Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rug Hooking Update from F2F members Mary Anne and Jody

Dear Friends:
I hold a debt of gratitude to each and every one of you.

14 months ago you responded to an email I wrote from Guatemala. In the email, I sent photos of hooked rugs produced in a workshop Jody Slocum & I had just completed. The workshop was sponsored by Oxlajuj B'atz' (www.thirteenthreads.org). I wrote: 
"these are first rugs, their craftsmanship isn't top notch but the rugs emanate energy and vitality. If my students sold these rugs, perhaps it would encourage them to continue hooking. Would you be interested in buying a rug? Proceeds will go to our students and buy more materials, too".

You immediately responded. You bought rugs- or, tried to buy a rug. In a couple of cases, the rug was already 'taken'.  Nonetheless, I am deeply grateful for your supportive response. I want to bring you 'up to speed' about what rug hooking has meant to the lives of our students.

Since that class in October, Oxlajuj B'atz' (OB) opened a Fair Trade store in a town frequented by tourists, Panajachel, on beautiful Lake Atitlan. Our students bring their rugs to the store and the tienda, we learned, is unable to keep their rugs in stock. 

This month, from Mar 5 - 22,  Jody & I taught a 4th class over three weeks. The point of this class was to work on bigger rugs- to move from small mats (18 x 24") to larger rugs (30 x 60"). Building on lessons covered in previous classes, our students increased the scale of traditional textile elements then applied the motifs to larger rugs. We also focused on craftsmanship standards. Many of these large rugs will be included in an international hooked rug exhibition I've curated for the Anderson Center outside Red Wing, MN. (SAVE THE DATE: exhibit opens Sept 23, 2011).

In conjunction with the Anderson Center show, OB received a grant from the Delta Family Foundation. The grant supplied funds to make our class possible AND it includes funds for two of our students to attend the opening in September. On the afternoon of the opening, if you happen to arrive early in Red Wing, stop by the lunchroom: we're hosting a region-wide hook-in and you'll see many rug hookers from the area hooking alongside my Guatemalan students. In case you can't make it to the Anderson Ct opening, the women will speak about their lives (and sell some new rugs from ALL our students) on September 22nd at the Textile Center, 7 p.m., St Paul, MN. (All of this is dependent upon the women getting visas, obviously, so: keep your fingers crossed!). 

To my wonderful friends and initial supporters, the list is not that long. You were amazing, your support was essential and you reside in a special place in my heart. Who are you? Linda Burke & Friend, rug hookers / former student, St Louis, MO; Burneatta Bridge, WI Appellate Court Judge, retired, Madison; Tom Choi, professor U of MN, retired, Seattle, WA; Wendy Coggins, Interior Designer, Mpls; Connee Mayeron & Fuller Cowles, artists, Shafer, MN; Terry Cuddy, farmer, Maiden Rock, WI; Vicki Hoepner, home inspector, St Paul, MN; Sally Kling, volunteer, MN; Wes Kuske, IMS Carpet showroom, retired; Meg Leonard, activist, Evergreen, CO; Rick Nelson, journalist, St Paul, MN; Sandra Roe, volunteer, MN; Doug Spencer & Kathleen Parrish, activists/Water For People Project, Evergreen, CO.

Finally. On the last day of every rug hooking class we conduct a private, one-on-one critique with each student. Knowing that our students are now selling their rugs, we asked: what are you doing with the money from rug sales? Simply put, none of us were prepared for their emotional responses. We had no idea the impact rug hooking has made to their lives. Read on.

Keep in touch. 
With gratitude,
Mary Anne & Jody

Carmen (see photo, below): I am so grateful for OB (www.thirteenthreads.org) and for the opportunity they gave me to be in this class. I am so grateful for everything I've learned here, for the way Mariana y Jody open their hearts and give to us everything. They hold nothing back. I can see that, my campeneras, we can all feel that.  Before these classes I believed I was nothing. I was a low person. I believed that because I do not read, I can't write, I don't speak much Spanish... Ive never been to school. If you are that way people see you as a low person. In the first rug class I did not dare to hope because I wasn't sure I could do it (the new rug hooking technique). But now I am selling my rugs and I have a different opinion of myself. I see the world different now and I am happy because I never thought that would be possible. I am not a low person.

Maria: I Am selling my rugs, it's incredible. I have so much gratitude. (breaking in to tears). Praise to god, my son studied in Cuba to be a doctor. I do not now how this opportunity came to him because he has no father, and I never went past third grade. Now he is back in Guatemala and he is an intern but he does not make any money in this position, I give him all my rug money so he can eat. I feel so lucky to sell my rugs and it makes me happy to help my son and that is why I am crying.

Maria (a different Maria): I never went to school, I do not have a husband, I only have one son. I used to go to the mountains every day to get wood to sell. It was very hard work, walking up and down the mountain I worked like a man and I still feel the work in my body. It is shameful to rely on your children but I had no choice.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be in this class and for everything Mariana y Jody has taught me. Now that I can sell rugs (breaking in to tears)  I do not have to go the mountain anymore. I am a lucky woman and I have a lot of gratitude for this opportunity.

Yolanda (below) has sold all seven of the mats she has made since the first class over two and a half yrs ago. She is involved in all kinds of textile production work: from fair trade scarves, table runners, napkins, and, her own huipils. When asked: "Which technique do you make the most money?" she responds:  rug hooking. How does she spend her rug money? She bought six faucets for six families in her small village near chichi. There's a new potable water project in her village but you need a (complex) faucet to tap in to the pipe- Yolanda bought faucets. Note: you will meet Yolanda this fall at the Anderson Center- she was 1 of 2 women selected to come to the US to attend the opening. 

