Where I was living in Seattle, I was more likely to throw something away in the compost bin than the garbage can. Seattle is a composting city. The compost containers outside of homes and apartment buildings often tower over the garbage cans next to them. Some people are more meticulous about sorting their biodegradables than others, but even among the people who don’t compost, most have heard about it.
Here, the farmers I have been working with had never heard of compost, but they didn’t really need to. They grew their staple crops in the rainy season and after harvest, horses and cattle would graze the land leaving rich excrements that would decompose and fill the soil with nutrients over the dry season.
But for many, leaving the land fallow comes at the price of migration. It is not a practice to help the land, but rather, the only option for farmers without access to water. With no water, there are no crops to produce and no money to earn. For most, maintaining a livelihood during the dry season involves leaving Nicaragua to pursue agricultural work in Costa Rica.
AsoFenix aims to keep communities intact. The organization believes that through education and the assistance of technology, communities can grow both socially and economically without sacrificing the environment. Technology like the solar powered irrigation systems AsoFenix and Green Empowerment have installed, have made an enormous impact in keeping community members living in the community. But AsoFenix recognizes that technology alone will not suffice.
Organizing and Educating
Farmers can have all the water they want, but without the knowledge of growing and protecting their crops or replenishing the soil with nutrients and organic matter, their livelihood will continue to be threatened. This is why AsoFenix focuses on education and community organizing as well as technological assistance.
Jaime Muñoz, the director of AsoFenix, has been working to organize the farmers into a cooperative, so they can have some financial stability and more easily diversify their crops. Him and I have organized meetings to assist in this development, as well as begin to educate the farmers about soil development. Below is a picture of our first meeting, where a dozen or so farmers and community members attended.
My office work has been focused around connecting farmers to educational materials, organizations and institutions within Nicaragua. I have been very excited about a partnership we are developing with the National Agrarian University, here in Managua. This partnership will allow professors and students from the university to work directly in the villages, providing excellent educational tools for the farmers, as well as a hands-on learning experience for university students.
My field work has mainly been showing farmers how to build compost piles using materials from around their farm.
These materials are mainly dried leaves and beanstalks for carbon, green leaves and manure for nitrogen.
Gross, right? Well, I’ve been carrying around buckets of cow plop for the last month…so I think you can handle this little picture.
When making a compost pile, you’re essentially making food and shelter for soil microorganisms that enter the pile and start decomposing your materials. When these organisms are done eating, digesting and dying, you have compost! I am oversimplifying this because it’s a complicated, multi-staged process happening at both macroscopic and microscopic scales…but it doesn’t need to be complicated.
You don’t need to understand all that stuff to make a good compost pile. The main thing you need to know is that mixing 3 parts carbon materials (dried leaves, soil, wood chips, things that tend to be brown or yellow) with 1 part nitrogen materials (fresh manure, green leaves, fresh grass clippings, things that tend to be green), makes a great home for beneficial decomposers.
Gathering materials can be hard work (most notably, collecting cow pies).
Some farmers are definitely more involved and interested in the process than others, and we have been getting some mixed results from the compost piles. However, all of the farmers seem to be interested in the the idea of organic fertilizer, which I view as a positive sign.
Still, I am very excited for the university to get involved. Honestly, I don’t have the expertise or experience these farmers need to help them be successful.They are working at larger scales than what I am used to, and they are facing challenges I have no experience with.
The thought of knowing where to begin to help is daunting. That’s why I chose compost– it’s simple, cheap, and effective. But if a farmer is not interested or invested, showing them how to build a compost pile really doesn’t help them at all, it just wastes an afternoon of labor.
a poorly maintained compost pile
On Wednesday, we will have a meeting with the farmers and two instructors at the National Agrarian University, where we will introduce them to each other for the first time. My hope is that these professors, can better speak to the farmers about the benefits of composting, and organic agriculture.
As a foreigner, I cannot fully understand or relate to the challenges these farmers are facing, whether it be environmental or market forces. I am doing my best to not get overwhelmed, and recognize my limits as a resource for them.
That being said, there is one farmer in particular who has become captivated by organic agriculture. Working with him has by far been the highlight of my internship to date. He works hard and it’s paid off for him. He harvested his first batch of compost from a pile we made just over 6 weeks ago (things decompose fast here in Nicaragua). The success had prompted him to make an even bigger compost pile…and so we did!