program between Gettysburg and the country of Nicaragua that was founded in 1986.

"Community Leadership: Family Gardens and Clean Water"

by Greg Bowles, PGL In-Country Director

The rural village of Talolinga in Nicaragua is a mountainous community so far off the beaten path that the one road is only usable about half of the year, since it washes out during the rainy Marvin merged photo cropped.jpgseason and turns into a steep mudslide and sloping rock quarry. YGA has for several years helped with extension advice and scholarship funding for three young men from this community, Javier Espinoza, Edward Andino and Marvin Ramirez (see photos in this article). Javier now has a degree in agriculture and is working to support himself, a wife and small daughter. Edward also works and is finishing up his thesis for an agriculture degree. Marvin is also finishing up his thesis and his degree, but has taken on many other roles in Talolinga. He is a free advisor for families who want to set up home gardens in Talolinga, which is especially important during this time of worry about food security in the midst of pandemic. With the help of Project Gettysburg Leon (PGL) and other organizations, Marvin has received free seed and distributes that to families in Talolinga who want to diversify their diet to include more than the staples of rice, tortillas and beans. People can grow cucumber, tomato, onion, peppers and a half-dozen other vegetables, which might seem a simple thing but nothing is simple in a community as isolated as Talolinga. Marvin helps people lay out the plant beds, build compost piles and teaches how to deal with pests and other threats to the plants.

PGL is also helping the community by way of a large-scale potable water project, since the community lacks plentiful and clean drinking water. One of the requirements before launching the project was the establishment of a formal water board, and Marvin Ramirez was elected the president of that board. He also legally donated some of his family land for the location of the large storage tank to be built as part of this project. Several members of YGA have visited Talolinga and know what the community is like and how difficult it is for people there, especially young people like Marvin. What they might not be aware of is how much Marvin has grown into a true community leader, a person who although very poor himself devotes a lot of his time and energy to making life better in his community. Marvin's only source of cash income is dangerous work in the nearby gold mines, yet he continues to put in work for YGA and PGL. He is determined to graduate this year with help of the scholarship funds from YGA, and lacks only a required thesis project to do so.

"Internships and New Ideas"

by Greg Bowles, PGL In-Country Director

Both Marvin & Eduard are currently finishing up required internships for their studies. They will then need to take one more class and will need to provide a thesis before they receive their degree. Although the dates keep changing, they should fully graduate at the very latest by October 2019.

I did not visit Eduard's internship project as it is at a commercial agriculture business in Esteli. He seems to really enjoy the work and has said he might be able to transition to formal employment with the company. He has been staying in Esteli full-time and has not been back to Talolinga in over two months.

Marvin has been doing an internship at the city slaughterhouse in Leon, which despite what it might sound like is actually a great location because they have an extensive demonstration garden and a sophisticated biodigester system to use animal waste products for the production of cooking gas.

We have asked Eduard & Marvin for what any next steps might be for work in Talolinga, and they said they would submit ideas. Marvin is very happy in Talolinga, and has established a small veterinary practice that he wants to keep going. He has plans for setting up demonstration gardens and working with local families on home gardens, and I want to encourage him on that. Marvin has also been the key contact for arranging work related to the potential potable water project being planned for Talolinga.

Mercedes, my wife, and I also work in beekeeping and have a strong connection to the organization Sweet Progress, which offers free professional courses to communities that want to begin work in this area, as well as loans for equipment that are to be paid back in honey, not money. They are also guaranteed buyers for honey that is produced, although they encourage people to look for the best prices they can get on their own rather than requiring the honey to be sold to them. Marvin has said there are as many as a dozen people in Talolinga who might be interested. All courses and dormitory stays for the trainings are free, but the organizations asks that meals & transportation be covered. It is a 12-day course at the organization's site in Tipitapa, so the time commitment is also an issue, but we might try to follow up on this.

Javier Espinoza is as far as I know still in Costa Rica. He, his wife and daughter left for there around the time of the political crisis in April of 2018. We text from time to time, and I just sent him a hello text as it has been about a month. Through a friend, I found him some work in Costa Rica last year, but only for about six weeks. He has been bouncing around with work in various places there. He asked me for help in applying for a work visa to the U.S. and I told him I'd be glad to do what I can, but that really I think it would be a waste of money given the current U.S. immigration policy. As of now, I have not heard that he plans to come back to Nicaragua anytime soon.

"A Time of Great Unrest"

By Catherine Lara, Penn State Extension

Since the YGA last visited Nicaragua and was welcomed into the homes of our Extensionist partners, there have been significant changes due to great political unrest in the country. Before getting into that, I'd like to recognize the many achievements the Extensionists have had and share the positive changes that have been occurring in Talolinga.

Our first Extensionist, Javier Espinoza, has graduated from university! Completing a degree can be challenging under normal circumstances but another layer of challenge for Javier and Extensionists Marvin Ramirez Aguirre and Edward Andino has been the distance and difficulty of travel to their classes. On average it takes them 10 hrs to travel to college each week. But they have been dedicated and it is paying off.