Jessica,age 17. Muchisimo gracias por todo...- breaking down in tears - I remember the time OB offered the third rug hooking class and I was not selected to participate. I stayed home and felt sad, thinking about what was going on in the class. I spent the day weaving (on her backstrap loom) and feeling sad. But you called me on my phone and told me to come to class the next day and I want you to know how happy I felt then. I do not have the words to say how happy I was. After that class I started selling my rugs and sometimes I cannot believe it. I am very grateful -all of us feel this way- for a new way to make money,,, when the women in my group (who have taken the class) get together, before we start a hooking session we say a prayer to OB for this opportunity and how lucky we feel to learn this technique,,,we talk about you and Jody and we invite you to come be with us that day. You people were once strangers but we cannot believe it... You live so far away in Los estatdos unidisos and why do you come here to work with us-  it's very dangerous to travel- and yet you still continue to come and we do not understand but we feel lucky and we give thanks to god every time because there is no other way to explain it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Annual Meeting Thanks

What a lovely day we had on Saturday.

The location was incredible and perfect for our meeting. Our hosts John and Kathy have created a beautiful space out of a restored schoolhouse. The sun was shining brightly and with a south facing bank of windows, the room heated up to the point where the front door stood open for much of the day. We all basked in the sun like cats and admired all the hard work and love that went into the restoration.  Check it out: http://simply-dunn.com/

We had an inspiring presentation from Jeanne Duffy from Working Capital for Community Needs. She described the difference that micro loans from WCCN has made in the lives of people in Nicaragua and other Central American countries. We appreciated the history of WCCN, an organization with a history as a solidarity organization, much like Farmer to Farmer. She answered some questions that we had about recent reports of unfavorable reviews of microfinance. I left ready to send some of my own money to WCCN as an investment.Check it out. http://www.capitalforcommunities.org/

We also elected a new board. We welcome Reb Kilde as president, Mimi French as Secretary/Vice-President, Paul Helgeson as Treasurer, Jody Slocum as Communications, Andy Gaertner for International Outreach, Zac Barnes as Local Outreach/Fundraising. Thanks to Donna Goodlaxson and Nick/Steve Hearth, who are both leaving the board.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Annual Meeting this Saturday

Farmer to Farmer’s Fun and Fantastic Annual Meeting 

March 26, 2011

< view other news & events At the Schoolhouse at Simply Dunn
E4606 Ct Rd C
Downsville, WI (5 miles south of Menomonie, WI.)
For directions go to their website http://simply-dunn.com/
Don’t use mapquest! Ph 715-664-8368
Please join us for our Annual Meeting. We have an excellent speaker, Jeanne Duffy, from Working Capital for Community Needs (WCCN), a Madison based microcredit organization serving Latin America. We’ll also be sharing stories from our trips to Honduras, Guatemala and Ecuador. The meeting, potluck and speaker are free and open to the public. If you’re interested in getting more involved with Farmer to Farmer, this is a good place to start.
WCCN has a 20-year history of providing micro-finance to farmers and entrepreneurs in Latin America, primarily Nicaragua. Jeanne’s talk will highlight:
• WCCN’s work with small agricultural cooperatives which enables them to offer loans that help their members plant and harvest their crops, improve their farms, provide training on organic and sustainable farming practices, and access international fair trade and organic markets for their coffee and other commodities;
• empowering women by providing grants to help women purchase land and become economically independent;
• WCCN’s new loan program, lending to coffee cooperatives to purchase their members’ coffee, process it, and export it. Two of these cooperatives are in Honduras.
Jeanne can answer questions about the social impacts and values associated with WCCN’s lending program.
Schedule of Annual Meeting
9:30 am annual meeting and board elections
12 noon potluck lunch – great food and conversation
1-3 pm presentation by Working Capital for Community Needs
We will have F2F t-shirts, textiles and other crafts from Guatemala for sale.

Friday, February 18, 2011

USA - HRTI Event on March 5th

Have you heard about the "New Normal"? That phrase seems to be creeping around and challenging our thinking a lot these days. Gas prices too high? Maybe that is the New Normal. Unemployment through the roof? New Normal strikes again. Worried about drastic weather changes due to climate change? You guessed it, the dreaded New Normal. The phrase has embedded into it that the good old days are gone and now we have to adjust. The idea of accepting negative change as normal has a hint fatalism in it, but it is also going for realism. This is the just way it is folks. Or is it?

We are lucky enough to live in an area where there are some thoughtful folks thinking about the current day issues and proposing a different sort of New Normal. In the Prairie Farm area a group of people has formed a group called the Hay River Transition Initiative. They are looking at the coming changes that will be necessary in communities to respond to a low energy future. They are thinking of community-wide solutions and acting proactively to prepare for change. One thing that they have noticed is that a low energy future does not necessarily mean a dismal life. One unintended result our current unlimited access to cheap fossil fuels is the ease with which people can live lives in complete social isolation. In fact, not only does cheap energy allow us to isolate from other people, but it also allows us to disassociate from the need to use our bodies for productive work. The coming changes could bring people together as we discover that not only do we need each other, but we also enjoy being together in community. What if the New Normal is a party, where everyone works and plays together?

The Hay River Transition Initiative people are having an open event on Saturday March 5th. People from the Prairie Farm area will be gathering to share skills and experiences. Check out the flyer.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

HONDURAS -Some things you just can’t capture with a photo—Río Negro

by Analisa and Jeff DeGrave



Hues of blue, green, brown and misty white

Sin duda, the highlight of our travels with the Farmer to Farmer delegation to Honduras, was our time in the small community of Río Negro.  Located in the cloud forest of Montaña de Comayagua National Park, Río Negro has a pleasant climate and a landscape that defies the camera’s technological ability to capture the depth of its beauty, one that is defined by hues of blue, green, brown and misty white that comes in with the clouds.  Our first night in Río Negro we saw this vista lit up by the warming red and orange hues of a sunset while every day after it included a palette of vibrant flowers, electric-blue butterflies, and the deep greens and reds of coffee plants.  Rainbows would occasionally appear through the foliage during our hikes through the cloud forest as if this colorful visual effect were dropped into the landscape by Walt Disney himself by request of our skilled Farmer to Farmer presidente, Andy Gaertner.  

