Farming for Real in Nicaragua

Some decades of intermittent gardening, grandparents and a uncle who farmed and some books are the background for this.

In particular, people interested in gardening or farming here might want to take a look at:

The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe -- your land is not my land and what works one place won't necessarily work in another. Twenty years of survival gardening by a Harvard Ph.D. in molecular genetics.

Farmers of 40 Centuries -- Japanese and Chinese agriculture in the 19th Century. The alternative agriculture of the 20th Century started, in part, from here. An experienced agricultural scholar looked at what people were doing without bought chemical fertilizers or shipped in guano.

1491 -- What New World agriculture was like before Columbus. What we're just learning about Amazon tree growing and soil improvement methods that left the soil more fertile for centuries (charcoal and pottery shards), so much so that people mine the terra indio for potting soil.

People do horticulture on different scales and with different economic needs. This should be obvious, but often people who are growing things at one scale assume falsely that their practices would be necessarily good at larger scales. Also, people who haven't grown things in different climate zones and in different soils tend to over-generalize from one set of experiences, to forget that all conditions are not alike. I see this with the people who think Mayan or lowland crops will work at higher elevations here; I witnessed someone make a spectacularly wrong inference about growing commercial apples in Virginia.

Deppe gives an example of a person reading Ruth Stout's books on no-dig deep mulch gardening and trying it in Oregon. It didn't work. Another failure for Deppe was drip irrigation for her crops. Her book is not a cookbook for growing squash, beans, and corn here, but explains a method for discovering what work by talking about how she came to do what she did and what she'd learned in 20 years of subsistence gardening. One thing she suggests is finding out how indigenous people handled their agricultural problems. Some of this knowledge is still here; some has been lost. Finding it will more likely be useful to finding out how to grow the best crops in different parts of Nicaragua than reading what works in completely different climates on completely different soils. Nothing is truly useful unless it's been field-proven for several seasons. What can grow at 1100 feet may not grow at 3,000 feet, even less than twenty miles away.

Too often, people pick something up on line, or in books, take some classes, and set out to teach or write about gardening and farming without any real proof of concept. Selling classes in buzz word agriculture may work getting money from people who have no real experience in agriculture. It tends to annoy people who do have some background in growing over several seasons. Nicaraguans solved their food issues well enough on the Pacific side to support a literate class and inter-regional trade.

The gardening to farming continuum starts with what I think of as pleasure and gourmet gardening and goes to commodity crop production for market. In between are income-stretching gardening, income supplementing gardening, small market gardening, larger scale market gardening, plus some specialty items like tobacco and sugar.

For someone growing for pleasure and for vegetables and fruit that are gourmet items, even saving money isn't an issue. Time may not be an issue for someone on a pension or with an investment income. The crop may be grown by slaves or hired gardeners (Jefferson for the former; any number of people for the latter). What matters is the pleasure of growing things (for those who do their own work) and having varieties that may not be available locally or having the freshest food possible, often organically grown in labor intensive ways.

The only examples of this in my part of Jinotega are patio fruit trees. Examples in the US would be fresh peas, vine-ripened tomatoes, Alpine strawberries, and exotic vegetables that weren't commonly available. These are the people who have cold frames for winter greens (or grow them in pots under lights or in sunny porches), who have double-dug beds on suburban lots. They tend to do most planting in beds whether double dug or not. Smith & Hawkens has a lot of toys to sell them. Frequently the money spent is more than what the produce would cost at a farmer's market. Nothing wrong with this sort of gardening as long as the people doing it don't make claims that their methods will solve other horticulturalists' problems. Except for the people who hire the work done, this kind of gardening requires being on a small enough scale for the hand labor to make sense (my personal tolerance for double dug beds ever was about 20 linear feet of them, no more than four feet wide). Sometimes the garden is one person's full time work in a two income family, but saving money isn't particularly the point. Only scales to….

