Monday, May 07, 2012

On the model farm of Don Humberto Mejia

The view from Don Humberto's kitchen
One of the areas that my organization focuses on is “secure livelihoods.” This was something of a baffling term for me when I first started communications work with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, but three months on I now have a clear understanding of what it means - and just how important the work is in the context of Honduras.
We visited a small farm last week in Las Flores that epitomized what CASM is trying to do on this front. The farmer, Don Humberto Mejia, had a little bit of everything going on: Coffee, corn, beans, sugar cane, some livestock, a tilapia pond. He’s also an enthusiastic adopter of some of the environmental practices that CASM encourages in the 20 or so tiny communities where it works around Copan Ruinas, like tapping off the methane from manure to power your kitchen stove.
CASM recognizes good practices
Honduras is essentially a country of teeny-tiny pueblos in isolated mountain locations, where individual farmers try to eke out both a living and their daily bread on small, often impossibly steep plots of land. (I saw a corn crop the other day growing on what had to be a 60-degree slope.) Coffee is virtually the only cash crop for these families. In a good year a producer might have a little excess corn and beans to sell as well if the hurdles of irrigation, transportation and worn-out soil can be overcome, but for the most part it’s subsistence farming.
The poorest families subsist on nothing but the corn and beans they grow, with barely a lempira in their pockets to cover any of the other costs of living. No small wonder deforestation is such a problem in Honduras – if the beautiful tropical forest isn’t being cleared for another marginal corn crop, it’s being hacked down for firewood that can be sold for at least a little cash.
Livestock adds diversity
So diversification is a big theme at CASM. Global coffee prices are notoriously unstable, and a failed crop in a year when the rains don’t come on time has devastating implications. A smart producer is well-advised to have his or her eggs in many baskets, both for a healthier diet for the family and as insurance against whatever might go wrong that year in the notoriously unpredictable world of subsistence farming.
As well, small producers have to worry about contamination of their water supply from animal waste and the toxic coffee pulp that is a byproduct  of stripping coffee beans from the plant’s “cherries.” They need a safe solution for dealing with the waste of their operation.
We approach Don Humberto’s driveway after a one-hour drive on one of the many crazy, skinny and steep roads that lead into the mountains above the three main municipalities in the Copan region.  He has proudly posted the “Hogar Modelo” sign that CASM gave him in recognition of the work he has put in to make his farm more sustainable, and today we are here with one of the major funders of CASM – the British charity Christian Aid – to see what sustainability looks like on the ground.
Compost on the right, biodigester on the left
His three cows are the first thing we see. Cows provide milk and cheese for the family and for sale, and the liquid byproduct from the cheese-making process is excellent for the biodigester, Don Humberto tells me (more on that biodigester in a minute). There's a tilapia pond and a few pigs out back as well – we’ll enjoy some fine pork sausage later that morning with our breakfast – and a small flock of chickens that produce eggs, meat and a natural way of tilling garden soil and coffee harvest residue. 
Animals also produce waste, which Don Humberto uses in his compost pile but also in his biodigester, which CASM helped him build. Waste ferments inside the biodigester and produces methane gas, which the family taps off to power a gas burner in the kitchen. Wood is still the primary cooking fuel in rural Honduras, but only because propane gas is so expensive. The methane from the biodigester provides three to four hours a day of gas for the family at a cost of $225 all in; the gas savings alone cover the cost of the system in about two years.
Don Humberto in his sugar cane field
The family also has a fuel-efficient fogon – a wood cooking stove – that CASM helped them build. It’s a basic brick structure that burns 45 per cent less wood than the conventional stoves in use in much of Central America. And it’s got a chimney that vents smoke outside, a basic adaptation for us Canadians but still something of a rarity in impoverished Central American villages, where smoke inhalation and burns remain major killers of children.
Out back, Don Humberto has a pile of coffee-bean waste that he uses in his compost pile. He bought lombriz from another producer – worms that look to me like the familiar “red wigglers” of a Canadian compost pile – and they’re hard at work turning that waste into new, rich soil for a coming year’s coffee crop.
Lombriz hard at work
His sugar cane crop is thriving and will be ready for harvest in October. There's a towering tree in the back yard producing all kinds of sweet red, bell-shaped fruit right now, and bushes covered in delicious dark raspberry-like berries along the fence. His wife feeds us a breakfast of eggs, sausage, tortillas, beans, cream and coffee, all of it produced and processed right there on the farm. It’s the ultimate in food sustainability – the One Mile Diet.
As the Christian Aid rep points out, Honduras’s small producers can’t do it alone. Without CASM’s help and resources to build fuel-efficient stoves and biodigesters, to teach the lessons and methods of sustainability – without the support of organizations like Christian Aid to fund the work – poor farmers can't get past subsistence. But when you see what’s possible, it gives you real hope.


Fiona G said...

Fascinating post, Jody.

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