The brilliance of a night sky

While some of the houses in Río Negro have electricity powered by the micro-turbines installed by Adalid and Hector, at night the community is dark, as the city of Comayaguas’ electric grid does not reach the community.  Without the light-pollution to which we are accustomed, looking up at the sky we stood silent in awe of the brilliance and expanse of night.  Only in Alaska and the Boundary Waters have we seen such entertainment by the stars and moon of the evening sky.  


Candlelight and eco-huts

Like our fellow Farmer to Farmer companions in Honduras—Andy, Zac, Deb and Pete, we stayed in “eco-huts” while in Río Negro.  We had the pleasure of spending two wonderful nights at the eco-hut of Lucio and Ana Luisa Yanes.  We arrived late in the evening after enjoying a delicious and lively dinner at Avilio and Betilia’s home.  The ever considerate and helpful Hector dropped us off at the driveway to the Yanes’ home, and with the use of our flashlight we walked into the darkness to meet our hosts.  Lucio and his grandson kindly escorted us up the steps to our eco-hut.  Lucio invited us to light the solitary candle to show us around the hut.  In the terminology of what one might find in an on-line hotel guide, our hut was “tranquil, spacious, clean and very quiet; private bathroom and a ‘direct from the cool mountain stream’ shower were included; gracious and friendly hosts; delicious and generous breakfast available upon request; magnificent vistas of the cloud forest.  And a curious canine friend to greet you in the morning.”  Having purchased a bottle of Avilio’s homemade wine (made of passion fruit, cashew fruit and naranjillo), we enjoyed the tranquility and candlelight of an early Valentine’s Day as we heard the rain gently tap on the metal roof of our tropical “cabin in the woods.”


A kitchen window

We met our host, Ana Luisa, in the morning when she invited us to sit down for breakfast in the kitchen of her house.  At the table we were drawn to tantalizing smells of our morning meal and the vista of her kitchen window.  From this window, Ana Luisa and her family have a spectacular view of the valley—one of those views that is permanently frozen in one’s internal scrapbook.  As Ana Luisa prepared our tortillas by hand on a traditional grinding stone, she explained that fewer and fewer families use this technique due to the affordability of pre-made tortillas. I guess technology has its downside, too. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast of rice, beans, meat, eggs, tortillas, cheese, and vegetables—and, of course, coffee.  Taking in the view of the valley and savoring our breakfast, we laughed at the Yanes’ dog, who tried to dodge the eye of Ana Luisa while perching his head and paws onto the outside windowsill to inspect this morning’s fixin’s.  You can see by the photo that our mornings came with what was perhaps one of the most beautiful breakfast window vistas one can every imagine.  At no additional charge.

Our hosts

Back home in Wisconsin as we reflect on our brief time in Honduras, the most enduring memory of our experience in Río Negro is the generosity and character of our hosts.  The Hondurans’ hospitality, generosity, and kindness were truly the warmest colors of all.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala images

Full moon over the lake.
Hayley, Amy and Hannah canoeing.

Brenda kayaking Fisherman and his dog

Images from Guatemala

Touring the Open Door Library Traveling to visit the coffee farms.

We're home settling back into the Wisconsin winter wonderland. It was 12 below zero yesterday morning! I want to just put up some photos from our trip to share across cyber space.

Giving out student scholarships in Santiago Atitlan.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Honduras - Musings on Biochar and Carbon Sequestration

by Andy

Bocashi fertilizer at Don Chico's farm, contains biochar.

When I was recently in Honduras, my organic farmer friends kept talking about using crushed charcoal as a soil amendment. They mixed it with worm compost to make a soil mix for a tree nursery, and they mixed it with other ingredients to make bocashi fertilizer. My friend talked about the discovery of black dirt in the Amazon, known locally as “terra preta,” which was discovered to be a human-made soil that has persisted for thousands of years without losing fertility. The studies revealed that ancient civilizations mixed charcoal with pottery fragments to create a soil resistant to the weathering effects of rain and heat. I came back from Honduras curious about soil charcoal, and I discovered that there is a lot of excitement here in the States about using charcoal in the soil to sequester carbon to reduce greenhouse gases and also secondarily to improve the soil quality. They call it “Biochar.”

As an organic farmer I am aware that there are many “miracle soil amendments” out there. For $59.99 I can buy a bag of this or that microbial mix or mineral mix. You can buy fish meal, and bone meal, and fish bone meal. It is seductive to think that all that is necessary to grow incredible vegetables is to find the secret magic short-cut formula. The list of odd soil amendments is long and varied. In BioDynamic farming there is a preparation that involves burying a cow horn with manure in it and then waiting a year and then using that potentized horn manure to inoculate some rain water for spraying on your fields. At our previous farm, we tried using horn manure and actually had very good results. I don’t begin to know why. There are many mysteries in soil health and in human health.

As a person who was trained as a scientist, I am skeptical of things that I can’t explain; I am also drawn to them. Charcoal seemed to be another such thing. The magical dust for the soil? The missing ingredient in our soil health recipe? Maybe magic is real. My interest was piqued, so I did some internet searches. Sadly, there is no magic here. It is actually pretty straightforward. Charcoal is carbon from organic sources that is stable in the soil; because it has been cooked, it doesn’t have any food value for soil organisms. This means that it does not decompose. This is a bonanza for the soil structure and fertility.

