Martha lives with her teenage daughter Meyling in the community of Pitahaya, located in the foothills of the mountains in central Nicaragua. I met Martha while on a field trip with World Renew’s local partner, Asociación de Jóvenes Cristianas (ASJ). During the past year we had been working on a pilot project there to promote conservation agriculture. Conservation agriculture’s three main principles—minimum soil disturbance, crop rotation, and using crop residue as permanent soil cover—provide excellent agriculture support in arid areas like Pitahay.
Agriculture is the backbone of the Pitahaya economy and, as changing weather patterns have brought less and more infrequent precipitation, earning a livelihood in agriculture has become a challenge. To evaluate the impact of the project, we met some of the farmers that had agreed to experiment with incorporating conservation principles into their cropping systems. This led us to Martha’s home, and, with typical Nicaraguan hospitality, she served us lunch after we walked through her field. That is where her story began.
The first principle, minimum soil disturbance, which is important for minimizing erosion, was easy for Martha. No one ever plows fields in Pitahaya. When it came to planting, Martha simply walked through her field with a stick, making holes, dropping in a seed, and, with a swipe of a foot, filling the hole with soil. No problem with principle #1.
But the second principle, crop rotation, proved a big challenge. Crop rotation contributes to soil fertility by requiring different nutrients from the soil for different crops, thereby not exhausting the land’s fertility. In Pitahaya, farmers traditionally only grew corn and sorghum (which are in the same plant family), mistakenly believing that bean seed would not germinate in Pitahaya. So during the second, shorter cropping season in the fall, when most Nicaraguan farmers do plant beans, the fields in Pitahaya were left bare, actually depriving farmers of an excellent complement to soil health as well as a second harvest. Martha defied tradition when she planted beans in October this past year, and, in the process, met the second principle of crop rotation.
The third principle, using crop residue as a permanent soil cover, was the biggest challenge of all. Soil cover helps to retain ground moisture and prevent weeds from growing, but the norm in Pitahaya is to do the exact opposite. After the harvest, leaves and stalks are burned in order to drive away insects and rodents. Unfortunately, this also contributes to soil drying and erosion. So Martha bravely applied this principle, although people laughed at her, saying her plot looked like a mess.
Martha’s fifteen meter square experimental plot was not big, but her enthusiasm was huge and her bean crop did indeed germinate! In fact, when I saw her she had just harvested twenty seven pounds of beans from her plot—almost the average national yield! For me, 27 pounds of beans has a value of about $25. But for Martha, this represents a month’s supply of food she wouldn’t otherwise have.
Martha’s success made her courageous and so she even took things one step further and reseeded the same plot in December—unheard of in Pitahaya! With the crop cover in place but no rains expected, Martha is banking on the moisture conserved in the soil through the use of ground cover to be sufficient for the 70 days it takes beans to grow.
Just a few days ago, I heard that Martha was getting ready to harvest her latest crop. I have a tremendous respect for innovators like Martha who defy tradition and cultural norms and lead the way for positive change in their communities.
World Renew Nicaragua