Ross’ report on the Mariposa organic farm

Organic Farming in Nicaragua

Hello! This is Ross and I am writing this post from Nicaragua, where I am spending a year abroad! My study abroad opportunity is through IE3 Global Internships, UW Study Abroad, and is made possible in part by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, the GO! Scholarship and the IE3-OUS Chancellor Scholarship. I really encourage any student remotely interested in studying abroad to look into these amazing resources and opportunities!

Before my internship beings in Nicaragua, I need to learn spanish. So I have been placed in a homestay  near a Spanish immersion school and hotel called, La Mariposa. The school is in an area known as La Concha, about an hour bus ride south of Managua, the capitol city.

The school serves food to students and hotel guests that is grown on its two organic farms (about a twenty minute walk from the school).

fresh food from the farm (except the rice and beans…however, they were grown in La Concha)

I work on one of the farms for about three hours in the morning, partly to subsidize my tuition for the school, but mainly to learn the names of the vegetables and some organic farming practices in Nicaragua. The farms are managed by Noel, a community member who comes from a long line of farmers.

Noel, farm manager

The methods he employs are based on experimentation and indigenous methods of cultivating food, many of which were lost when the Spanish arrived. However, he learned to farm from his family, who kept many of their traditional methods alive. These include building raised beds to keep moisture available to plants for longer, and growing crops that have been selected to survive in this climate, e.g. beans, corn, tomatoes, squash, yucca, etc.

Although many small farmers here cannot afford to use chemicals, Noel says a majority of farms in Nicaragua do use chemicals. He says that farmers and community members are slowly staring to realize the health and environmental benefits to growing and purchasing food grown organically. He says the farm at La Mariposa has helped families nearby learn about organic gardening; many people walk through the farm and ask questions about what they’re growing and what techniques they’re using. La Mariposa hoping to expand its impact on the community by holding educational meetings for families nearby.

I would like to share some farming practices used here that are different than those used at the UW Student Farm.

raised beds, rain nets and plantain leaves

During the rainy season (May through October), intense rainstorms can occur regularly. These rains are very fierce and farming practices during this time need to address potential damage from these frequent rainstorms.

these san diego flowers, which were planted to attract local pollinators, have been trampled by intense rain

soil is mounded around small trees and shrubs to protect them from heavy rainfall

nets are placed over crops to disperse energy from heavy rain

On top of making sure all the crops are protected, another huge issue related to heavy rainfall is soil compaction. Even on raised beds completely covered in crops, the soil is extremely compacted after a heavy rainfall.  Raised beds are chopped up and reformed after every harvest, however, even highly compacted soil from the walkways are incorporated into the new beds.

Noel levels a newly formed raised bed

The soil is then chopped up with a rake, then leveled and smoothed. The result is a fluffy bed ready for seedlings.

planting in new bed

plantain leaves are placed over newly sewn seeds for three to four days to protect from heavy rains

protected seeds

The leaves are then removed and composted.

compost piles are built around the base of larger trees

After the young plants have popped up, they are transplanted into bare beds.

the beds behind these plants have been left bare. the young sprouts will be transplanted into these beds

This may not be the best practice as some growing beds are left bare, exposing them to soil compaction and erosion. Additionally, it may not always be the best use of space to use growing beds as a nursery…

Even though we receive large amounts of water through precipitation, this usually occurs in roughly 1-3 hour bursts (during one storm, the rain was so intense I could barely see the house across the street…). Normally in October, rainstorms are too frequent to warrant watering, however, this rainy season has seen significantly fewer rainy days and stronger sun than usual. Therefore, we have been watering twice a day using water stored from previous heavy storms.

water is collected from this rooftop and channeled into this large tank

water from the tank is pumped into barrels around the farm where we draw water from for watering

I asked Noel what the biggest challenge is for small farmers here in La Concha. He said strong rains during the rainy season, and drought during the dry season can be difficult to manage. However, low wages and an inability to pay back bank loans can be an even greater challenge. Noel says the best thing for small farmers is to start small, growing crops that can receive the highest value on the market, and expanding from there. As for the climate challenges, Noel recommends growing traditional crops that are suited for this environment, and practicing traditional growing methods combined with modern techniques (e.g. using rain nets).

By far my favorite part of working on the farm is sucking the juice out of the maturing oranges we pick from the trees. They’re not ready for eating, but they’re full of refreshing, delicious juice!

nature’s juicebox

This is just one of many farms I will be learning about during my year abroad in Nicaragua. I know there will be tons of variations in how farmers are dealing with the vast array of climates, microclimates and social pressures present in Nicaragua. I will keep you posted as I continue my journey!

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