Carbon is what makes soil black: the blacker the soil, the more carbon. Carbon in the soil is always the result of the decomposition of dead plants, insects, and animals. As these plants decompose, the nutrients are released through the action of the soil microbes and soil fauna. These ionic nutrients are available to plants to help growth and vigor. As the dead material decomposes and releases nutrients, some of the carbon is released in the form of the gases carbon dioxide and methane and some of it stays in the soil as humus. Over time, if no carbon is returned to the soil in the form of new dead plants or manure, then the soil will slowly lose its microbial life and soil fauna. The soil will go from black and crumbly to gray, brown, or red. This is bad for the soil and for the planet. An agricultural soil without much carbon in it requires more and more chemical fertilizer to make up for the lack of nutrients. To make matters worse, the stable carbon in the soil (humus) on the cellular level looks like a convoluted honeycomb with lots of charged surface area for retaining ionic nutrients. Without such carbon, the soil does not retain nutrients as well. To further complicate matters, the humus particles in the soil improve the soil structure, because they are relatively large and contribute to the crumbly texture that allows air and water to penetrate. Without carbon, the structure disintegrates and water is more likely to run off and the depleted soils can become crusty and hard and vulnerable to erosion.

In organic farming, one of the main ways the farmer amends the soil is by adding sources of carbon. Cover crops, straw mulch, manure, compost, dead leaves, and other sources are all added to the soil. Of course, because the microbial activity is always “burning up” the carbon, the organic farmer is always thinking about how to add more and more carbon. However, too much carbon (like sawdust) can tie up nutrients (especially nitrogen) while the microbes are decomposing the dead plant material, so it is a balancing act. But generally, if a person is adding more carbon than is being burned up each year, then the soil is improved structurally and in nutrient holding capacity and carbon is being “sequestered” in the soil, at least temporarily. The promise of Biochar for organic farmers is that by adding charcoal to the soil, all of the benefits of adding carbon will be realized without all the losses to decomposition. The carbon in the Biochar will also be sequestered for a very long time. Of course, non-charcoal organic matter will also have to be added for the available nutrients, but when those nutrients are available, the Biochar will act like humus and hold on to the ionic nutrients.

The prospect of adding Biochar to the soil is exciting for us in this part of Wisconsin, but the real promise for Biochar is in the warm tropical climates. As air temperature rises, it increases the biological activity of the soil. Decomposition of organic matter is much faster in the tropics. Also heavy rainfall in the rain forest area means that water-soluble nutrients that are not bound in the soil are quickly washed away. This means that in tropical ecosystems, most of the carbon is not usually in the soil, instead it is tied up in the vegetation. This means that the amount of carbon that can be sequestered is limited to the living vegetation. In a functioning old growth rain forest, that is still a lot of carbon, but in a pasture or farmed fields, it is not very much. Also, because of the temperature and fast decomposition, tropical organic farmers have a hard time adding enough carbon to improve the soil. If people are going to continue to live in the tropics, then the long term soil health is important. Without soil health, farmers are forced to clear more and more forests to find new soils that have not been totally depleted. This clearing can have a disastrous effect on the local micro-climate, drying up springs, increasing temperature swings, and decreasing rainfall. In the global climate, the clearing of tropical forests is even worse, releasing all of the carbon stored in the vegetation and contributing to global climate change. If Biochar could be widely applied in the tropics, then less arable land would be needed to feed the same number of people. Then less forest would need to be cut down and therefore carbon could be sequestered in the forests and in the soils.

There are complications and questions. Where would the carbon source come from to make charcoal on a large scale? Could we ever add enough charcoal back into the soils to make up for all of the coal, gas, oil and wood that we are currently burning up? To impact the climate, we will actually need to sequester MORE carbon than is being added to the air. I have been talking Biochar to anyone and everyone lately. A friend (Thanks Peter!) mentioned to me that in his understanding, Biochar may be the ONLY way to really sequester carbon, because the traditional way to sequester carbon by planting forests only sequesters for as long as the trees are alive, then they decompose and release much of their carbon back to the atmosphere. Another question is whether we could sequester carbon fast enough to halt the wheels of climate change.  

Here's an article from someone who made her own biochar.

Video promoting biochar.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

USA - New Blog Post Guidelines

by Andy


1. If the country name does not appear in the title, then write the country as the first word followed by a dash and your actual title. That way a person who would like to follow just the Guatemala, Ecuador or the Honduras trip can focus on the relevant entries. Also on the display on the side it lists the entries from the month, and a person can click directly to them, instead of scrolling down.

2. Identify yourself in the first line of text. First names are all that is necessary. This is helpful because we have multiple authors.

3. Photos only is fine too! Do no feel like you need to write anything if you just want to post photos and captions.

4. You can link to YouTube videos and other sites from the blog. Please feel free to link to other sites that are relevant to your photos or stories.

5. If you are posting from your hotel and are still on the trip, identify that by using the word "HOT" in the title. This will separate out the retrospective posts from the in situ posts.