Income stretching gardens. These generally are ways for a person to survive on some income but not much income. As with the gourmet gardener, the house, clothes, utilities, and transportation expenses are paid for with other available income; the gardening is done to stretch the income. Most people in this situation raise both fresh vegetables and crops that can be stored. Carol Deppe's book describes income-stretching gardening that ended up going beyond that. Solutions can't take all anyone's time (she tended her mother and also wrote). My Philadelphia garden was an income stretching garden that got me through some non-income months when I was teaching as an adjunct. The garden has to produce more food value than it requires in inputs -- a friend in rural Virginia uses cut grass as mulch on corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and beans. The more critical the food needs and the smaller the income, the larger the amount of land cultivated, and the gardener may also sell produce to supplement a small income. The solutions for the growing problems here can scale to…

Small market gardening. The family grows all the food it can for home use, but needs an income from the farm for clothes, fuel, and anything not produced on the farm. There's no income to stretch without the farm's produce. This is probably very common farming in Nicaragua. Subsistence farming, which is very rare anywhere in Nicaragua and which was pretty much destroyed by the expansion of coffee growing, would be a village that produced almost everything it needed from shelter and clothing to transportation, entertainment, and food. Noted for historical interest, but not something that is common. It takes a community that is doing subsistence farming for it to work for any one farmer.

The small farmer needs a market that doesn't cost more to access than what he makes on the crops. The solutions for income stretching gardening may be useful, but these families don't have margins for errors. Here, they're used to people being paid to suggest things without trying them for several growing seasons (if it's a new crop, is there pest build-up or soil changes over time, must it be irrigated, and where's the water coming from if that's the case) and they cheerfully ignore the advice if it's an idea that hasn't been tested for several seasons in their climatic and soil conditions. People have to show them something works consistently better than their traditional ways to get their attention. Nicaragua has a lot of these kinds of farmers. Peasants are conservative for a reason. What they're doing now worked well enough for several generations. If crops hadn't worked in the past, they wouldn't be alive now.

They don't double dig; they mostly farm in rows; if they're not brutally poor or on a steep hill side, they use traction plowing with either animals or machinery.

This scales to larger market gardening where the farmer buys more equipment and specializes in growing for better urban markets. What's grown is either easy to ship or high value, or both. These are the guys who send a tractor trailer load of cabbages to Managua. Farming is mechanized or labor is very cheap. Organic if that works economically, if not, not.

Formerly in some corn and apple growing growing areas in the US, the crop was processed into whiskey which brought more money on the market than commodity corn. Equivalent here would be local distilled liquors -- some value-added, a more concentrated product to ship.

Dry commodity crops for international markets -- the only way hand labor economies can compete with machine agriculture is if the field labor is very cheap (cotton in the US South with slave labor; coffee here at times with conscripted labor). Most of the soybeans, drying culinary beans, rice, wheat and other small grains, is grown this way, very rarely organically. One of the issues in Chiapas is that commodity corn from the US will sell for less than locally produced dry corn. Nicaragua is holding most of its own rice markets. Commodity farming is not what people fantasize about doing as back to the landers, but Nicaragua grows a number of commodity crops from sugarcane (processed into sugar or rum before sale) to rice and beans and cattle.

Profit margin per unit is low; farmers make up for that in bulk. Corn is the easiest of the commodity grains to grow on a small scale (Deppe mentions how difficult the other grains, including quinoa, are to process on a small scale compared to corn). It tends to be the only grain home-processed often. I knew people who talked about growing and hand harvesting and hand processing wheat, but never saw anyone actually do it. Mechanical harvest revolutionized grain growing.

One of the issues with alternative systems is calculating how much time does the alternative require. A person who is dependent on having some cash money from a job out of the house isn't going to have the time to run an integral urban house the way people who are being paid to research and write about alternative would have.

If people are getting paid to run a proof of concept program, it may not scale since people who would be using it in real life wouldn't be getting grant money to do all those things. Solutions to problems that take large investments in time need to pay off better than spending that time working as a cab driver, hotel maid, or computer fixer.

