Alana visits Talolinga in January 2012 with the YGA Delegation

Coming down off the Mountain:
The 2012 Talolinga Ag-Extension Project

Alana Anderson, Young Grower Alliance

On January 20, a group of 6 Adams County residents boarded a plane from Miami--its destination, Managua, Nicaragua. The six were traveling under the year old partnership between the PA Young Grower Alliance (YGA) and Project Gettysburg-León (PGL). The group was composed of Extension educators, past and present, respected growers and producers, and several of us had extensive ag-related retail experience. Dr. Tara Baugher, a tree fruit expert at Penn State Extension, Edward Rankin of Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Ortanna, and Maggie Reid of Bear Mountain Orchards were repeat visitors. They, along with Joyce Ettenger of Gettysburg, visited last year to see firsthand the obstacles that Nicaraguan farmers encounter daily in the mountainous terrain outside the city of León. During the 5 day trip, they offered professional knowledge of fruit diseases and possible insect damage. They were amazed by the tenacity of the native farmers and were eager to assist in sustainability initiatives and the diversification of crops.

Perhaps the most enlightening experience was the introduction of the group to Javier Espinoza Gutierrez, a young farmer in Talolinga who had successfully grafted a mango shoot to a dwarf stock in an attempt to grow more manageable trees. His innovation and eagerness to learn inspired the visitors to write a proposal for the creation of an in-country extension program that would be sustained by the farmers and families within Talolinga. It was decided that Javier would receive training and mentoring from educators in León and work with native farmers who practice more technologically and sustainably advanced agriculture in nearby villages. He would then return to Talolinga and share this knowledge. This model emphasizes imparting the acquired information to community members to achieve legitimate sustainability.

With this new idea fresh in their minds, the group returned to Gettysburg and coordinated with PGL to make it an actual project. The members worked to maintain contact with Javier through Greg Bowles, the Country Coordinator for PGL, and sent a comprehensive Guide in Spanish that covered such topics as: integrated pest management (IPM), organic herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, identifying and treating fruit and vegetable pathogens, and crops well suited to the climate and terrain of the Nicaraguan mountains.

This year, the group included Katy Lesser-Clowney formerly of Penn State Extension and currently Farmer's Market Manager for Kuhn Orchards of Cashtown, her husband Mark Clowney is a GIS Analyst/ Ag Specialist for the Adams County AgLand Preservation program, and me, a Farmer's Market Assistant for Three Springs Fruit Farm in Gardners and Penn State Ag Innovations Intern. The main purpose of the trip was to see Javier, meet his mentor Enrique Bolaños, and view what progress he had made in Talolinga. Over the course of the past year, the Ag-Extension delegation decided that they wanted to encourage the planting of community gardens as a supplement to the traditional diet of rice and beans. The garden would improve their diets by including more diverse crops as well as decrease their dependence on store bought goods. Community gardens appeared to be a feasible project because of the presence of a non-governmental organization (NGO) Nuevas Esperanzas in nearby villages.

The motto of Nuevas Esperanzas is "building foundations, releasing potential, transforming communities." They do this by "implementing long-term development programs in marginalized and vulnerable communities in the Department of León…In this work we generally act as the leading agency, maintaining regular contact with beneficiary communities and other stakeholders." It sounds very similar to PGL's mission but it has the background in ag-related development programs. Javier was matched with one of their native Extension Agents, Enrique Bolaños, to work in a nearby village of El Ñajo. There Enrique taught Javier the importance of seed saving, improving soil fertility through composting and crop rotation, and the double-digging method of bed preparation in gardening. Javier took photographs and well documented notes in order to bring this information to Talolinga. These efforts have yielded outstanding results.

When we visited El Ñajo with Enrique and Javier, we witnessed and participated in a composting demonstration with several women in their village. Nuevas Esperanzas encourages women to be the leaders in the community garden because of their role in family food preparation. The NGO believes that the women's involvement encourages better nutrition for families and validates their contributions to the village. Following the demonstration, we walked to the community garden where Enrique informed us about their pest management, crops, and irrigation systems. He and Javier even built bean trellises for better growing techniques in the bean patch after the lecture. It was evident in his contributions to the conversation and hands-on approach that Javier is a dedicated and passionate student.

On the fourth day of our trip, we left early to meet Javier and drive up to Talolinga. Since Talolinga is in a remote location, the roads are often inaccessible to most vehicles due to the mountainous topography. In fact, Greg Bowle's 4 wheel drive truck had cracked an oil pan the week before we arrived. The road was in much better condition due to the recent work by government road crews, so much so that the truck drove the entire way up to the village. It was a far cry from last year's visit when the group rode mules and walked.

The first day in Talolinga was spent walking to the garden site and seeing Javier's homemade compost bins that Enrique taught him to build. He then encouraged us to start another with local plant and animal matter. They do not have composting bins most Americans are familiar with there so the villagers use wooden stakes to hold the compost in place. Javier showed us the area that he cleared with the help of several older farmers, creating erosion barriers with rocks and pineapple plants, and the raised beds he painstakingly dug. Because January is several months into the dry season, the earth was rock hard and difficult to turn over. Most vegetation at this time is dry and brown and the well water levels dip drastically. Improving their irrigation systems is of great importance to the villagers because they are hindered by the transportation of water in buckets from satellite wells. The group returned the next morning to the same site, completing the compost pile and watching Javier concoct an organic pesticide to deter aphids and fly larvae. Javier has the support of Greg Bowles, Enrique, and Don Orlando, a high school chemistry teacher in León; this network is extremely important for the success of the Ag-Extension Project. It fosters guidance and support on the ground, rather than importing financial and educational assistance.

Javier's interest in agriculture developed over this past year to the point where he wishes to pursue classes in Forestry and Agriculture at the University of León. Since he has shown himself to be a student with merit, a hard worker, and an inquisitive mind, it was readily agreed that PGL would provide 50% tuition coverage with Javier providing the other half. Javier is paid in his internship because it validates his contributions and may persuade other young farmers in Talolinga to pursue higher learning. His education is paid partly through the PGL budget and partly through donations. This past November, Saint James Lutheran Church of Gettysburg contributed a considerable sum towards his educational budget on behalf of their World Outreach Committee. If you are interested in supporting Javier's continued education, please follow the link listed below.
It was heartening to all the group members to see the advances made in Talolinga and to know that with his network of supporters and further study, Javier and Talolinga's potential for agricultural sustainability is limitless.

Contact us

Donald Seifrit
  • Extension Educator, Tree Fruit