This blog is really fun and I have been having a ball looking back at my photos and reminiscing. I really encourage everyone who went (is currently) on a Farmer to Farmer trip to post photos and stories. Last night I got to see some of the photos from the Guat trip and I was left wanting more.With multiple trips happening at about the same time of the year, we needed some guidelines for posting for clarity's sake. If you have other suggestions for guidelines, please post them as a comment.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

HONDURAS - Farmer Profile – Don Chico

Organic microbial fermentation fertilizer at Don Chico's farm

 Don Chico's home coffee plantation. Note that he has planted the coffee under pine trees, which is unusual for the area - mostly the pine is cut down and replaced with other shade trees

Don Chico's Front yard, complete with the Caja Rural's wooden shack, Don Chico's coffee-drying hoophouse, the Caja's truck, and Hector's truck with our backpacks

Don Chico (yellow shirt), daughter (to his right), wife (to his left), and grandkids and friend

Don Chico and Family

Don Chico's grandson posing for us in front of the house

The Caja Rural's Store

Don Chico posing for us in his coffee plantation

Coffee with Shade trees

The Caja Rural's meeting notes.

by Andy

During our recent trip to Honduras (Dec 31st to Jan 14th). We first met Don Chico (Francisco Alvarado) in Comayagua at Adalid’s house. He had come by to check on a coffee de-pulping machine that Adalid was fixing for him and we were there planning the backpacking trip to the cloud forest. Adalid introduced us because Don Chico is in the coffee co-op, and I started to tell him all about Farmer to Farmer. After a little bit, I figured out that he was in a hurry and we decided to wait for the whole story. Even through my cultural barrier, I could tell that he was a man on a mission. Later, when we stayed at his house, we discovered that this is his constant state. He is into everything and moving forward on all fronts.

This year, during our visit to Honduras I was determined that we would visit the community of El Sute, where some of our coffee came from last year. Last year when we came, several farmers from El Sute had walked 2 hours to join the meeting we had with farmers from El Tamarindo. So this year we decided to go the extra distance to see their farms firsthand. To get to El Sute, we took the road from Comayagua for about an hour of bumpy dirt roads all the way to El Tamarindo, then we continued on a new road for another 45 minutes through pine forests climbing up and up all the way to the communities of El Horno and El Sute. We had climbed a total of over 3000 feet from Comayagua and now at every turn we had a fantastic vista. When we got to El Sute, we stopped at the first house along the road and we were instantly greeted by Don Chico. We did not know it yet, but for the next 24 hours we would be under the spell of his frenetic hospitality.

Instantly we were brought up to see the compost piles. They had been working with the culture and growth of microorganisms to fertilize the coffee plantation and he was eager to show the results. Along with Zac and I, we also had Hector (an agronomist) and Adalid (the president of the co-op), and Don Chico was checking to see if he was doing it right. They talked about the finer points of organic fertilizer and then we went to see the hoophouse where they dry the coffee beans. Eventually we ended up in a wooden shack in his front yard, where we drank coffee and waited for the other farmers from El Sute to show up for a meeting with us of the co-op members.

Here in the shack we came to appreciate some things that make El Sute different from the other communities we have visited on the mountain. There was a blackboard on the end wall with the proceedings from a meeting of the “Caja Rural” of El Sute. The Caja is a mutual lending group, where the members each make an initial investment to build up capital. Then the members in the Caja use the capital to make loans and investments within the community. This benefits the recipients of the loans and over time builds the capital. On the blackboard we could see that the Caja members had investments in a pick-up truck, beef cattle, and organic fertilizers. Don Chico’s house appeared to be a center of both the Caja and the coffee co-op because the truck was parked outside and there were several grazing animals tied up in various locations around the house. Inside the shack was a Lenca flag. The Lenca are an indigenous group which historically occupied most of central Honduras. From Don Chico we learned that although El Sute and El Horno just recently got their first roads, the communities are very old, dating back to colonial and pre-colonial times. The people take pride in their native heritage, and continue to identify as a native community. This is in contrast to Rio Negro and some of the other mountain communities that have come about in the last 50 years as people move into the mountains to grow coffee. In fact, in El Sute coffee growing is relatively new. When I was there 15 years ago in the Peace Corps, the whole region was a patchwork of corn and beans and pasture, with very little coffee.

During our meeting with the farmers Don Chico powered up the generator so we could have electric light. After the meeting, piles of food were brought out and then we were offered a place to sleep in the same wooden shack. Although we had already made arrangement to stay in the school at El Horno, we were much happier here with Don Chico. The next day, Don Chico canceled his plans to go to Comayagua in order that he might take us to his coffee plantation. First he showed us the plantation by the house. We took numerous photos of his grandkids picking coffee, and then he brought us up the mountain to his other plantation. Along the way we saw the store that is operated by the Caja Rural. Each Caja member has to take a month off out of each year and tend the store. From Don Chico’s plantation we could see the whole valley. His coffee was dense and verdant, under an abundant canopy of shade trees. He and Adalid talked at length about managing the plantation, from fertility to pruning to managing the shade trees.  

It is exciting to see the synergy between the Caja Rural and the coffee co-op. It is also thrilling to meet someone as serious about his community as Don Chico. We will definitely be back.

HONDURAS - Farmer Profile - Dona Cirila

Dona Cirila

The harvest of the gringos!

Adalid showing off the de-pulped gringo coffee
By Andy

We recently went back to Rio Negro, Honduras during the Farmer to Farmer trip in early January of 2011. When we visited Rio Negro in January of 2010 we had had the goal to visit every member of the coffee growing co-op in the community. It had rained the entire time we were there, and there was one family who we decided not to visit. We were wet, cold and tired and they told us that to visit Dona Cirila would be an hour straight down the mountain on a muddy trail of slippery red clay. We declined. This year however, the weather was bright and dry, and since we had visited most of the other farmers in the previous three years, we had all afternoon at our disposal.

After a pleasant hour-long downhill hike we finally came to the coffee finca of Dona Cirila and her family. What a relief. The lush green plants were thick and as we pushed our way down to her house, the dogs came out to greet us. Her house of red clay adobe was fronted by a patio of packed red clay. Children of all ages were engaged in various activities that sort of shifted focus to us as the horde of Gringos tumbled out of the green onto the patio. Dona Cirila came right out and shook hands with us and we started to get her story.