At least some people giving advice in Nicaragua tend to not understand that not all solutions scale. A family where everyone has a cash job outside the home is going to go with fruit trees, not Square Foot gardening. A family where one partner works and the other partner farms is going to be able to look at different solutions than a family that has no steady outside source of income. (The one partner with a steady income job and the other farming seems to be increasingly common both in the US and here -- my next door neighbors are such a couple).

One of the more annoying things are people who come in sure that what they read has more authority than what people are doing in any given location, with its own soil and climate problems and considerations. Then these complain about Nicaraguans not listening. One guy like that in rural Virginia was sure that the only reason people in one place with 3500 foot elevations didn't grow apples commercially was that they were stupid. The formula for latitude and elevation said… After he went bankrupt, I asked someone on the mountain why people there didn't grow commercial apples -- every third year, there was a killing late frost so while planting some house trees was okay, that was too many crops lost for commercial production.

My advice to anyone coming in to Virginia to farm was that if they did what the current farmers were doing, they'd do about as well as the current farmers once they'd learned how -- those were mature markets generally and people did know what they were doing. If locals didn't do anything large scale but did do it small scale, they had a good reason for that. If nobody had ever tried it before (coffee here in the 19th Century; sesame; a day length non-responsive corn if anyone could breed that, various cherries in my part of rural Virginia), then that could be a profitable introduction.

Some people can write off farm losses as entertainment. This generally undercuts local farmers who are economically dependent on their farms.

In agriculture, the only thing that changes people's behavior is what someone is able to do for several seasons, not what someone thinks should work here because it worked in coastal Oregon or in the German Alps. Also, solutions need to make sense given all the other technological inputs and structures here -- does something like a homemade fan-less zip stove work with the cooking styles Nicaraguan use? Given that the traditional wood-burning stove is a long clay thing, and a typical Nicaraguan breakfast requires two frying pans and a coffee pot, I suspect not.

The only way to get a farmer family who depends on what they grow to live to listen to anyone's advice is to do a better job of farming that what they're doing now, on land and in a climate similar to theirs. A set of short term seminars in alternative agriculture or reading even good books on agriculture don't make for expert knowledge or professional educational training.

Fava beans worked in Oregon as an overwintering crop; they didn't work for Thomas Jefferson and they didn't work for me when I was living in Virginia. Tom and I tried them two seasons, but then we both could afford to.

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Some comments from mid-elevation

1) Square food gardening is silly hobby stuff and the best way to get everything to die from leaf diseases.

2) "pruning " in Nic. ends up being more like "machetazo". Do it yourself or train, supervise, and micro-manage.

3) Weeding is not popular. Do it anyway.

4) Deep mulching here will convert your X farm into a rat farm. Get to know rat poison well-- it is your friend at home and in the field.

5) if you think the typical tropical Spanish American peasant is naturally or has the potential to become a good gardener or landscaper, think again. Skip all the hippy stuff about Indians Love the Land. They have a tradition of merciless plunder of the land without the slightest concern of giving back and many centuries of experience. Hire and fire with precision.

I found Solomon's book, Gardening When it Counts, (and his web site) very interesting. Some key points(my terminology/interpretation):

You are piddle-farting if:

1) you are growing veggies for your small family on less than 5000sf.

2)you do not have an equal amount of land in pasture for regeneration.

3)you are trying to grow organically without some source of animal manure or byproducts.

4)you are growing things that need more water than you can supply every year.

5) you are growing things that don't grow well in your area or are not cost effective in time or money.

I don't remember what Solomon thought about pesticides, but if you don't selectively spray you are kidding yourself. I was an organic gardener till I read One Straw Revolution, a truly great book, back in the 80s. IPM is the only way to go.

Another question you have to ask yourself, perhaps first and foremost, is how are you going to support yourself and a decent standard or living with land purchased at current market rates when you are competing with people with inherited land, extensive local contacts, and vast experience in "getting by" if not "succeeding" in the usual sense of the word? I'm not saying it's impossible, just you need to be properly capitalized and do a whole lot of stuff right. The Cubans cigar farmers seem to have figured it out, can you?

