Earlier this year, I spent 10 days in Nicaragua with an organization called Global Student Embassy to work on biointensive farming with a group of 14 students from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Syracuse University, and that was all the information that I had before leaving.
I soon learned that biointensive farming is a strategy of cultivating crops that focuses on producing the most output with minimum input. The objective of the method is using less water, less energy, and less land, to produce large yields of crops. Upon arrival in Nicaragua, we were introduced to 14 other students from UC Berkeley there to work with us, our leaders form Global Student Embassy, and the leaders of Asofenix, the organization based in Nicaragua. Led through a workshop by a professor in sustainable agriculture and local farmers of Cliníca Verde, we spent three days learning about the eight essential aspects of biointensive farming. These include: double-dug, raised beds, composting, intensive planting, companion planting, carbon farming, calorie farming, the use of open-pollinated seeds, a whole-system farming method.
We spent three days eating beans and rice, talking about beans and rice, and planting beans and rice. More specifically, the first day focused on clearing the land to begin composting: a method that improves the quality of the soil. Everything they do is in specific measurements, so our guide advised us as we created two garden beds, each 25 meters by 3 meters, with half of a meter space to walk in between. The composts we were advised to build would be square-shaped, 3 meters by 3 meters, and at least one meter high. It consisted of alternating layers of mature dry organic matter and immature green organic matter, soil form our double dug bed, and sawdust (serrín) and our organic food scraps.
After completing the composts, we created the mandala garden bed, a design that works best in equatorial regions like Nicaragua for absorbing the sun and is also spatially efficient. The double digging for this mandala and one other garden bed took a day and a half between about 30 people, because of the rigorousness of the method but mostly because of the toughness of the claylike soil. The process is as follows: dig 15 centimeters deep with a pitchfork or pickaxe, removing the soil and displacing it on top. Then dig 15 centimeters deeper, loosening the soil, throughout the length of the bed.
After double digging we were guided through a workshop on transplanting, which is a process that requires planting seeds in shallow boxes of soil then transferring them once they become seedlings to deeper boxes containing different soil, then transplanting them to the gardens. This process allows the plants to obtain more nutrients from each new soil microbiome. We then used seedlings that had been effectively transplanted to plant in the mandala that we created; here we used the strategy of companion planting and intensive planting – which is planting crops that grow well with one another together in close proximity. For example, corn provides shade and legumes grow well in shade, so we planted corn in a triangular pattern throughout the mandala with beans in the middle of each shape. This also provides a stalk for the beans to grow up, so that the farmers do have to use extra resources.
When finished, we watered the gardens and had a break to receive our certificate of completion of the biointensive farming workshop. The next day the Syracuse group and the Berkeley group split up to travel to different schools. The Berkeley group went to a school in Teustepe that already had what seemed like a decently maintained garden, three buildings with classrooms, a basketball court, and a stage. The school that we went to was about a thirty-minute drive down a dirt road away from their school, sometimes much longer depending on how many cattle herds our bus got stuck behind that day. Our school had a fenced in area that seemed like it could have been a garden but was no longer, and one classroom.
The first day here consisted of raking the entire school yard and building composts using the methods that we had learned at Clinica Verde. There were people assigned to typical tasks such as raking the matter, gathering sticks and carrying greens, but one unusual task that took the most time was removing the trash from the leaf pile before it went onto the compost. We saved this trash to dispose of in coca cola bottles with the help of some of the children we worked with.
Before we knew it, we had three days to make three beds using the double-digging method, in addition to digging a well so that the gardens could obtain water efficiently through a drip irrigation system that we had also yet to set up the pipes for. On the second day while taking a break to hydrate I had my first encounter with a person whom I struggled to communicate with. I thanked her for her patience, and continued talking to her. I worried that we were behind schedule, and I asked “¿piensas que tendremos un impacto suficiente?” She went on to tell me that she was a mother of students who attended the school, and that a group of students had come in years past, and she had no doubt in our abilities. This gave me hope to push on.
Rotating between finishing the composts (with goat poop as our secret ingredient for dry organic matter), double digging the garden beds, and working with the electrician to build the well, we incorporated what we had learned while playing hacky sack with the kids during our breaks. Seeing the water come through the tank was very exciting for many, as we could understand for the first time how hard it is for some to obtain water from a source. We dug a trench for the pipe to go from the well to the tank, then from the tank to the three beds, with a plastic hose connected to each of those for drip irrigation.
On the last day we ran around finishing up the raised beds, putting mulch on top of them, watering them and putting a tarp over that. We soon ran out of mulch and were not able to finish the three beds completely, but we were satisfied with our job. The school has hundreds of small black bags filled with soil that the students will use to begin planting, then use the transplanting method to plant in the beds. I am proud of the impact that we were able to make for that small town in Boaco.