First off we learned that we made the right decision to visit her because last year she had waited all day for us and this year had been expecting us much earlier in the day. She is not the type of person who I would want disappoint. We learned that Dona Cirila is a single mother of ten children and four grandchildren, all of whom were milling about as we talked to her. Her husband had left her 7 years ago and now he lives elsewhere in Honduras and has a new wife with four children. At least she was able to keep the farm. She told us how her children have to climb that hill every morning to go to school in Rio Negro and how all supplies have to be carried in and all the coffee has to be carried out on the shoulders of her and her children. Each one has to carry as much as he or she can when hauling out the coffee.

We learned that her oldest son just graduated from grade school and he would like to continue to study, but that would cost at least $500 per year and she would lose one her best workers. We could see how prized of a worker he is because while we were talking, he was running a hand-crank coffee de-pulper. Soon our interest shifted to this boy and the machine. We had seen coffee de-pulpers that are run by generators and also those run by hydro-power, but this was our first hand-crank de-pulper. Zac took a turn cranking. We asked Hector and Adalid what it would take for Dona Cirila to have a hydro-power for de-pulping coffee and for electricity. It turns out that they have already done a study and calculated the number of PVC pipes that it will take to bring enough water with enough head to run the turbinita, which Hector and Adalid would donate.

Jeff and Ana were outfitted with baskets and Adalid took them out to learn how to pick coffee. While they picked, I played some soccer with the young boys and Dona Cirila prepared some incredible coffee for us. I left Dona Cirila’s house with a deep sense of respect for her life and what she has to do every day to keep her family going. Her children were happy and playful despite the obvious difficulties. She herself presents an implacable and dignified surface. I cringe a little when I think of how it must appear to have six Gringos show up and start taking pictures. Our immediate impulse was to start asking for numbers for how much it would cost for her son to go to junior high or how much to pay for the PVC tubes. The visit to her family stimulated something in us, a sense compassion and anger at the whole situation, and our first thought is what can we do to help? I am not saying it is a bad impulse to want to help, but that can cast us into the two-dimensional roles of helper and helpee. I was glad that it took so long for us to get there, because that meant that we were inclined to stay a while. In that while we settled in and met her kids and talked some more. Over the steaming cup of coffee she became a little more three dimensional. Farmer to Farmer is a about relationships of solidarity and dignity.  We can also see the potential that Farmer to Farmer paying a fair price for coffee can have to impact the lives of all the people in this family.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Guatemalan adventures from Margee

Bicycle powered coffee depulping machine

Woman selling home made lotions

I thought I would just give a brief description of several of the experiences I have had while here, in order to give people an idea of the huge variety of learning opportunities available on the trip. I will headline them, so you can skim through and read the parts that interest you.

Reconstructing homes after tropical storm Agatha; starting home enterprises

While in Antigua early on, we hooked up with Franklin from As Green As It Gets in a small village a few miles out of the city. We were able to visit people in their homes who have received help from that organization, seeing the cement block construction of one family's home, the small home businesses several young people were getting started (hand creams and lotions made from shade tree products from the coffee fields, totes made out of burlap coffee bags, apprenticing to learn construction work, handmade aprons and herbal teas in paper boxes, and lip balm). It was really heartwarming to hear the young people present their products to us and see how empowered they seemed to feel. We asked lots of questions, and bought some of their products before we left. Being able to talk a little with their families and get an up-close look at their homes and lifestyle was really special.

Making tortillas with Rosa

Stove on the third floor - making tortillas to sell

This year's corn crop

Smiles with F2F youngest scholarship recipient

Land purchased by F2F for the cooperative - Matt translating

Visiting the weavers cooperative

Here in Santiago we visited Rosa and Francisco's home and 'tienda', with their son and son-in-law's mechanic shop next door. Up on the third floor/rooftop, Rosa was making tortillas. She explained the ingredients and process to us, told us about the ways she sells and uses them each day, and let us all give it a try (and a taste). The smokey stove was an issue for our eyes and lungs, even with all the fresh air around up there, so you can imagine what a problem it must be within smaller, more enclosed rooms. Later we all crammed into one of the pick-ups that serve as cheap taxis, along with what already looked like quite a lot of people to us. As Rosa said when she saw our surprise at riding for that long so squeezed together, "Haci la vida aqui"--this is life here). We rode out to a piece of land Farmer to Farmer purchased for the cooperative. We hiked quite a way up through other people's coffee farms, until we came to an extremely rocky slope with what was left of the corn stalks already harvested. There is still part of that land unplanted, because it takes so much time and labor to clear the rocks, and they have to pay members of the cooperative to do that strenuous work, labor which also keeps them away from their usual daily work. The acre or two of land is typical of what's available, and yet quite expensive. This year the crop was mostly ruined by extremely heavy rains. (Lake Atitlan is between two and three meters above normal, and you can see the mudslide areas in stripes down the mountainsides.) At the meeting during which we gave out scholarships the day before, they showed us the two bags of rather poor ears of corn they will share--the total harvest from that piece of land this year. Brenda (speaking in Spanish) and Paul did a nice job of presenting the scholarships at that meeting, with clerical help from Hannah! Matt and Zach have been excellent translators/interpretors, so both parties are able to catch a lot more of the subtle details of the conversations. The fondness these people have for Jody specifically, and for Farmer to Farmer in general, was obvious. Students who were able to be there ranged from a 5 yr. old little boy to a young woman in law school. They all seemed really pleased to receive the scholarship envelopes. After the meeting we went to the weavers workshop and store, and bought some of their work. Some of you reading this, may be the beneficiaries of these shopping sprees! (note to friends and family of Amy: she gets the prize! Amy finds something wonderful to buy everywhere we go, sometimes feels bad about trying to get a lower price, and is really happy to spend her money helping these people make a living.)

