Growing your Soil

Bruno Borsari, visiting Fulbright scholar from Winona University offered a series of in the field lectures at the USMA farm in Las Minas, Panama. Azuero Earth Project has been fortunate to have an extended connection with the bright and vibrant Dr. Borsari. As part of continued education, our staff attended several of the lectures. Below, we’ll share a little of what we learned.

Creating your own Organic Fertilizer

We seem to have forgotten the wisdom of our grandparents. At one point, we recognized the ridiculousness of waste, and each item we possessed was used to the fullest. As prices have dropped, divorced from the environmental impact, it has become easier to throw things “away” and to forget the necessity of using all parts of what we have. Borsari emphasized the basic principle, “There is no waste in nature.”
The livelihood of human beings is based on the thin and skinny layers and the decomposers in the topsoil. Soil quality is being so rapidly depleted that many consider the soil a non-renewable resource. However, if we take care of the soil, it will repay us with abundance.

Producing BioChar from corncobs
Producing BioChar from corncobs

Dr. Borsari went into detail about three different types of soil amendments, including compost, worm compost, and Biochar. As with anything, each type has pros and cons, but the key to deciding which organic fertilizer is best for you depends on your materials, time, and how much labor you want to invest. Biochar, a pyrolized carbon amendment, takes less than an hour to make, but requires the effort of building the tank and fire to create BioChar. Compost piles can be made with little effort, taking care to get the mix of carbon and nitrogen correct. Turning the pile with more frequency speeds decomposition and produces usable compost more quickly. Worm compost is arguably the easiest, as once you establish your colony, you just have to feed the worms once a week, and they do all the work for you! For more details, see the presentation here.

Reused barrels, cut in half, serve as happy homes for the worms.
Reused barrels, cut in half, serve as happy homes for the worms.

In an important message, especially given traditional agricultural practices of Panama, Borsari explained the effects of burning land to clear weeds. By burning the land, not only do you liberate into the air all that essential carbon which had been stored in the soil, but burning creates an ashy layer that acts as if it were wax or grease, coating the ground and preventing water from penetrating the soil.
So remember, don’t just focus on the plants, Grow your soil!

This is our third post in the series, “Caring for the Soil”!  If you missed them, check out the posts on Simple Methods for Evaluating Soil Quality and on Soil Benefits of Raising Chickens in Mobile Cages. 

A huge thank you to Dr. Bruno Borsari and his wife Julie Chiasson!

Wildlife DNA barcoding in Tree Cavities

¿How and where do wildlife nest when no trees are available? This is one of the questions researcher and Villanova University student Bonnie Britt will be trying to answer during the following months in the Azuero peninsula.

Student reseracher Bonnie Britt in the field!

Bonnie is pursuing a masters in Biology and although her work has previously focused on primates, she has decided to concentrate her thesis on the relation between reduced quantities of tree cavities due to deforestation and wildlife (including birds, mammals, reptiles and insect species) nesting behavior. A subject matter that touches on the impact of deforestation on biodiversity conservation.

Since the peak breeding season for many wildlife species occurs during mid-March through July, the research is being carried out from now until August and another field season the following year. Bonnie and her research assistant, Alberto Bethancourt University of Panama student, will be looking at tree cavity availability in dry forest patches as the latter usually lack bigger sized trees.

A photograph of tree cavities in Achotines

Taking into account that many wildlife species depend on cavity availability for nesting, investigation will be developed in the Achotines and Madroño private forests. These are some of the last available places for nesting opportunities in the area.

Bonnie will be looking at natural cavities to find feces, feathers, hair, and nest materials as samples for DNA barcoding. These will in turn, serve as a tool to identify the array of wildlife species that have visited or have nested within the cavity. This will also be an opportunity to detect predation and competition for cavity use and also to potentially identify new wildlife in the area.

The research will also include the construction and placement of two differentartificial nest box house to analyze if these will be used by wildlife for nesting. These might serve to allure other and more wildlife species which could result in biodiversity restoration in the area. Camera traps will be placed in active nests in both artificial bird houses and tree cavities to monitor predation and competition behaviors surrounding cavities.