"Anything that is complex is not useful and anything that is useful is simple. This has been my whole life's motto."

Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russian inventor

Interesting contribution.

Interesting contribution.

There was a recent study on the nutritional value of organic vs. non-organic (i.e herb/pest/fertilizer) crops. Not surpringly, there was, as I recall, very little significant difference between the two. The OCD health-nut went crazy, citing the study being funded by industry, and citing some psuedo-science.

Obviously the risk exposure to chemicals pest/herb probably was lower, but according to US-EPA the risk exposure to chemicals applied per instructions is at an acceptable level.

The costs of organic grown produce here in NE is higher compared to non-organic methods. Not really sure why, if it's just the new-age snob appeal or reflective of the higher production costs. I've been splitting the difference and buying organic fruits and veggies that are know to have more pest residue.

On a different note, site knowledge/experience is key. The Cuidador for the family beach-house gave us an unrooted branch cutting from his mom's sunshine tree (Erythrina indica). He just shoved it into the lawn (just silty sands -no real topsoil), no willow water/rooting hormone, soil amendents, mulch or anything. He watered it daily. It looked pathetic a few days after planting, but in a recent pic (5 months later) it's just taking off like a weed. A mango seedling we transplanted from near our water well into the lawn is now about 4 feet tall. I frankly was dubious about anything surviving. If I tried that type of stuff in my NE woodland, depending on the season, the results would not have been the same.

My conclusions

After a few years of small scale, statistically insignificant piddling at 1350 meters:

1) skip the tomatoes, peppers, zukini, etc--too much rain and humidity

2) skip the bananas--the wind at my location tears them up

3)local corn and local squash work well but take up a lot of space

4)quiquiesque is great, wind and theft resistant.

5)chaya is fine but I think it needs to go on raised mounds for prevent root rot in wet years

6) comfrey has some potential for chicken feed.

7)eucalyptus can be coppiced for firewood

8)I plan to try potatoes, but on raised beds with strict crop rotation. the humidity makes them disease magnets.

9)guinea grass grows like gangbusters, but since I don't have cattle it does me no good.

10)guayaba and their fruit are stunted by high water table and shallow soil. Nice place to hang orchids and epis..

11) citrus does not hold up to the dry season. irrigate it or skip it.

12)pitaya does good--I plan to build a couple of the vietnamese type pitaya trees.

Some other site at the same elevation could yield very different results--bananas grow well in the neighborhood where they are on the lee side of a hill.

"Anything that is complex is not useful and anything that is useful is simple. This has been my whole life's motto."

Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russian inventor

Deppe grown potatoes in Oregon's dry season

...without irrigation. Maybe you should buy her book :). She keeps ducks, not chickens, and finds that feeding potatoes cuts down on the need for protein feeds.

My experience with seeing comfrey in rural Virginia was that it was the mark of a hippie homestead.

Rebecca Brown

Solomon is a friend of Deppe

She mentions his book. I don't know if he mentions her, but her book came out after his.

My guess is that most of the really smart folks moved into the cities and have children who are repairing cameras with my screwdriver. Deppe is fond of bursting the Ecological Indian myth, too. The thing is they did grow things that allowed them to survive here, however exploitative they may have been. Indigenous cultures range all over the place on all sort of issues. The Natchez were real scum, as were the Aztecs. Mayans who were upper class were some inches taller than the peasants. Carol's point is that if you start with what either pioneers or indigenous people grew where you are, it's better than trying to grow stuff that does well in Connecticut when that isn't where you live.

I have enough money here to buy locally as much as I can, and don't plan to do farming or even much gardening (three hummingbird attracting plants, one water mint/herba buena, and a rosemary plant). Probably will try growing some coriander.

Someone was in Nicaragua to do seminars on square foot gardening when I was first checking out the possibility of moving here. I talked to Deppe about it and she speculated that perhaps it wasn't just a agro-hustle. My guess was that it was, confirmed. Fruit trees in the patios make more sense.