Learning about other projects

One day while here in Santiago, we went to ADISA, a workshop for physically and mentally disabled people. It is run by an association of parents and friends of people with disabilities. We were all impressed with what they were doing with such limited resources. The director of the program showed us around and we saw how each person was completing a step in making the products they sell. We were glad to purchase the bowls and other things they make from recycled newspapers. Amy asked the client who took us into their showroom, if any of the pieces available for sale were made by him. He replied, "we all make them all--everyone has a part to do." Hayley was especially interested, as she also works with disabled people--she returned the next day to get more!

Down the road from our Pasada is a children's library, and (started just this week!) a preschool for local children, started and overseen by Amanda Flayer, with Mayan women employed as the head librarian, traveling librarian to area schools, and teacher. Amanda and I (Margee) are planning to meet, in hopes that I can offer some tips and share ideas from my many years of preschool and child care work. She is really trying to 'do preschool' in a creative, less structured way than what people here would more typically think of as schooling. Since preschool is not very common anyway, it is all a new idea to parents, but Amanda says they seem to be reacting positively. The library is important as a support to the education of the Mayan children, since they do not have books at home or opportunities to read outsideof school. There are resources for 'investigation' (research), as well as the school text books available for the kids. Another set of shelves has story books, concept books, and children's literature. They have 'baby and mom' activity times scheduled weekly, and the space is available for community use too. Donations of Spanish books and books with both Spanish and English would be really useful to them, as would any arts and crafts materials. I'm thinking it might be a great opportunity for individual school classes, child care centers, or local libraries to take on as a service learning project!

We briefly visited the hospital here, and received an email update from their volunteer fundraiser, letting us know how much they still need additional help. For example, they have 40 cleft palate reconstruction surgeries scheduled for May, and need to get the in-patient area, where those surguries will occur, completed by then. To find out more, their website is
http://www.hospitalitoatitlan.org/. Several people we talked with shared their excitement over the opening of the Hospitalito at the end of November. Farmer to Farmer has been donating to them in the past, but currently does not have the capacity to continue that support. Please consider donating individually with a note specifying that cause, if you are intersted.

We may still fit in a visit to an elder care program. It's a day program where elders can come during the day to receive a good meal, some company, and a little extra care. Many older people without families live alone, and others must be left alone, while their families are off working--a problem we have in the United States as well, of course, but the living circumstances are more severe for these people.

San Lucas Toliman

Paul already told you about the tour of the various projects at San Lucas. I was especially impressed with the way the man in charge of the reforestation project spoke. He was a natural poet--his deep love for his work and for the earth just poured from his entire being! Casey was at San Lucas as a volunteer for a few months a couple of years ago, and it was nice to get more detailed explanations from him as we toured. Father Greg has been there for over 40 years, and his efforts have clearly had quite an impact. He saved many lives during the 'time of terror', and somehow survived that period himself! He is very intent on making sure all of these projects are led by Mayans and that the mission serves the people through Mayan decisions. Only three 'gringos' were currently on staff, although groups come to visit and learn regularly. One thing Paul did not mention in his earlier blog, is that young adolescents, who otherwise are on the street trying to get money anyway they can, have been allowed to come work at the mission to help feed their families. Using hand tools, they learn some basic skills, and often keep coming for years and years. The building that stores the coffee there, was actually built by this group of youths, and had already been expanded from the time Casey was there (sometimes working alongside them). San Lucas also has beehives and produces honey, but that building was already closed for the day by the time we got there.

Thank you, Jody!

Just want to say that it is really generous of Jody to give so much time and energy to these trips. We have experiences one would not get as a simple tourist, and she works really hard to help individuals see the things that interest them. She has more energy than I do, that's for sure! The ongoing relationships that she maintains with such sincere joy and compassion probably do as much good as our Farmer to Farmer funds from afar. She is a great ambassador for us!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Foods of Honduras

Celebratory tilapia after making it safely home from our backpacking trip.

Ana and Pete savoring the chicken picnic.

Hernan after making baleadas for two hours straight.

By Andy

Every time I return from Central America, I go through a week or two after I come home where I eat rice and beans and tortillas as often as I can. I crave avocados and long for a real banana. It is as if my body wants to stay in the tropics for just a little longer. In honor of my lingering cravings and as the Wisconsin cold keeps me inside the house remembering my trip, I offer a report on the food of Honduras.

Bananas and Plantains. We ate bananas or plantains with just about every meal and often in between. Ripe plantains can be sliced thin and deep fried to make a crispy chip called a “tajada de plantano.” These are shelf-stable and can be sold in plastic bags to bus travelers or flavored and sold in foil packs like Doritos. Really ripe plantains, “maduros,” can be fried, baked or boiled and served soft and slightly mushy for breakfast with a little crème fraische. Somewhere in the middle in terms of ripeness, a plantain can be sliced round and then flattened to form a round a crisp quarter inch thick “toston,” which literally means 50-cent piece. Green bananas can also be fried as “tajadas.” These we ate like French fries with fried chicken or fish. Of course we also ate bananas the normal way. Is it me or do they taste better when they haven’t travelled 1000s of miles? One of the yummy treats in the fresh banana world is the “datil,” or finger banana, which is slightly larger than a man’s thumb and very flavorful.