Now that Javier has completed his program, he has continued his work in the village of Talolinga, his home community. There he is teaching the sustainable agriculture techniques he has learned through his degree program. Edward is still at the beginning stages of his education, has completed his first year and continues to take classes. In his spare time he is also involved in the various sustainable agriculture projects in the village. An example of this is the development of a seed bank in the village. It has been credited with the 280% increase in bean production as well as enabling families to abstain from receiving federal food assistance during periods of drought. The demonstration garden plots have also continued to flourish. Last year a total of 600 lbs of vegetables were produced there by the Extensionists.

Marvin, the veterinarian of the group, qualified for and was able to take a veterinary surgery program at the university. In order to bring his newly acquired skills to Talolinga an old unused medical clinic was identified that could be put to better use. This structure was able to be converted into a now functioning veterinary clinic providing services to local farmers.
Lastly, another large ongoing project has been to drill a well and build the infrastructure to supply sufficient water resources to 200 families currently living in Talolinga. This project includes supplying water to the demonstration gardens created for the production of food in the community. Drought is a concern every year, but especially in recent years it has been a significant problem, affecting both food production and availability. Project Gettysburg Leon (PGL) has been assisting by cooperating with the local government to achieve a sustainable water source. Finally in March 2018 a well was drilled and the project can move forward.

Then in April the political situation in Nicaragua began to shift. Since April 18th the country of Nicaragua has been enveloped by unrest that had been brewing just under the surface for quite some time. Protests have turned violent. As of this writing, over 400 people have lost their lives. Roads into and out of cities have been barricaded by protesters making travel very difficult.

News from Javier at the beginning of July 2018 painted a picture of great unrest and tension in the Leon area. Via Facebook Messenger he communicated concern about the current climate in Nicaragua. In his first correspondence he shared that Talolinga hadn't been suffering much yet, mainly because of having had a good harvest, a good winter and fertile soils. But goods such as detergent, sugar and cooking oil were beginning to run out and each day prices seemed to be rising. "Everyone is fearful" Javier wrote, "And if you go to the city, it's really tense there." He and his wife were considering leaving the country with their one year old daughter for a while, since every day the crisis seemed to be worsening. "There is a lot of fear that leaving the country will no longer be possible if things get worse. In some areas of the country there are rumors of war." He wrote.
About two weeks later Javier sent news that the situation had gotten so tense that he, his wife and one year old daughter had left Nicaragua for nearby Costa Rica. They hope only to be there until things settle down. Javier shared a short video clip looking out at the neighborhood street from the window of a house he was in, in the city, while still in Nicaragua. A group of men, maybe 8 or so, many with bandanas covering their nose and mouth, wave pistols and shout as they go by. It is a very frightening scene. A photo he also sent shows a man standing on the sidewalk next to a tree with his rifle at his side. For those members and friends of the Young Grower Alliance and Project Gettysburg Leon who had the good fortune to visit our friends in Nicaragua, it is a shock to see the streets like this. A dramatic change from how we experienced the country and its people.

Edward and Marvin have for the time being decided to stay and are planning to finish out their semester via online classes. It isn't possible to travel to the university to complete classes so this will have to do. If things disintegrate any more, Edward also plans to escape to Costa Rica for an undetermined time period.

At the beginning of this year, the Young Grower Alliance was planning on sending a delegation to Nicaragua in the winter 2018. At this point, no one is certain when a return to Nicaragua is possible, but we stand with our friends and with hope that a peaceful political solution can be reached.

"Celebrating Successes, Fuel for the Future"

By: Carla Snyder, Penn State Extension

Tenacity and passion are the characteristics that have led our three young Nicaraguan Extensionists to achieve success in our rural Nicaraguan Extensionist program. Over the past five years, the Young Grower Alliance has been building a program to educate, empower and mentor young agricultural extensionists in partnership with a local non-profit, Project Gettysburg Leon. After returning from a recent delegation where Pennsylvania young growers, local FFA students and agricultural teachers exchanged innovative production and post-harvest technologies, networked and shared culture I am proud of the success that the three Extensionists have afforded our program.

In a program designed to educate and empower young agriculturists in the Northern Highlands village of Talolinga, about an hour from the city of Esteli, the success of our efforts is exemplified by the Extensionists' care and dedication to their education and community. Javier, our first Extensionist who has been part of the program since its inception, is nearing the conclusion of his university education, typically a five-year program, and is finishing his internship on a working farm near the capital city of Managua. In addition to his education, in only six months, Javier has been able to purchase his own farm in the next village, sustainably prepare the land, install a water tank, pump and irrigation system and put in several acres of tomatoes as well as peppers, squash and other vegetables. Through this swift production he has been able to produce an abundance of tomatoes and other vegetables that he sells at the market in Santa Rosa, an hour-long mountainous walk from his village, and provides to families in his home community of Talolinga.