Students Complete Research on Mangroves in Pedasi

Students Rebecca and Hans present the results of their study on mangrove conservation
Students Rebecca and Hans present the results of their study on mangrove conservation

On April 24, our students interns Rebecca Alvarez McInnis and Hans Herrmann from McGill University in Canada concluded four months of stay and scientific research in Panama with an excellent presentation of results at our office in Pedasi. The internship program is a collaboration between McGill University in Montreal, the Smithsonian Institute (STRI), and our organization as a counterpart for the internship and student research. The presentation of results was attended by officials from ANAM Pedasi and Las Tablas, as well as by residents of Pedasi. Hans and Rebecca, both students of environmental studies, analyzed the perception of residents in the region about the status and importance of mangroves, especially mangroves protected by the Wildlife Reserve Pablo Arturo Barrios on the Pedasi coast. Hans and Rebecca prepared a questionnaire and interviewed 65 people, including local fishermen. Their results showed clearly: the population is aware of the high importance of mangroves as special forests that provide multiple environmental services for the fragile coastal ecosystem.

Although it is not easy, it is urgent to better protect mangroves at all levels: globally by the RAMSAR convention, at national level by the Panamanian environmental laws through appropriate authorities, and locally by coastal communities (the most affected by changes to the ecosystem) and investors of coastal development projects (which have a high responsibility for future generations).

You can see the final report containing the results here. Thank you Hans and Rebecca for all your hard work, and we wish them success in their future professional development!

Simple Methods for Evaluating Soil Quality

Bruno Borsari, visiting Fulbright scholar from Winona University, offered a series of in-the-field lectures at the USMA farm in Las Minas, Herrera, Panama.  Azuero Earth Project has been fortunate to have an extended connection with the passionate and vibrant Dr. Borsari. As part of continued education, our staff attended several of the lectures.  Below, we’ll share a little of what we learned.

Simple methods for evaluating soil quality- Jim O’ Neil

The USMA farm in Las Minas
The USMA farm in Las Minas

In Panama you can take soil samples to IDIAP and to the University of Panama for analysis, but for many people the price of analysis isn’t affordable and going to the laboratory is inconvenient. Participants in this workshop learned that with just one’s eyes, nose, simple tools, and a little bit of observation, we can find out a lot about the quality of the soil.  For example, with your eyes (and a digging stick and small quantity of water), you can evaluate soil structure, soil depth, the presence of organic matter, soil cover, level of erosion, and water retention.

A simple way to make  Burlese funnel
A simple way to make Burlese funnel

Dr. Borsari showed us a simple apparatus called the Burlese funnel, that is used for measuring the quantity of invertebrates in a soil sample.  He made the apparatus out of a cardboard box, a Cornflakes box, a plastic funnel and a simple electric light.  The quantity of invertebrates is a good indication of the quality of soil because the presence of high quantities of invertebrates indicates high quantities of soil microbes.  You can evaluate the level of microbiological activity by applying hydrogen peroxide to a few tablespoons of soil.  Large quantities of bubbles indicates a lot of microbiological activity.  Its important to apply these simple soil evaluation methods to more than one soil sample to make relative comparisons between them.  Via these comparisons you can determine what part of your land is most suited for cultivation.

Dr. Borsari
Dr. Borsari, explaining the Carbon Cycle

We also had the opportunity to practice using soil test kits, a collection of small bottles and chemicals used for in-the-field tests for Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus, and pH.  It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the workshop participants while they practiced using the kits.  Farmers from all over Azuero were excited to be learning a simple way to evaluate their own soil scientifically.  The day’s workshop was a fantastic experience learning how to evaluate soil samples using simple and accessible methods.

The Big Cats of Cerro Hoya

IMG_5668Our April began with a very creative and educational activities at the school of Pablo Ballesteros in Los Asientos. An interactive presentation was given by Jessica Fort- Masters student Wildlife Southern Illinois University, who performed a study of Mammals with emphasis on cats in the Cerro Hoya National Park. Jessica has the help of Joseph Whelan, a Peace Corp Response Volunteer. Both spend weeks walking almost impassable trails, tracking mammals and placing wildlife cameras at strategic points, led by veterans eyes and experience of local guides areas of Cortezo and La Tronosa. IMG_5671All this effort and intensive study resulted in a series of charlas that Jessica and Joseph present, sharing their experiences to discover the biodiversity of the park with both adults and children, and explaining the subtle balance of this fragile ecosystem. With the assistance of 25 children, 4 teachers, and the AEP team, Jessica and Joseph shared an interactive talk, dance and workbook activities. All were amazed to discover and learn about the wonderful mammals that inhabit the park.