I think that the Cubans prove the rule that if the locals have never done it, you may be quite successful in introducing a new and profitable crop if you have a good sense of soil and climate beyond a rule of thumb. They also own the cigar factories, so cut out the brokers who took a big chunk of my grandfather's tobacco money. In Virginia, tobacco didn't become a major cash crop until several guys (R.J. Reynolds, Google which county he was born in, and another couple of guys in Durham and Richmond) figured out how to manufacture and promote cigarettes, which were machine intensive use of tobacco rather than labor intensive like cigar rolling. Reynolds bought from local farmers and also grew on his family's plantation. People had been growing some tobacco there, but not bright leaf.

Before Prohibition, a large part of the local rural Virginia corn crop went to liquor making -- that was a very nice way to transport and sell corn.

Rule of thumb a lot of places is that one acre feeds one person everything. Your 5000 sq. ft. is a little over a tenth of an acre but this is the tropics. You're also factoring in pasture, too, so if you're raising pigs or cattle, that's part of the land per person equation.

My friends the hippie beekeepers who decided to ignore my advice about not trying to do anything large scale that the people who'd been living there a while only did small scale found out that trachea mites were why nobody did commercial honey production there. Some problems don't show up the first year or two but will get you in year three.

I think playing with plants is valid (I've done it at various times), but don't pretend that you're doing farming or have anything useful to teach other people who do need their crops to survive.

Your Integrated Pest Management requires paying attention early. Deppe talked about roguing potato plants, and she was talking about paying very close attention to figuring out which plants were showing early signs of disease, before the disease spread to other plants.

I'm a bit cynical about the One Straw Revolution. This is a YMMV and it depends on what land, which crops, and the attention the gardener is going to pay to the processes.

One thing I've noticed is that people who've read books about farming tend to think they're smarter than the locals and can do better than people who were given good farms and failed at farming. That's where the saying "you can't talk to them until they run out of money" comes from.

I can live where I can see mountains without owning a farm. I could see growing a small number of coffee plants and doing some hand processing without hiring anyone to work for me, but I can also see buying green coffee from next door and doing things with coffee that don't more than fifteen minutes in a day. I call my coffee roasting in a frying pan, "coffee roulette," but so far I've gotten drinkable but not predictable coffee.

Rebecca Brown

soil test

another thing Solomon emphasized is to look for good soil first. If you don't know the soils get it tested before you buy the farm--trying to fix a bad soil is a very long and expensive project. He is also big on mineral content, which can only be fixed by adding crushed rock among other inputs.

"Anything that is complex is not useful and anything that is useful is simple. This has been my whole life's motto."

Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russian inventor

May I ask?

Were you a farmer or serious gardener before moving here?

I suspect there's enough overlap between Deppe's Resilient Gardner and Solomon's book that one or the other would suffice, but then check out Deppe's Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties.

Rebecca Brown

Landscaper and nurseryman

then gardener. The only farmer in the family was my step father. He grew up in a chicken coop on a farm in the Panhandle during the depression. He had negative things to say about picking cotton so he lied about his age and joined the Marine Corps.

"Anything that is complex is not useful and anything that is useful is simple. This has been my whole life's motto."

Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russian inventor

That's way more experience than the average back to the lander

My dad had negative things to say about anyone who could possibly imagine that cradling wheat was romantic even to watch, and studied really hard in school, and then joined the Navy after a BA at Virginia Tech. Navy sent the smart boys to a special year program at Harvard and Harvard knew the boys had GI Bill money and invited them to come back for another year for an MBA.

Another brother worked in hospital management (head of housekeeping when I knew him) and the third brother stayed on the farm.

Only time I ever worked in landscaping was as an assistant to a friend who was the local hippie landscaper in her home town. The rule was put down a couple flats of impatiens before the owner came home from work, then do the plants that weren't immediately showy.

Rebecca Brown