Marvin, the second extensionist accepted into the program, earned recent acceptance to a veterinary surgery program to take place in addition to his regular educational degree program. Through his schooling, Marvin has gained a reputation in the village as a reliable and professional animal caretaker. He regularly supplies local farmers with veterinary medicines, testing supplies to identify diseases and problems and regularly supplies his expertise to assist in diagnosis and determining solutions. In addition, he manages a highly visible demonstration garden in the center of the village where he trains a women's group on soil management, planting and crop health.

Talolinga is a village in constant flux. The residents never hesitate to say hello or lend a smile but through the recent years of frequent droughts they struggle to provide enough food to sustain their community. Challenges extend to availability of water resources, as homes do not include running water, adequate nutrition and animal feed. In addition the location of the village proves difficult to daily life. A bolder cover access road was established about four years ago when a small electrical line was run to the village, however residents lack means of transportation and most travel by foot. From the base of the mountain in Santa Rosa to the village of Talolinga is a four hour up-hill climb. This steep dirt road provides access however does not lessen the burden for transporting supplies, food, an ill family member or produce grown to sell at the market. For these reasons it is even more important for the Extensionists living in the village to provide agricultural advisement to residents so they are more equipped to save and preserve their crops, animals and health for the sustainability of the village.

Our third Extensionist, Edward, realizes the importance his education can bring to the village and although he is just completing his first year of school has already put into practice sustainable methods geared towards the future of the village. Edward has established a working school garden where he has identified and trained student leaders, all age 10, empowering them to care for and make decisions about the health of the selected crops for the school. Edward's successful management of this program can be seen in the amount of food the garden is able to not only supply students during their school day but to take home to their families as well. Students have learned about soil health, pests and diseases, and photosynthesis from Edward, and were then able to put their skills to work to grow corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers, basil, pineapple, scallions, beans, carrots and cucumbers. The school garden serves as only one example of how Edward is using his education from the beginning to further his impacts on the community.

The school garden is not the only way Edward has exhibited his dedication to the future viability of his community, as he most impressively has developed a seed bank to maintain the availability of high-quality and high-yield seed to local growers. The seed bank is in its first season of operation; however Edward's tenacity to develop a business plan, grant proposal and search out hard-to-find seed varieties that would be suitable to their village growing conditions and food security needs is admirable. His plan includes a loan structure, in seed, and payback plan to ensure the viability of the seed bank in times of crisis and harvest loss for the community. Edward exhibits production methods of these seeds and others in his well-kept demonstration garden, complete with irrigation, bio-intensive educational beds, and potential unique varieties he is testing for their village.

As exhibited, the success of this program cannot rest on the plan and technical assistance alone. Although the Young Grower Alliance and Project Gettysburg-Leon supply an example, a structure and continued assistance, the success is dependent on the cooperation and gusto of the Extensionists. Through working together they are learning one of the most important lessons about serving the agricultural community - that we are all connected. Through these connections, the Extensionists are able to better identify and lead on how to utilize the assets Talolinga and other rural villages possess. They are not only furthering their education to teach the technical agricultural aspects of maintaining food security, economic health and bolstering nutrition but that of sustainable community development. These three young men have learned to work together with their communities to develop desirable options for improvement to this rural village utilizing the strengths the community possesses. They have worked to empower the women who are training in the demonstration garden, teach the students harvesting from the school plot and have provided the cooks new vegetables to include in their family meals. This program truly serves as an example of integrated community development hinging on the importance of education-based agricultural techniques. Its replicability is apparent and I am proud to have these young Extensionist colleagues in Nicaragua furthering the impact of research-based agriculture and community development along-side our Penn State programming.

YGA Ag Delegation Discovers Mutual Learning Opportunities in Nicaragua -By Ashlyn Burkholder

Ag Delegation Experience in Nicaragua--Expecting the Unexpected - By Olivia Staub

2015 Delegation Trip Photos

Below you can see photos and read updates from prior delegation trips

Project Plan

The "Alternative Strategies for Agriculture in Rural Nicaragua" project is focused on providing knowledge regarding sustainable agriculture techniques that can be transferred by a team of extensionists to members of a rural Nicaraguan community and surrounding region.

2015 Delegation Trip - FFA Student Articles

FFA students Ashlyn Burkholder and Olivia Staub joined us for our 2015 Delegation. Here you will find what they thought about Nicaragua and the experiences they had there.

2015 Delegation Trip Photos

Photos of this years delegation trip to Nicaragua.

Climate Change Impedes Progress

Our partners at Project Gettysburg-León (PGL) have written an article about climate change and its impacts on progress. (This article also appeared in The Gettysburg Times)

2014 December Delegation Trip

Read letters from the Nicaraguan young growers on “What it Means to be an Extensionist”

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.

2013 December YGA Delegation Trip Presentation

Photos and project description presented at the annual YGA luncheon.

2013 October - Javier Espinoza's visit to Gettysburg

Javier Espinoza visited Gettysburg, PA in October of 2013 with Aaron Banas the Project Gettysburg-Leon in country director.

2013 January - YGA Delegation Trip

A group of YGA members visit Javier in Talolinga January 2013

Past Delegation Trips and Articles

View images and YGA member impressions from past years.

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