Juice. Every day our hotel served a fresh juice, water and sugar mix called a “refresco natural.” This is ubiquitous in Honduran restaurants and shops, the only question is what kind of refresco natural they will have. We were offered “mora” (like a blackberry), hibiscus flower, passion fruit, pineapple, papaya, orange, cantaloupe, watermelon, lime, naranjia (a weed in the tomato family but tastes like an orange – sort of), horchata, mango (from frozen mangos because sadly they were not in season), and something called a “nance,” which is like a mushy yellow cherry-like fruit. People in Comayagua are under no delusions that their tap water is drinkable, so all restaurants use bottled water to prepare beverages and ice. This makes me happy because I could drink the refrescos naturales all day with confidence. One variation on the fruit juices was the homemade wine made by our host in Rio Negro, Avilio. He makes a big batch from sugar and whatever fruit is available and buries it for a few weeks in a clay vessel to ferment, followed by bottling in used rum bottles. One night we put away six bottles around Avilio’s big homemade table. Smooth.

Beans and Tortillas. If a Honduran eats a meal that does not include red beans and tortillas, it is as if he or she has not really eaten. Every meal includes a small stack of corn tortillas. We found the best tortillas in the mountain communities where they raise and grind their own corn. These tortillas are a little thicker and are just better tasting than the city tortillas, which are often pressed thin by machines in the tortillerias or made from MASECA commercial mix. An El Salvadoran variation on the tortilla that has become street food all over Honduras is the “pupusa,” which is corn tortilla dough surrounding a melty white cheese and then fried in front of you on a very hot griddle. On the road home from the airport, we stopped and drank some sweetened corn gruel with cinnamon called “atol,” which for Deb was the food high point of the trip – it did hit the spot. Beans come in many variations, but are necessary on every plate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can find them boiled, fried whole, mixed with rice and spices, liquefied, liquefied and then fried, and I’m sure I missed some variation. Our friend Jauna invited Zac and I to her house for some traditional Honduran food and served us “catrachas,” fried tortillas smeared with thick bean paste and topped with a crumbly white cheese. We could have eaten those all night. Probably the most uniquely Honduran street food is something called a “baleada.” A baleada is a fresh hot flour tortilla smeared with liquefied beans, topped with thick crème fraische and folded in half. From there you can get variations that include fresh avocado slices, fried eggs, crumbly cheese, and different types of meat. Our friend Hernan made awesome baleadas for us for the good-bye party. I ate 5. When we were waiting for Deb and Pete in the airport, we saw a Honduran arriving from Miami and his family handed him a baleada as if to say “you are home.” 

It is hard to tell how much meat normal Hondurans eat, because our special circumstances as visitors means that we are constantly being offered meat to eat. We are also eating in restaurants quite often, which are meat heavy. I didn’t mind. On New Year’s Eve, Priscila made a baked chicken that had been baked in something called “naranja agria,” a special type of orange which people use only for cooking. Then on New Year’s we had a chance to eat “nacatamales,” which are spiced pork tucked inside of a corn dough and cooked in a banana leaf. Special treat. On the day we made bocashi fertilizer at Hector’s farm, Adalid’s family made something called “carne asada,” chunky grilled beef strips. The meat was tender and pleasantly charred over a charcoal fire. We had salted strips of beef up on the mountain in El Sute – they lack refrigeration, but the reconstituted beef can be intensely flavorful, like thick beef jerky. Tilapia can be found everywhere, the result of ever-increasing fish farming in the Comayagua valley. On the day we returned from the hiking trip on the mountain, we all headed to a place right next to a fish pond for fried tilapia and green banana tajadas. Likewise chicken is affordable and available in innumerable variations. The most memorable for me was the rotisserie chickens we brought with us for a picnic on the way up to Rio Negro. A close second was the chicken at “Pollolandia” in La Entrada on the way to Copan.

A special mention must be made of Betilia, who made all of our meals in Rio Negro. She cooks incredible food over a wood-fired stove. There is a large variety of vegetables (including our beloved pataste/chayote), with flavored rice, beans, special roasted meats, and always the best tortillas and refrescos naturales. We were WELL taken care of! Betilia’s coffee wins the award for the best I had in Honduras, but really since we were hanging out with coffee farmers the whole time, we were never far from a good cup of coffee. In fact the comment from one of our travelers was that if we sat down anywhere for long enough, someone would inevitably hand us a cup of coffee. Just watch out if you don’t like pre-sweetened coffee.

A second special mention must be made of the food on our backpacking trip. On the fifth day we lunched on all the best of the leftover lunch items. We had flour tortillas, with bean paste, avocados, crumbly white cheese, Spam, and peanut butter, in various mouth watering combinations.  Yes Spam!

Thanks for reading and now it is time for lunch.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala

Photo Paul canoeing on Lake Atitlan
By Paul Helgeson

Yesterday we arrived at beautiful Lake Atitlan after a six hour trip from Huehue that featured spectacular mountain scenery. We are staying at the Posada de Santiago. This morning the early risers took to the Pasadas canoes to joined the local fishermen in thier dugout canoes on the lake.

This afternoon we piled into the back of one of the Toyota pickups that are a favorite form of mass transit here in Guatemala. Our first stop was the new Hospitalito in Santiago - a beautiful new building that replaces the hospital destroyed some five year ago by mud slides. After another 40 minutes ride on mountain roads we arrived at the San Lucas Mission. We toured several San Lucas projects.
The first was a project where new housing is being built for people that lost their homes as a result of heavy rains (Agatha) in June of last year. Nearby is a building that will eventually house a womens center . Then we walked through San Lucas medical clinic. The tree nursery was impressive with several varieties of trees grown for refosrestatin of the mountainsides and shade for the coffee. The final project we saw was the coffee project. At five oclock, each day, the

delivering the coffee

growers start bringing the days harvest for processing.

The heavy bags of green coffee beans are carried up the mountainside to the new processing on the mens backs. The coffee is weighed, moved by water to a huller, then to fermenation vats. After a couple days the beans are laid out on drying floors. The whole process is extremely labor-intensive, but the San Lucas produces high-quality coffee. It was a great visit!