Semilla Nueva was honored to have an adventurous group of Rotary Club members visit Semilla Nueva’s projects in October. Their curiosity, enthusiasm and ideas were inspirational to our staff and farmers so we wanted to share a personal reflection from one of the Rotarians. Below are Beth Markley’s observations from her and her family’s visit to the field. To see her full blogs on the experience visit manic.markley.com.
Half of the group after lunch at Juan Manuel’s house
Visiting Semilla Nueva Farmers in La Montana
Friday morning we woke up bright and early in Xela to a street scene reminiscent of early mornings in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Locals partied quite robustly until about 5 am after their soccer team won in a match against Guadelejara.
The bus ride to Retalhuleu, which most people call Reu (Ray-you), took us from 7,000 feet to sea level (and through 23 distinct ecosystems) in about an hour, and from a Seattle-type climate to sweltering heat and humidity. Along the ride we could see street vendors selling produce. At the beginning we saw huge carrots, radishes and beets. Toward the end of our trip we saw plantains, bananas, coconuts and pineapples.
This was the day we started our visits to the properties of the farmers in the communities outside of Reu who are collaborating with Semilla Nueva to experiment with different soil management techniques, crops for rotation, and varieties of seeds. Our first visit was to Bernabe, who took us around his field and talked about the process of converting to a more sustainable form of agriculture. At one point in his life he had begun to lose interest in farming as he saw his yields become smaller and smaller for the same amount of effort and traditional methods of burning and tilling his fields every year. At one point, he said, he was inspired to let his land lie and rest for a season by what he read in the bible. His neighbors thought he was crazy, but his instincts proved correct and his soil was improved by the effort. The framework provided by Semilla Nueva gave him the opportunity to test different methods and compare results, and share his experiences with his neighbors.
The Rotarians visiting Bernabe’s field
Later, we dropped off half our group with Juan Manuel and Graciella, and we continued on to the home of Rolando and Eloena and their six children and multiple grand children (three of whom live with them in his one-bedroom home). Guatemala has one of the most skewed distributions of land in the world, stemming from when the Spanish Conquistadors came and land was seized from the indigenous population and given to Spanish families who then held onto it for generations. In the 1950s, the government called for expropriation of some of this land for redistribution to 100,000 families.
Today, that land is passed from generation to generation, and split between sons. Rolando’s plot is about 1.5 acres and supports his whole family. Barnabe’s plot of about 5 acres, with the practices of soil conservation and sustainable agriculture, could yield as much as $300 net per harvest (if I have my numbers correct). Other families are only breaking even, assuming they don’t have any major disasters that destroy their crops. One statistic I read was that the average Mayan lives on around 57 Quetzals a month (maybe $7), so $300 net income on 5 acres of land is significant.
Our experience at Rolando’s home, a 1 bedroom shed with a dirt floor, was humbling. Eloena and her sister Olympia showed us the traditional way to make tortillas (using a paste of masa and water, and pigeon pea – a high protein addition suggested by Semilla Nueva nutritionists) over an open flame. Then we ate the tortillas with salsa on their porch while Rolando answered questions about his work.
The boys by this time were likely starving (it was about 2 in the afternoon) and said they loved the meal. Colin’s two least favorite foods are tomatoes and beans so I was worried he would balk (the pigeonpea is similar in texture and taste to the black bean), but he cleared his plate.
Lunch and discussion at Rolando’s house
On the ride back, we experienced a torrential rainstorm, which the locals tell us is rare for this time of the year. We had dinner at one of Curt’s favorite restaurants: tortillas, grilled meat and salsas, and of plenty of Guatemalan beer, and Colin had time for a swim at our hotel before crashing.
The next day would bring more eye-opening visits with local farmers, and the end of our official Rotary tour with Semilla Nueva.
Mucking around in Las Pilas
Bright and early Saturday morning, Colin and Jack met Curt in the lobby of our hotel to go machete shopping. You heard me: machetes. I’m told there’ll be no special requirements to get them through customs in our checked bags, but I have to do a little research to be sure.
From Reu, we set out for the campo again, this time to visit the fields of Gerardo and Carolina in Las Pilas. Last spring they planted two acres of test crops of two different varieties of corn, and today we were going to divide into two teams, harvest specific plots of corn, and compare the samples to see which produced the bigger yield. The results were interesting: a test hybrid that Semilla Nueva introduced last year produced less than the variety this community had been cultivating.
The rainstorm of the previous evening had soaked the fields and Curt warned us that we would ruin our shoes and that sandals would be worthless, so most of us opted to leave our shoes in the truck. The mud was thick and fun to mush around in. Our harvest took only a few minutes, which was fortunate because even first thing in the morning the heat and humidity were getting pretty intense.
After our experiment, we went to Eva’s home where her family and Semilla Nueva staffers made us Chaya lemonade, and learned a little more about their lives.
Rotarians making Chaya lemonade
The Chaya plant contains a number of nutrients and grows wild here. Semilla Nueva staff have been working on introducing new nutrients into the traditional Guatemalan diet. Ann Barkett, Semilla Nueva’s Food Security Coordinator and Pigeon pea extensionist, works primarily with the women in the communities to help them find ways to integrate a more diverse mixture of vegetables and protein into traditional dishes. The lemonade we drank was delicious, although it could be disconcerting that it was also as green as wheat grass juice.
The community we visited today was formed by 150 families that were former refugees placed there when a hurricane wiped out their communities in 2001. The land was taken as another effort of land reform after the civil war of the 1990s, but was largely barren, formerly farmed for cotton until the soil had few nutrients. The families formed a communal group and planted trees, gardens and corn. The communication they shared was the reason they were able to cultivate a variety of corn that produced a higher yield than expected. They are now working with Semilla Nueva, experimenting with no till, no slash-and-burn agriculture, green manures and pigeon pea.
Here our journey with Semilla Nueva was mostly over. After lunch in Reu, we divided into two groups. One would return for sightseeing in Antigua or flights home, another would visit Lake Atitlan. Colin expressed some concern about the group splitting up, and Jack said he was eager to go on another Rotary trip sometime soon.
Our intention on bringing them on this trip was for them to experience a different way of life. Along the way, they also saw first-hand how a young, energetic group of people can recognize a problem, address a way to fix that problem, experiment with multiple solutions, succeed some times, fail others, and in the end have a great impact. I guess an additional takeaway was the friendships they formed with a group of people focused on service and learning, and the pursuit of adventure. I’m really proud of them for their perseverance and open-mindedness and look forward to hearing about how they process what they’ve seen in the coming months.
Excerpted from “Manic Markley Mumblings,” manic.markley.com. Beth Markley is a Rotarian and fundraising consultant, she and her husband Mike live in Boise with their sons: 13 year-old Jack and 10 year-old Colin.