In the Field Workshop: Building your Soil for a More Productive Farm

Borsari showing farmers basic soil tests using readily available materials
Borsari showing farmers basic soil tests using readily available materials

In the heat of the Panamanian summer, over 30 participants including farmers, students and Peace Corps volunteers came together in Vallerriquito to learn about cattle farming while caring for the soil.  In traditional cattle farming in Panama, soil hasn’t been a factor. But with the heat of the summer, the lack of water, and declining meat production due to stress, farmers are looking for alternatives. With the dynamic energy of his Italian roots, Dr. Bruno Borsari gave a participatory talk on bettering the soil while at the same time managing a productive cattle farm.

Energy was high, as various farmers who are already implementing Silvopastoral systems shared their experiences. After lunch, one farmer, Señor Arsenio invited us to his farm to view his SilvoPastoral system at work.  Even during the depths of dry season, one could note the difference between plain pasture, and the pasture complemented by the shade of the trees.  Here the farmers were able to see the direct connection between what Brusari was speaking about, and how other farmers were already putting these ideas into practices.

If you are interested in learning more about cattle and soil, you can find Borsari’s presentation here.   Check back soon for full video footage of the day!

Arsenio sharing his SilvoPastoral experience with the group
Arsenio sharing his SilvoPastoral experience with the group

How to Make Organic Fertilizers that Work

Mixing ingredients for Bocashi
Mixing ingredients for Bocashi

People often ask us, “But if I’m not using chemicals, how do I maintain my yields?”  Years of experience has taught many farmers that using local and natural materials can help you maintain healthy plants without contaminating the earth.  There are many different types of natural composts, and this past Saturday in Guararé, Azuero Earth Project presented a hands-on workshop to demonstrate two fast-producing organic fertilizers – Bocashi, and Biol.  Owners of a lovely property in Albina Grande, Robert and Pat Irwin offered to host our workshop at their farm. Among those in attendance were citrus farmers, corn farmers, landowners, and members of an environmental NGO from Guararé.

Bocashi, a fermented soil amendment, is ready in no time compared to other types of composts! In a matter of 15 days, your Bocashi is ready to use, using inputs commonly found in agrarian areas, such as cow manure, ash, and peels of rice. The quickness of Bocashi comes from the fermenting process- the Bocashi heats up to over 50 degrees Celsius on the first day. Subsequently, it must be turned each day to keep the temperature low.   One of the excellent benefits of Bocashi is that there are many substitutes for the ingredients. Don’t have Carbon chunks? Use ash.  Don’t have Molasses? Use miel de caña.

After 15 days of fermenting, your Bocashi is ready for use. Because this is a strong fertilizer rich in many nutrients, it can actually burn the plants if directly applied.  We recommend digging the hole deeper than necessary, adding a handful of Bocashi, cover that with another layer of soil, and then planting your seedling.  Alternatively, you can apply your Bocashi to existing plants by digging a smaller trench encircling the plant, and burying the Bocashi under a layer of soil.  For more details, check out the Powerpoint presentation here.Presentacion-del-Bocachi-131214

Jaime describing the different inputs used to make Biol
Jaime describing the different inputs used to make Biol

Biol is a fermented foliar feed.  In comparison to soil amendments, foliar feeds are faster acting, because the plants absorb the nutrients directly through their leaves.  Biol should be diluted for application to plants.  If used directly from the tank, without dilution, it can be an herbicide.  Our staff also recommends using diluted Biol to pretreat seeds- soak seeds for twenty minutes in a ratio of 8:1 water-biol before planting.  Biol has the added benefits of little labor to produce as well as low input costs.  For all the technical details, check out the Powerpoint here. Biol 131214

Attached here, you can also find the brief handout with all the quantities and ratios for each soil amendment. Bocachi Biol Handout

A Visit from the Snake Expert

Snake Expert Jim Knight shows off a boa to students in Pedasi
Snake Expert Jim Knight shows off a boa to students in Pedasi

Which snakes bite harder, males or females? This was one of the many questions asked by the fourth graders of the Pedasi Elementary School during the “Snake Talk” given by herpetologist Jim Knight.

Azuero Earth Project welcomes snake expert Jim Knight and his wife, Karin Knight who will be conducting research in the region.   After years of working in universities and museums, Jim is now taking advantage of his retirement to explore and identify the snakes of Azuero. Recognizing that Tropical Dry Forests are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world, Jim emphasizes that there is an incredible amount of undiscovered biodiversity in the Azuero peninsula. A comprehensive survey of reptile species has not yet been conducted in Azuero, meaning that in the short time that Jim was on his preliminary visit, he encountered several species that had never before been reported in the region! Jim emphasized the crucial importance of wildlife surveys such as these in order to implement conservation projects… if there is no baseline survey, we would have no way to monitor possible changes from global warming and shifting climate factors.

As part of their visit, Jim and Karin gave a lecture in the Pedasi elementary school. In addition to donating copies of his book, Jim brought a live boa, much to the delight (and terror!) of some of the students. The students thoroughly enjoyed the class, as seen by the variety and quantity of questions, some of which included: do little snakes have more venom that big snakes and how exactly do baby snakes eat?

Oh, and in case you were wondering… female snakes do bite harder… but only because they are usually larger in order to carry their eggs.

For more information on the snakes of Azuero, check out Jim’s book. To get involved in research and conservation projects with Azuero Earth Project, click here. 

Workshop on Small-Scale Organic Gardens

Presentation of Agricultural Engineer Meinaldo Mitre
Presentation of Agricultural Engineer Meinaldo Mitre

What began as a dreary, rainy day turned into a bright, sunny morning as Azuero Earth Project staff headed off to Los Asientos. With more than 15 people in attendance, the agricultural engineer Meinaldo Mitre gave a presentation on small-scale organic agriculture production.  Mitre, native of Herrera, works with the organization Ecotropica to teach farmers how to grow organically through a series of hands-on workshops. Mitre started from the beginning of the process of building your organic garden, from the design of your plots and took us through step by step until harvest. One point he stressed was fundamental to understanding organic growing is that the soil is the source of all life. He even joked that he doesn’t grow plants… he grows soil! Mitre also mentioned that in some ways farmers have become lazy. When they see a problem with their plant, they throw a chemical on it. If that doesn’t work, they’ll try a different chemical. In organic agriculture, Mitre told us, the farmer has to be more conscious, observing the plants, the soil, and the terrain. If a plant is being attacked by pests, there is a reason, whether it be imbalances in the soil or lack of nutrients, but the plants will let you know! After the presentacion, the group headed outside to the school garden in Los Asientos for the hands on part of the workshop. Demonstrating various techniques, Mitre spoke more in depth about soil structure, erosion, and the importance of compost.

Learning to observe the plants
Learning to observe the plants

Ing. Mitre left us with an important piece of advice, “If we don’t teach our children how to grow without poisoning the earth, they are going to sell the land, move to the city, and disconnect from where their food comes from.” To learn more, visit our office in Pedasi, check out Ecotropica’s website, and take a look at the PDF Huertos Orgánicos – Prod. Sust. de Alim. a pequeña escala.

Workshop on Organic Fertilizers for your Garden

Mixing the Bocashi Ingredients
Mixing the Bocashi Ingredients

Amid the bright sun of this very strange El Niño year, people gathered for a traditional event in Azuero… a Matanza. Hosted by Olmaedo Sáenz at the Finca Doña Carmen, more then 50 people were in attendance. While the soup was still bubbling and the meat still cooking, people gathered to participate in a workshop hosted by Azuero Earth Project.

AEP is always working to reach out to new audiences, so at the request of the community, we hosted August’s Guest Lecture together with the Matanza. AEP´s own Jairo Batista gave an interactive presentation on easy to make all natural controls for use in your home garden.  Among the techniques discussed were Bocashi, a hot fermented compost. Jairo also demonstrated how to make Biofermento, a fermented foliar nutrient applied by spraying directly onto plants. For more information, and to get our recipes, click here for Bocashi or Biofermento.

Amidst the festivities, and of course, the delicious food, AEP had the chance to connect with new participants and answer questions about organic methods on a small scale. We’d like to thank to community of Los Higos for inviting us and for their continued support and interest in protecting the environment in Azuero!

And now... to ferment! The Biofermento ready for the next stage.
And now… to ferment! The Biofermento ready for the next stage.